The Price of Manna

Sermon from September 21st, 2014. The text was Exodus 16:2-15.

The Price of Manna

Monetize is one of those words that none of us had heard ten years ago, but nearly all of us know it now. It means taking something and turning it into a way to make a profit. It’s the great challenge of the tech world. Google, for example, is basically a card-catalog service, but they’ve monetized that by selling ads and search traffic. Facebook is just a directory if you think about it, but they monetize their website by selling our personal information and habits to third parties. We can put a price on anything. Even individuals nowadays are encouraged to monetize. In a number of industries, full-time work is a thing of the past, so people are told to market themselves. Don’t make friends, network. Use those networks to make a buck. Develop your personal brand, so that your identity can help you make money.

The idea, of course, is that there are markets in everything. Anything that isn’t monetized is simply an opportunity to make money that is being wasted. And we don’t like to waste opportunities to make money. Americans work longer hours, retire later, and take less vacation than any other industrialized nation.

We’re famous for being unable to stop working. If you ask anyone in the country how their life is going, they will almost always say, “busy.” Even if they aren’t. We tend to see the world as a ladder of success, and if you aren’t moving up, you’re moving down. To say that you aren’t busy is to say that you aren’t even trying to succeed.

We live in a world where value is a synonym for price. The value of something is how much money someone would pay for it. The value of a person is how much money they can afford to pay for things.

And the thing about that way of defining value is that it only makes sense if there isn’t enough. You can only be successful relative to someone who is not. As Frederick Buechner puts it in Whistling in the Dark, “If the government declared that the leaves of the trees were money so there would be enough for everybody, money would be worthless. It has worth only if there is not enough for everybody.”[1] In other words we live in an economy of scarcity, where everyone is defined according to what they can produce.

We have two stories in our set of lectionary passages for today that demonstrate a different sort of economy. In our Gospel passage, Jesus tells a parable of an employer who goes around hiring laborers throughout the day. At the end of the day, he calls in those who have worked just one hour and pays them a full day’s wage. When the longest working employees come to receive their wage, they get the same thing. What once was a decent wage now suddenly doesn’t seem like enough, because someone who didn’t work as hard received the same thing.

It’s a tough parable to hear because it flies in the face of what we’ve been taught about work our whole lives. Our self-worth is tied up in how much we can work and how much we make. A few days ago I read an article about a man on a dating website who simply posted a picture of his bank account balance as his profile picture. “This is who I am, this is my value,” the picture said. A better example could hardly be found.

Jesus’ story suggests that our worth is not in what we earn or create for ourselves, but in what God has given to us. The parable is discomforting because it suggests that the way we judge ourselves is wrong. When the payment you receive is not a comment on your hard work but on your employer’s generosity, you can no longer use it to differentiate yourself from others. The landlord’s generosity messes with the system of value for the people who worked all day. There is no prize for being the most hardworking, or the most righteous. Those hierarchies are human inventions that have no place in God’s Kingdom.

The parable challenges the pernicious delusion that some of us are more valuable than others, that some deserve more and others deserve less. Because each and every one of us here on planet earth was created, loved, and cherished by God, not according to what we have done, but what God has done for us. Jesus seems to say that our value isn’t determined by each other, but by God.

Our other story for today gives us a good image of what it is to live without defining ourselves by these values. In our Exodus passage, God institutes the system of manna for the hungry Hebrews wandering the desert. In the morning, the people awake and found a strange, dew-like substance covering the ground. It tasted sweet like thin cakes made with honey. And that first day they walked around stuffing their mouths with it, asking “what is it?” And so it became called manna, from the Hebrew for “What is it?”[2]

The name it was given indicates how unfamiliar it was to the people, this idea of being provided for. It takes some getting used to. Though God commanded them only to collect what they needed, some collected more. When they looked in their baskets they discovered that they had the same amount as those who collected less, just what they needed but no more. God commanded them not to keep any for the next day, but some hoarded it, perhaps afraid that such a miracle might not happen again. But when they awoke, they found it spoiled and full of worms. And God commended to them that the seventh day would be a day of rest, so they should rest and not collect manna on that day. But a few went out searching for the manna on the Sabbath anyway, and they found none.

All of this goes to show how unfamiliar we are with the idea that God might provide for us, or that we might not be able to get ahead. Manna is something you can’t monetize. There is no way to work get ahead via manna, or work harder than your neighbor. What a strange thing for them to experience. For the Hebrews who lived in slavery, who had to hide and hoard and save and slave to have anything, to be provided for on a daily basis. And for us, who define ourselves by our work, who judge ourselves and each other by what we have and how we got it and whether or not we could get more. Suddenly for them there is no need to worry about getting more, no sense in sacrificing themselves if all their savings are for naught.

What these two stories describe is a different economics than the one we’re used to. In these two stories we run into a sense of God’s economy, which is an economy of enough. There is no way to profit from your daily bread, because everyone has it. You cannot make yourself better than someone else through work. In Jesus’ parable we’re not defined by how hard we work but by how much Jesus loves us. In both stories, there is a rejection of the hierarchies of the haves and the have-nots. God ignores all of the moral justifications we make for the stratification of our society, the reasons we have that some deserve more and others deserve less. And God says each of you deserves enough.

It is enough to turn our world upside-down. Because what happens to our self-worth in an economy of enough? How do we know who we are when we can’t compare ourselves to others? What is our time worth if we can’t put a dollar sign next to it? Because if we can’t assign worth to each other, and who deserves and does not deserve our love, it suggests the radical idea that everyone might.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark; A Theologized ABC (New York: Harper Collins, 1988), 80.

[2] Koenig, Sara “Commentary on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15” WorkingPreacher, August 05, 2012. Accessed September 20, 2014.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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