The story of the manna in the wilderness is a Sunday school favourite, and has generally been treated as a Sunday school story – which is to say, ignored! However, the manna story provides one of the foundational lessons in God’s economics: collect what you need; none shall have too little; none shall have too much; don’t store it up; there is enough for all! The manna system worked to ensure that none had too little, but also to ensure that none had too much! (Ex 16:17-18)
Too much? Is such a thing possible?
For the average Australian in the 21st century this is a revolutionary idea. Our culture has virtually no concept of too much, or if it does it does, it is set at such a high bar as to have no practical use. Could it be possible that we have too much? Could it be possible that the unprecedented levels of family breakdown, addiction, depression and loneliness have something to do with how much we have? Could it be possible that the decline of the church and the widespread crisis of faith could be related to our material lives?
The fundamental concern of the manna economy is holiness, or to put it another way, fullness of health. God’s purposes in calling the Israelites out of Egypt was to form a community whose life reflected the life and wholeness of God, and provided a model for humanity of right relationship – ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy’ (Lev 19:2).
The idea of learning to live in the contentment, the gratitude and the wholeness of enough echoes in different ways through the rest of the Bible, in too many ways to recount here. However, its most important expression is perhaps the most overlooked.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray (Matt 6:9-13, Lk 11:2-4) he placed the idea of enough at the centre of this prayer. Immediately after Jesus instructs us to pray that ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, he then instructs us to pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. The implications of this are huge. At its most basic level it tells us that our economic affairs are rightly a subject of importance to God, and that they are directly related to the subject of God’s kingdom and his will. More than that, with this one line Jesus invokes the manna economy, with all its meaning, and places it at the heart of our conversation with God. It confirms that the existence of too little should rightly be the subject of our pleas to God – no Christian needed to be told that – however, it also makes equally clear that the subject of too much is on the table in our relationship with God. At the heart of our life with God we are called to orient ourselves to His economy of enough – to all the grace, gratitude, and wholeness that it embodies – and to pray for it and work for it in the world.
God’s economy begins with simple gratitude and contentment with what we have, such as that expressed by the Apostle Paul:
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Phil 4:11-12)
It is precisely this contentment and gratitude that is missing in our culture.
So how much is enough? I would not presume to try to answer this question for anyone, however, when addressing an Australian audience I think can safely say that we could probably all do with a bit less. More than that, I am convinced that renewal of the church in Australia is dependent on Christians rejecting the idol of more and actively choosing less. On this choice hinges no less than our own health and wellness, our ability to comprehend the gospel of Christ, the deepening of Christian community life, the integrity of our calls for justice and care for creation, and the basis of our evangelical witness in the world.
So how do you do it? Well that needs to the subject of an ongoing conversation, preferably with a network or community of like-minded people. But here are some places to start:
Working part-time, allowing more time for unpaid productive work in the community, or on the home-front.
Structuring a tithe (10% of income) to be automatically transferred from your bank account each month to your selected recipient.
Become literate in ethical and responsible consumption, being prepared to pay more (via fair trade, organic etc) to ensure a greater care for the earth and our neighbours.
Next time you feel tempted to upgrade your technology (phone, tablet, computer etc), don’t! Resist the urge. And if you really need to, look into second hand options for technology.
So effectively what I’m suggesting is: live off a lower income + give more + pay more for what you buy … What!!? This is a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. But it is the most sure way to reduce our consumption levels, which is the very thing the planet needs from us. Of course, making such a choice would be entirely counter-cultural, would be seen as unnatural in the broader culture, and viewed as something like taking up a cross … which is a clue that it might just be the way of Jesus.
My hope is that this generation of Christians will be the one to finally make a break with the economy of too much and to begin to explore the practical ways and habits of living with less. I do not believe that it is a work that can be accomplished in a generation, and our children will have to take it up and improve on our shortcomings, but we must begin it now. As Paul writes: ‘See, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation!’ (2 Cor 6:2).
By Jonathan Cornford of Manna Gum.