When Oliver Twist Asks for Manna
- 2010 30 Sep
I don't know whether to blame fairy tales or Oliver Twist. I was reading Exodus 16 and ran into the passage where God commanded the people of Israel to go gather manna. Immediately childhood images from David C. Cook's Pix and Uncle Arthur came into my head.
I knew the lesson I should learn: don't take too much manna or it will be full of worms. The applications were endless: kids who eat too much candy on Halloween throw up, people who eat too much over Thanksgiving have a harder week at the gym, and people who think every great book should be as enjoyable as C.S. Lewis will remain ignorant.
Fairy tales make this obvious: pain before pleasure. You cannot find a hero who gets to skip from once upon a time to happily ever after without facing some dragonish problems. Don't wish for more wishes in Dungeons and Dragons or the malicious DM will put you in a time look wishing for more wishes. If you are with Abu in the Cave of Wonders make sure that he does not touch any extra treasure or you might have to burn a wish to get out.
This is all true enough and good to remember in our culture of consumption. Television makes me want a new IPod, but I don't really need one. As we have cleaned house this Fall, I have been reminded that "too much" is often a bad thing. The scale reminds me that more of me is not always better.
So I was ready for Exodus 16. Stupid greedy Israelites would soon be eating wormy manna! And then I read of their gathering:
17 And the people of Israel did so. They gathered, some more, some less.18 But when they measured it with an omer, whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack. Each of them gathered as much as he could eat
Some people had gathered less.
Why would anyone gather less than they needed? I immediately thought of the old or the infirm. Wasn't it great of God to give them sufficient? And it surely was, but then I realized that I would have gathered insufficient manna myself.
This would not merely because I am old and a bit infirm: it would also be to avoid the worms. If too much gets me worms, I would try for too little to avoid them. In this case, God would have covered my lack of faith in His goodness, but there is certainly a problem in my attitude.
Dickens portrays the young Oliver Twist asking the orphanage for more gruel. Oliver asks because he is hungry and the orphanage denies him, because it is cruel. My guess is that braver men gain a lesson in courage from Oliver's request, but I overlearned a lesson in prudence: Oliver was a fool to get yelled at for gruel he had no chance of getting.
Here is an obvious truth: God is not running a hypocritical Victorian orphanage. He wants me to have enough . . . my daily bread. He is not going to punish me if I gather the amount of manna I actually need. In fact, we should recall, one king of Israel missed a great blessing through his caution in responding to God's commands. (II Kings 13)
If advertising tries to make us greedy, too many stories of my childhood steered me toward dishonesty. Like the boy in Jane Eyre, if asked if I wanted a treat or another Psalm, I was learning to ask for the Psalm in the hopes that my childlike piety would get me the candy.
Of course, it is really my fault: like any good believer in witchcraft I am trying to manipulate God through false humility. This might work with Percy Jackson's Zeus, but it is not going to work on the great "I AM." As a decent Dad it occurs to me how irritated I would be if I discovered that my children did not tell me what they really wanted for Christmas ("an iPad") because it was too much. We want our kids to tell us their real heart's desire, even if we cannot provide it or don't think it would be good for them . . . as was the case when one child wanted rocket fired missiles for Christmas.
How much more is this true of my Heavenly Father? Of course, the absurdity of thinking I can hide my real desires from the Omniscient is obvious. I ask for my daily bread not because He does not know I need it, but because He has chosen to cooperate with me in the management of my life. God could just run everything, but He allows me to ask and to activate some of His blessings.
He wants to make slavish men into sons and daughters.
Another form of this witchcraft is pretending to want or expect less than the ideal. "We are having a picnic," we say, "so I am sure that it will rain." Why do this? My friends have told me they do it, because then they are never disappointed. This is not good policy. First, lying to oneself about one's desires seems mentally unhealthy. Second, one is probably disappointed in any case, but loses out on the right of every Job to complain about life's weather. Finally, being Eeyore all the time is worse than being a disappointed Tigger some of the time.
Today manna represents God's good provision, our daily bread. We don't need "more," but we do need enough. The answer to gluttony is not parsimony, but sufficiency. God wants me to learn what enough is. Like the Victorian granddame, I must turn down the extra piece of cake with a quiet, "That was sufficient," while remembering that first she took cake she wanted and was offered.
My own talents at manna collection are pretty poor, so I am glad God will cover my needs when my inadequacy might threaten my family. Our family has received blessings from others and been used by God to bless others when they were unable to collect enough. When we had more, instead of wormy manna collectors, we get to be manna gift givers!
It is a miraculous universe run on love after all. So God, please Sir, can I have more wisdom, mercy, love, and holiness?
This article published September 29, 2010.
John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.