10/08/17 – J. Vespers – Maslow and Manna

Maslow and Manna

October 8, 2017
Jazz Vespers
Homily: Exodus 16: 1-15
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones


Elie Wiesel, the recently deceased writer and peace advocate wrote about his time in a Nazi concentration and extermination camp during the Holocaust in his memoir, “Night.” He wrote chilling, yet poignant stories about the struggle to make sense of the unimaginable evil perpetrated by human beings upon their fellow human beings. Speaking of his own state of mind during this horrendous experience he wrote:

“Bread, soup–these were my whole life. I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach. The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time.”

Perhaps, not coincidentally, the American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, the son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, published his seminal paper on human psychology in 1943, in which he proposed a hierarchy of needs that motivated human behavior.

Maslow proposed that healthy human beings have needs that are hierarchical in nature. His model is depicted as a pyramid. At the largest foundational level are the basic physical survival needs like food, water, and sleep. The human being only focuses on the next higher level of needs after the lower, more basic needs have been met. The highest level of need, at the top of the pyramid, is the need for growth and self-actualization. Part of self-actualization is the need to engage in activities that are not just busyness, but serve a purpose beyond self-needs.

One might put faith in the top pyramid, but I believe our need for a relationship with our Creator is infused within all five levels of Maslow’s pyramid of human needs. Looking at the demographics of this country, the most affluent and privileged do not figure prominently in the category of per capita giving to charities, a passion for justice and inclusion for all, or participation in worship or faith-based mission activities.

The Bible is filled with imagery of water and bread. These images are multi-leveled. “Our need for God is as basic as the need for food and drink. Seventeenth-century mathematician, Blasé Pascal wrote this about our common human condition:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?” This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself”

That is Pascal’s original quote. Somewhere along the way, his words were condensed to:

“There is a God-shaped hole in our hearts that only he can fill.”

Today our scripture passage from Exodus speaks to this intersection of physical and spiritual needs and the conflicts that arise between the two in human thought and behavior. Calling Moses to be their leader, God had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. God had backed up Moses’ demands for release made to the Pharaoh with 10 plagues. But, when the Israelites saw that the Pharaoh had reneged on his promise to let them go and sent his army after them, they complained to Moses that God had betrayed them and was going to let them be slaughtered. But, once again, God came to their rescue and parted the Red Sea to protect the Israelites from the oncoming army and allow them to proceed to the land of milk and honey God had promised their ancestors. You might be thinking they should have been enormously grateful. You’re right, but they also needed to fill their level one need. They needed to eat. They needed water to drink. And where were the milk and honey when they really needed it?

Throughout the Israelites journey through the wilderness, whenever they didn’t feel safe or didn’t like their food they complained. They desperately needed to trust God, but they kept losing their trust when their immediate needs were in jeopardy. And sometimes they complained even when they had their basic needs met, but wanted more, like when they got tired of their monotonous diet and wanted more variety. But those times come after our reading, so I won’t go too far ahead. If you don’t know the whole Exodus saga, trust me, the Israelites were backsliders of the first order when it came to trusting God. Isn’t that something with which we all struggle?

The problem was the memory. As soon as a new problem arose, another need or desire, the Israelites forgot all the evidence that God had been with them throughout their journey up to that point. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich:

“The belly is an ungrateful wretch, it never remembers past favors, it always wants more tomorrow.”

Is that not what sends us into a tailspin when we face a new challenge in life. For example, the high school or college senior who is paralyzed by anxiety about their future has forgotten or does not recognize God has been with them up to that point. The other kind of senior, the senior citizen, becomes despondent and fearful about aging and death, forgetting God has been with them on the journey thus far and has promised to be with them to the end.

God’s instructions to the Israelites on collecting the manna, the bread from heaven, addresses the human need for security. Insecurity, following Maslow’s second hierarchy of need, generates mistrust of others, as well as God. Sure, I’m okay for today, but what about tomorrow. This gives rise to hoarding. God understood this and made sure that all the Israelites had enough and no one had too much while others went hungry. The Old Testament hammers this message into us over and over and over. This is God’s model of justice, mercy, compassion, and love. If you want to make the point that God created the world with the intention that there was enough for all to be sustained and thrive, no one can accuse you of taking a single bible verse out of context. It is such an over-arching theme in the Bible, God’s word on the subject is undeniable.

God is not just concerned with everyone’s first level of need as presented by Maslow. God is also concerned with our third level – our need for social relationships. God is concerned with our fifth level – our need for a meaningful and purposeful life. Amassing stuff out of our fear of not having enough or satisfying our fourth level needs for prestige and power will not lead to a sense of well-being or the relationship with God we hunger for as much as our hunger for bread.

How much is enough? That is the question that challenges all of the humankind. For us, in the middle class or higher of the wealthiest nation on earth, this is a challenging spiritual question. Jesus said:

“It is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.” (Matthew 19:24)

It was meant to shock. But the shock was to challenge us to serious soul-searching. Jesus instructed his disciples to go out into the world making new disciples. Mahatma Gandhi, a great admirer of Jesus commented:

 “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”

As Christians, we have been given the commission to go out into the world and bring manna, actual bread, to those in the wilderness of poverty. God has always intended for us to treat the earth’s resources as God instructed the Israelites to collect the manna. There was enough for everyone. According to the Bible, God did so to test the people. How are we doing with this test?

After Jesus commissioned his disciples to feed the hungry world both physically and spiritually, he promised them:

 “Remember I will be with you until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

In your journey, may you recognize God’s footsteps behind, besides, and before you. Amen.


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois