In chapter 16 of Exodus, God’s people are in the desert, just a few days out from crossing the Red Sea and witnessing the destruction of Pharaoh’s entire army. Yet, even after experiencing God’s power and care for them, they lost trust in God and complained that they didn’t have enough food. So God sent them manna, miracle bread. But this gift also came with a test.
God told his people to gather the amount that they needed for their family for just that day. Whether a family gathered a large amount or a small amount, miraculously, “when they measured it…those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage” (vs. 18). As a part of this test, the people were instructed not to save any manna for the next day. However, “they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it became wormy and rotten” (vs. 20).
I heard someone say once that it was easier for God to take his people out of Egypt than it was for him to take Egypt out of his people. God was forming a kingdom of priests, a people who would be his intercessors to the rest of the world and through whom he would save all the nations. But these people had spent generations being formed by the world.
The Catechism teaches that humanity’s first sin had a particular form. The first man “let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command.” Then it goes on to say that every sin since then has that same from, that is, “disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness” (CCC 397). In other words, not trusting in God’s goodness and power in my life is at the very core of sin itself.
So in this story, God is reshaping his people’s hearts. God’s test was supposed to teach his people to trust him, that no matter how much or how little a family gathered, they would have enough. God was trying to show his people that he would always provide for them. He put them into a situation where they had to trust in his goodness and providence on a daily basis. He put them in a situation where they could not grasp at control for themselves.
As Catholics, this story should remind us of a couple important things.
First, remember that in the prayer Jesus gave us, the Our Father, Jesus told us to pray, not for our weekly bread, monthly bread, or annual bread — but for our daily bread. This prayer is meant to help form our hearts to trust in God to provide us with what we need for today, not for the future. This prayer invites us to live a life of precarity.
In this world, life is always precarious. We like to think that modern medicine and technology can always protect us, but tragedy can strike at any time. Precarity is certain and inevitable, but how we respond to it is a choice. Perhaps it’s the choice. When faced with the reality of our own precarity, we can either try to grasp for a sense of personal control and security, or we can trust in God.
The idea that we can actually make ourselves secure is the great lie. How much of our lives are ordered around this lie? So much of our life is spent trying to protect ourselves. So much of our life is spent running in fear of precarity. This fear, I believe, is cancer to the Christian life and mission. Dorothy Day once wrote:
“The great scandal of the age is that those without the sacraments are so often superior in charity, courage, even laying down their lives for their brothers, to the ‘practicing Catholic’ who partakes of the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Eucharist and then stands by while his brother is exploited, starved, beaten, and goes on living his bourgeois life, his whole work being to maintain ‘his standard of living,’ and neglecting the one thing needful, love of God and brother” (from a 1954 article in The Catholic Worker).
It is scandalous when a church has a million dollars in savings while people in the local community can’t pay their rent.
It is scandalous when a Catholic diocese lives in so much fear of being sued that they refuse to take responsibility for the harm it has done to vulnerable people.
It is scandalous when Christians live in the same fear of precarity as anyone else because it betrays that we don’t truly believe that God is as good or as powerful as he says he is — or as good as we say he is.
Speaking honestly, precarity absolutely terrifies me. This scandal exists in my own heart. I may say that I trust God’s goodness and his providence. I often tell myself that I admire and long for a radical life of holiness. But in my heart I am terrified of precarity.
I’m afraid that my wife or my kids will suddenly get seriously ill or become disabled or die. I’m scared of growing old and losing the ability to do the things I love doing. I’m terrified by the thought of one of my kids being in a freak accident. I worry about house fires and kidnappings and the whole litany of fears that run through the mind of a parent lying awake at night.
The truth is that Christianity does not offer security from precarity. In this world, there is no real escape. Look at Jesus. His life was nothing but precarious, from his poverty and homelessness to his arrest, torture, crucifixion, and death.
Christianity doesn’t free us from precarity, it liberates us from being terrified of it.
This is why the second thing that this story of the manna probably reminds us of is so important. The bread from heaven reminds us of the Eucharist.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus referenced this manna in the desert, but then says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51).
It is precisely this new manna, the Eucharist, that frees us from our fear that God won’t take care of us. The Eucharist gradually transforms our hearts so that we have the freedom to live a life of precarity, abandoning ourselves to God’s providence in the concrete ways he asks us to every day.
The Eucharist heals and transforms us into nothing less than Christ himself. Through the Eucharistic Liturgy, “not only have we become Christians, we have become Christ himself” (Sacramentum Caritatis 36).
God wants to free us from the fear of precarity. God wants to give us freedom from the need to be financially secure. He wants us to be free from slavery to money. He wants to free us so that we may be happy regardless of our material circumstances. God wants us to have the freedom to follow him beyond the tether of our own security.
Once we are liberated from fear, we are free to live lives of justice, generosity, and courage. We become free to serve our neighbors, free to take responsibility for the ways we’ve harmed others, free to do the right thing—even when the right thing seems like a great risk.
Christ’s desire is to free us from the fear that compels us to save manna for tomorrow. Christ wants to free us to live radical lives that transform the world. Let’s pray for the grace to accept his freedom.
Image credit: The Gathering of the Manna by James Tissot
Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.