I remember – hmm, many years ago – living in a shared house as a student. There were five of us, as I recall, three boys and two girls – in a rambling old house which for most of us was probably the first place we had lived since leaving home. So there was a lot of trial and error – when I first moved in I quickly realised I didn’t know how to cook – at all – but was still expected to take my turn. My first attempt was fried rice – how could I go wrong with that, I thought? I didn’t realise you weren’t supposed to use a whole bottle of oil ...
Anyway after we had been sharing house for a few months, the two girls raised a grievance. We males thought everything was fine ... but the girls said, this isn’t fair. We are all putting in the same amount for rent, the same amount to cover electricity and so on, the same amount for food. So, we thought – what’s wrong with that? Except, they pointed out, you eat twice as much as us. We shouldn’t have to put in for food we’re not eating. We did try pointing out that growing young men can’t help being hungry, that we were all on the same income, and that, well, they could eat more if they wanted – but eventually had to concede the point.
It was maybe the first time I learned that justice, like charity, starts at home. Also, that justice isn’t always simple. I mulled over it for a while after that – quietly, mind you – was the right thing that we should all pay for exactly what we were consuming, or was the right thing that we should all contribute equally? There are different ways of working out what was right, I realised.
Our gospel reading this morning reminds us that God’s idea of justice is different from ours. Industrial relations experts must hate this reading. Bosses and unionists alike, we’ve all got the same logic, that you should be paid for what you’ve done, and yes – the boss thinks that should be as little as he or she can afford, the unionist thinks that should be as much as he or she can bargain for. But the person who contributes more – hours, or skill, or whatever – should be paid more. That seems only right. Except – that God doesn’t see it that way. The boss in this reading – who certainly represents God’s perspective, pays the going rate to the labourers who put in a full day’s work – one denarius was supposed to be enough to feed a family for a day, so the day rate for a labourer was enough to meet the basic human needs of those who depended on his income. And those who come in at the end of the day get the same pay – one denarius, enough to feed a family. Which tells you what God’s perspective is – the meeting of human need – from God’s point of view it is good that human beings have enough, not that some have more than enough, even if they have worked for it.
And you see the same perspective shines through in our reading from the Book of Exodus. The people are complaining because they are hungry, travelling through the parched, unfamiliar desert. They are disoriented, the ways they have learned through the generations of providing for themselves in the settled if oppressive land of Egypt don’t work out here in the desert. And they complain – with some reason, you might think – the tour guides don’t seem to have thought through the logistics of this journey very well. And God – fairly typically in these stories – gets a bit cranky with them for not trusting that their needs will be met. The whole Exodus journey, it seems to me, is about learning that even when we travel through strange and unsettling experiences God is with us, that God knows our needs and that we will be provided for in ways that – in retrospect at least – are wonderful and surprising. So God meets the need of the people by sending a nightly feast of quails – you’d think he could have sent a slightly bigger bird that wasn’t so fiddly to pluck and clean but there you are – and a morning precipitation of some starchy substance that could pass for bread. A bit later in the story we learn that they call this stuff manna, and that it tasted like coriander seed and honey.
But here’s the point – you have to work for this stuff, it doesn’t arrive in nice warm fluffy loaves but in a fine sprinkle all over the rocky ground of the desert, so you have to painstakingly gather it up and knead it into a dough and bake it. And Moses gives them an instruction – just gather enough for today – one omer-full per person in your household. Except on the day before the Sabbath, when you can gather two omer-fulls and keep some for the next day. Predictably, some people work harder than others, some people slack off – some people gather heaps more than the allowance and others don’t manage to scrape together enough to keep body and soul together. But – verse 18 tells us – they all have enough – at the end of the day when they measure it – yes – turns out no matter how successful they seem to have been through the day they have one omer-full for each person in the household. God’s provision is adequate, God’s priority is for human beings to have enough, but not too much. This manna can’t be stored – if you try to hoard it, it turns rotten and wormy – you end up with just enough to meet the needs of today.
I think both these stories ask us to think about what gives us security. If you’re like me, you put stuff away just in case you might need it one day. Little, useful things that – well let’s face it you never do use them and they just clutter the shed. We try to make ourselves feel secure with things – some things we need, like houses to live in and food to eat and clothes and cars and books – and things we don’t need like - extra houses and food and clothes and cars and way too many books. We work hard and invest and take out insurance and worry about our superannuation – but deep down we know that our real security is not in things at all but in relationships that give meaning and depth and dignity and purpose to our lives. A friend whose funeral I attended yesterday died way too young – at 49 – and yet speaker after speaker commented that his was a life worth living, and Andrew certainly found his own security and his fulfilment in the hearts of those he lived for. God’s intention is for us to have enough of the material things that enable us to live with dignity, but both these readings suggest we had better not get too attached.
The other point is that – always, in stories that tell us what God’s perspective is – is the hidden question: how can you live in a way that is consistent with that, a way that gives God’s priorities a bit of a nudge? We live in a world where we do have bank accounts and houses that hopefully have a few of the good things of life in them, and freezers that keep our food so it doesn’t turn rotten and wormy tomorrow morning. What does this nomad story tell us about the way we should be living, and about the kingdom of God values we should be living by? Both stories put human need first, even above human deserving, and so should we. Each household has just enough – and - maybe – the miracle of just distribution comes about through the miracle of people noticing and responding to the needs of others. It’s the old point, isn’t it? that God’s blessings aren’t blessings at all unless they are shared.
In speaking about food we have reflected on some big picture problems in our world, the famine in North Africa, for example, that indicts our own extravagance and wastefulness. The environmental challenges of climate change, that also force us to think about using less and wasting less. But it’s easy to get overwhelmed when we look at big picture issues. Yes, I can give money to the World Vision famine appeal, and giving as much as possible to appeals like this is important and really helps – in Haiti for example Australians gave way more out of their private generosity than our government donated. And yet – it still feels overwhelming and perhaps, like me, you sometimes get the feeling that it doesn’t much matter what you do, you can’t solve the problems of the world.
Which is why we need to look around our own neighbourhood. Right back in the 70s, aid agencies had come up with the slogan, ‘think global, act local’, and it’s not a bad reminder that there is plenty to do around here, and that it is within our capability.
LINC, for example. Our own Cannington contact point for people who need a hand – the lady who needs someone to do some shopping for her, or some cleaning or just someone to talk to. The elderly man who needs a home-cooked dinner once in a while. And local Christians – ordinary people like us from seven local churches – some of them young, some old – who give some of their time to help, to make sure that people in their own neighbourhood have enough. You’ve heard me talk about LINC before – Love in the Name of Christ – we’ve had Lester Morris from LINC come to talk to us – and you know that I’d like to add our church’s name to the list of local churches who are prepared to help. It’s not overwhelming, it’s just a few hours out of your month. If you want to think about volunteering for LINC, talk to me about it. This sort of thing, it seems to me, is the truest test of what Christian community is about.
At the end of the day, it’s about recognising what God has done for us, and deciding that we want to be a part of that. That God’s idea of justice is ours as well.
And that in itself is a miracle.