April 27, 2020 | Meditation


The story about manna from heaven in Exodus 16:10-22 continues to intrigue scholars, many of whom wonder what it was exactly. Pollen from plants? Insect secretions? Something else? We will probably never know. Even its name, manna, is a bit of a tease, since it’s a pun on the Hebrew question, “What is it?” Yet, it’s not altogether hidden from us, at least not theologically. Indeed, what it does fit into is the way biblical writers portray God — God not only supplies bread but is bread for the hungry. Someone once wrote that God came to earth as bread because to come to a world that is hungry in any other form would be cruel.

Yet, it does seem as if we try to “feed” the hungry with something other than bread. Last week, the Washington Post ran an article on the outbreak of coronavirus in the Bronx. While the nation has marveled at the emptiness of Times Square, we haven’t seen so much the lives of the people who drive the buses, work in the shops, and otherwise keep Manhattan feeling like Manhattan. The writer notes that when describing the people of the Bronx, politicians use euphemisms, which include words like “grit” and “passion” — another is probably “resilient,” descriptors that are often applied rather selectively, especially to the poor.

While all of us must show grit in a time of crisis, this grit is supposedly available to the poor in abundant quantities.

Still, says the writer, these euphemisms become tiresome when you’re the 178th person standing in line for the grocery store. Landlords don’t accept “passion” for rent; “grit” won’t get you adequate protections at low-wage jobs which the “haves” have determined are “essential” in the midst of a pandemic. An out-of-work Uber driver says that the economy takes and takes. She says, “When you come to the stores, you don’t leave empty-handed, but you don’t leave fulfilled.”

When we think about the pandemic, and what it has exposed, we might want to include this woman’s insight into the market economy — people may leave with something in their hands, but they mostly leave the market unfulfilled.

It’s ironic that Amazon calls its warehouse sites, “Fulfillment Centers,” as if it perhaps recognizes the hunger even though it cannot actually imagine, much less provide, the kind of bread that would ultimately satisfy this hunger. It’s a grotesque form of false advertising.

But it’s not unique to Amazon. Fulfillment, like so many other deep concepts, including “hospitality,” has been appropriated by capitalistic enterprises with little or no interest in the more substantial meaning of these terms. Take the hospitality industry. Hospitality is not an industry; it’s an ethical practice, which the prophet in Isaiah knows very well: “Take the homeless poor into your house.” Those of us formed in the culture of a market economy know very little about hospitality, especially as that language has been colonized by the likes of Trump Hotel, which is only awful because it is more obvious than the rest.

And what of fulfillment? Enter the writer of Exodus and the mysterious supply of manna from heaven. What is striking are the boundaries of this gift. God instructs the people to gather only what each can hold, and what each can use in a day. Do not hoard it or gather more than you need. The prayer of Jesus, which many of us speak each day, is probably inspired by this text: “Give us this day our daily bread.” God satisfies bodily hunger with manna, bread from heaven. This is not sermonizing on the value of grit, or resiliency, or self-sacrifice of the unseen worker, selflessly exposed to countless shoppers at the grocery store in the name of some greater good, all while so-called professionals and upper-level business-people secure their health with a mask stitched from the skins of low-wage workers, Amazon “delivers” and grocery store clerks.

There’s something fundamentally wrong with the culture that encourages us to hoard God’s gifts. I’m a part of that. If you’re reading this, you probably are too.

I’m feeling a tug to be more mindful about what I take . . . and what I am prepared to give in return.

I’m feeling an urge to resist the urge . . . to take, and take, and take some more, because as I do, I inevitably take from my neighbor, perhaps in another zip code, but another life that matters to God and therefore should matter to me.

When living just south of the border, in Agua Prieta, Mexico, the community had given me a room to stay in for about three weeks. I was staying as a migrant from the north among migrants from the south of Mexico, specifically Chiapas. I was interested in asking why people moved north, why some people crossed borders or chose not to cross borders. Human migrations are part of the history of the world. They are also, particularly now, a response to the acquisitiveness of North American economies. Mark Adams, a co-worker in mission with the group Frontera de Cristo, asked me to think about the so-called “good deal” which we, as the world’s first-class consumers, often seek, with almost cutthroat determination. Think about the people, he said, who couldn’t feed their children; think about the people whose work wasn’t rewarded but was exploited. Think about the people. It’s kind of like a boundary, a boundary set on our own appetites.

The story of the manna reminds us of a God who supplies our needs, exactly what we need and indeed more than we need. It is also a warning against hoarding of all kinds, even the so-called “normal” behavior of the capitalist market.

Perhaps in this wilderness season, we can reflect on what it will mean to not “return to normal” but to repair our financial system. That’s a big question and an important one. Meanwhile, foodbanks have seen donations drop by 90% since the pandemic began; demand has increased severalfold; the Department of Agriculture has let crops rot into the ground. Our family made a modest gift to a local food bank here in Maryland. It doesn’t reform the system but it begins a necessary microeconomic repair: our arms were full — why should others go hungry?

Robert Hoch

April 27, 2020

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church

Baltimore, MD 21201