Gifts in the Wilderness

By Ben Lee

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 16:2-15

Matthew 20:1-16

During my family’s annual week-long family reunion, my parents would sometimes find unique things for us to do as a family. One year, when I was around twelve years old, he decided to rent a boat and take us out to a nearby island. Many of my cousins and I spent the day snorkeling and collecting shells, rocks, and even a few fossils. The next year, he arranged for us all to go on a deep-sea fishing trip for the day. After these two years, I began to expect something even better. I even had the gall to say “What are you going to do for us this year? It needs to be something that is more exciting than deep-sea fishing.” That was the year that my dad decided to do nothing. I was furious. It was going to be the worst year ever. Forget the fact that even being able to take a week-long vacation was a tremendous privilege.

The more I calculated what was coming to me, the more I distorted the dynamics of the gift that was being offered. And so my dad withheld that particular gift, lest I confuse the reason why he was offering it in the first place. In both the Exodus reading and the Matthew reading, there are people grumbling and complaining about what they are expecting to receive. 

In both passages we see a generous God who longs to give his people good gifts. As Jesus reminds us, “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom…”* Oddly enough, we do not always have the disposition needed to receive that gift. John of the Cross interprets the Exodus passage for this week in this way:

God did not give the children of Israel the heavenly manna until they exhausted the flour brought from Egypt…for this bread of angels is disagreeable to the palate of anyone who wants to taste human food. Persons feeding on other strange tastes not only become incapable of the divine Spirit, but even greatly anger the divine Majesty because in their aspirations for spiritual food they are not satisfied with God alone, but mix with these aspirations a desire and affection for other things. (Ascent of Mount Carmel, I.5.3.)

When my father withheld a certain gift that summer, he did so not to punish me, but to gently draw my character out to a more open and grateful disposition. Like the children of Israel, I had mixed my pure desire to enjoy time with my family with “a desire and affection for other things.” I desired the gift more than the giver of the good gifts.

God desires to give us good gifts. But God does so in order to be better known and loved. When we begin to desire the gifts more than the giver of the gift, it may be time for us to be led out into the barren terrain of the wilderness. More often than not, the character of God‘s people is hammered out on the anvil of this fierce landscape.

In many ways, we could see our current season of social distancing and quarantine as a kind of wilderness. The wilderness has a way of stirring our deep and fundamental longings. As you make your way through this wilderness, what complaints and grumblings do you find being stirred up within you? To what extent is the wilderness that we are currently living in a unique space for us to reassess our some of our deepest desires?

Perhaps there is yet some “flour from Egypt” that we are still carrying in our souls. Or, perhaps we have failed to show gratitude for what has already been given to us. Whatever the case may be, we can use this wilderness as the context to evaluate and identify our grumblings and complaints about what we are expecting to receive. We can also use this context to cultivate a pure longing for what we ultimately desire and what we ultimately need – the presence of God.  And by the grace of God, we may one day utter with Christ, “my food is to do the will of my Father.”

Image Credit: Gathering of the Manna by Antonio Tempesta (1600)

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