As I was reflecting this week on today’s passage from Exodus, I couldn’t help but think of another “feeding story” of sorts, this one less miraculous. This one’s not in the Bible though, but part of another “canon”: the Hunger Games trilogy for young adults by Suzanne Collins.
The scene I’m thinking of comes as the heroes Katniss and Peeta are coming to the end of their “victory” tour after surviving their first trip to the arena, which culminates in a grand banquet at the presidential palace. The juxtaposition of the poverty and unrest of the districts, and the starvation in their own District 9, and the conspicuous consumption of the Capital is put in sharp relief by that feast. Those few invited to the party, eager to taste every delicacy, routinely consume a beverage that causes them to expel what they’ve already eaten—blessedly off camera—so that they can begin again. The Capital embodies a hunger and thirst that can never be satisfied. Katniss and Peeta are repulsed at the obscene behavior—as the author means us to be as well.
What a contrast to the story of the Exodus: Having just escaped an ancient equivalent of the Capital, the Israelites are now beginning to miss the “fleshpots,” the slave food that their Egyptian masters provided. God responds with free food for a free people, the miracle of the quail and manna—sustenance that rains down from heaven falling on all the people equally, providing what today’s psalm calls the “bread of angels,” which is “food enough” for everyone says the psalm.
It’s a tale of two very different stories, stories that produce two very different worlds, and different accounts of what it means to be human together. As Americans and as Christians, we inevitably inhabit both of them.
I don’t think it much of a stretch to suggest that Collins’ Hunger Games is a dystopian riff on the most negative aspects of our society and global economic system, which produces extravagant wealth and luxury for a few, and bare subsistence for many. The story of Exodus on the other hand doesn’t suggest extravagance or luxury—the heavens don’t rain down red velvet cupcakes or tiger shrimp or buckets of wine. On the contrary, there is both restraint and limit: There are rules that govern the divine abundance. Each Israelite can only collect what they need for the day; any manna kept overnight will rot and be worthless. At no point can the Israelites forget that they are dependent on God’s open hand. It is enough—an abundant enough, but not infinitely so. It’s an “enough” that asks a divine question of the story that drives our American cultural imagination, with its high value on the production and acquisition, even the hoarding, of wealth.
It also proposes a divine question to us who live in this society: Just how much is “enough”?—recognizing that being able to ask the question reflects the privilege of having one’s needs met. When does one’s own share and use of the divine abundance become instead a “fleshpot,” something that reflects our enslavement rather than our freedom? When does a savings account, or a retirement account, or even a parish endowment become an end in itself?
These are deeply spiritual questions that cut to the heart of who we are and who we are called to be. They are also political and economic and social questions about what it means to live with other people in community, about our duties and obligations to one another in society. As those who are baptized, and therefore those who share the privilege of partnering with God in the care of the poor and vulnerable, in the healing of the world, and in the revelation of the reign of God, they are questions we cannot avoid asking, for our own well-being and that of our neighbors. At its heart, the question that lies beneath them all is: By which story shall we live? And what difference does it make?
I am struck by Jesus’ promise in the Gospel of John, to those who feed on the wisdom of the story he tells: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” What Jesus is promising is the opposite of the glorification of hunger and thirst in the Capital: It is the freedom from being driven by the need to possess and consume. It is the freedom from the slavery of striving to keep up, of feeling ourselves always in a deficit, always lacking something, never good enough.
It is not only the physical freedom of having “enough,” it is the spiritual freedom of knowing ourselves as creatures, dependent on a faithful God and called to relationships of justice and freedom with others. It is the freedom we practice as we celebrate this Eucharist, through which we are shaped in the pattern of divine abundance that produces enough for every living thing. Imagine if that freedom we practice here shaped not only our hearts, but the whole creation in which we live and are called to serve.