WHAT IS THIS STUFF? – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 13, Year B; Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B (RC)

August 1, 2021

Revised Common Lectionary
2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a or Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Psalm 51:1-12 or Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15
Psalm 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54 (24b)
Ephesians 4:17, 20-24
John 6:24-35

When most of us feel hunger, our bodies are simply alerting us that it’s time to eat. There are many people in the world, however, who rarely or never have enough food. For them, hunger is a chronic condition. There’s a big difference between feeling some pangs and suffering from real hunger.

In today’s reading from Exodus, it is real hunger that has set in among the Israelites wandering in the desert—and they react by complaining. They blame not God—but Moses—for leading them out of Egypt in the first place. They sugarcoat their memories of that place of enslavement with recollections of plenty. They fail to remember the servitude, forced labor, and harsh conditions that characterized their daily life. Of course, they are hardly the only people to take refuge in a romanticized past while dealing with a difficult or unpleasant present.

At first glance, the subject of this passage might appear to be the fickleness of the Israelite people. Yet the real story here is the faithfulness of God. Instead of denouncing or brushing off the people’s complaints, the Holy One responds quickly and generously with the promise of “bread from heaven” (Ex 16:4). God will provide the food they need, and the people are to place their trust in divine goodness by gathering up just enough for each day.

God responded to the Israelites’ complaints with multiple signs of divine presence and care. They hear the Holy One’s words from Aaron, who invites them to “draw near to the LORD” (16:9). As they turn toward the wilderness, “the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud” (16:10). Each day they were provided with food to sustain them—quail in the evening, and in the morning “a fine flaky substance” (16:14) that appeared on the ground.

We can’t know what the Israelites expected the “bread from heaven” to look life, but when they saw what was left on the ground after the dew had lifted, they asked, “What is it?”—or in more colloquial English, “What is this stuff?” This substance apparently did not look like “bread from heaven” to them. Their puzzlement stuck, because the question in Hebrew, “Ma’n Hu?” (?מן הוא)—“What is this stuff?”—is the origin of the word manna. The very name of this “bread from heaven” is a reminder that we sometimes fail to recognize the evidence of God’s goodness and faithfulness that is sitting right in front of us.

The crowds pursuing Jesus in today’s Gospel reading demonstrate this same lack of recognition. They had been fed with the five loaves and two fish but had missed the point. They were now looking to Jesus to give them “bread from heaven” in some extraordinary kind of sign (Jn 6:30). Jesus, however, confounds their expectations by declaring that he himself is “the bread of life” (6:35). The answer to their need was right in front of them—listening to the words of Jesus and, like him, doing the works of God. Yet they scratched their heads in confusion, failing to recognize God’s gift.

Most Christians recite the Lord’s Prayer on a regular basis, asking God to “give us this day our daily bread.” Do we recognize the bread from heaven that God provides us each day, or are too left scratching our heads and asking, “What is this stuff?” As we look back on the stories of our lives, haven’t there been times when we have failed to recognize God’s presence and response to our need—in people, experiences, opportunities, or other ways?

The good news is that even when we don’t notice, God is still faithful.

A Hymn for Today: “We Will Tell Each Generation”

The Lectionary today includes a portion of Psalm 78 that celebrates God’s gift of manna in the desert. Taken as a whole, the psalm recounts God’s great deeds and faithfulness in the face of Israel’s rebellion. This metrical version created by Michael Perry and adapted by Hymn Society member Martin Tel, provides a condensed expression and reinterpretation of the entire psalm, with today’s portion finding an echo in the fourth stanza.

We will tell each generation
all that you, our God, have done;
how you called and led your people,
chose us out to be your own.

Tell the time of our rebelling—
how we wandered from your way,
how your law our love compelling
taught us humbly to obey.

Tell how once, when spite and terror
threatened to engulf our land,
you defended us with vigor,
saved us by a mighty hand.

Tell the grace that falls from heaven,
angels’ food as faith’s reward;
tell how sins may be forgiven
through the mercy of the Lord.

We will tell each generation
all that you, our God, have done.
As a shepherd you have led us;
by your hand still lead your own.

Text: sts. 1-4 Michael Perry; st. 5 Michael Perry, alt. Martin Tel © 1989 The Jubilate Group, admin. Hope Publishing Company. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-792857.

Image Credit: Manna raining from heaven on the Israelites, Maciejowski Bible, c. 1250

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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