Matthew 25:34-40; Luke 9:12-17
The Rev. Tom Herbek
March 24, 2019
How people look at things determines how they respond. If we believe something is scarce then we are more likely to buy more of it, actually enhancing any scarcity. We have developed a view that scarcity is everywhere. It is ironic that some religious people have encouraged the perception that God only likes certain people. I once walked through the Hayes Room when another church, who shared our space for a while, were having a Bible study. They were studying the book of Revelation and their minister was explaining to them why they were a part of the 144,000 people who would be “saved” at the end of time, while other people (I assumed he was including our church) would not be saved. He did not mention our church, but the implication was clear. For me, it was a rousing endorsement to think that I would prefer being in the group “going to hell.” Sometimes creating the appearance of scarcity backfires with some people, as this certainly did with me.
In his book, The Active Life, Parker Palmer looks at this story from Luke in a whole new way:
What Jesus does instead of magic is to act on the assumption of abundance. First, he divides the crowd into “companies” of fifties and commands them all “to sit down . . . upon the green grass.” His miracle begins with the simple act of gathering the faceless crowd of five thousand into smaller, face-to-face communities.
And Jesus says to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” And then something truly miraculous happens.
Jesus decides to use this time, not just to teach these lonely, abandoned, fearful people with words; he also decides to teach them by using their hunger for food, the practical reality that they need dinner. The disciples suggest that Jesus disperse the crowd to nearby villages so they can buy dinner for themselves. This would solve several problems: it would give the disciples a little peace and quiet, and it would mean everyone would be responsible for their own meal. But Jesus won’t let them palm the problem off on someone else. He says: “You give them something to eat.” They reply: “So you want us to spend $12,000 to feed this crowd?” Showing great patience, Jesus says: “How much food do you have? Go and see.” They have only five loaves and two fish, a clear example of scarcity when you have 5,000 hungry mouths to feed. He takes the five loaves and two fish, gives thanks for them, and blesses them, and gives them to the people. And at the end of dinner, there are twelve baskets of leftovers.
It is when the huge crowd becomes smaller groups that they begin to become a community of people, a group of kindred souls, whether related to each other by family or not. And as they see the disciples willing to share their small stash of food with the crowd, they begin to pool their resources also to help each other to eat. People who had nothing to eat find neighbors and friends in their small group who are willing to share their meager food with them.
It is what often happens when people, even strangers, realize that they have a crisis in common with one another. As a hospital chaplain in large city hospitals, I often saw strangers in ICU waiting rooms who had come from a distance and had no place to stay and little money, befriended by strangers in that waiting room, with some food and a little money, and a guest room, and with a common, shared pain and a warm embrace, a box of Kleenex, a glass of water, a shoulder to cry on.
Jesus realized that they actually did have enough, that when they saw that they were all in this together, something miraculous could happen. And it did. After dinner, everyone was “satisfied.” The people realized that what looked like scarcity was actually enough for everyone. As Parker Palmer says:
The story does not claim that everyone walked away from the dinner with a full belly. It simply says, “And they all ate and were satisfied.” Here, it seems to me, is a true miracle: that everyone in a group of two or more, let alone five thousand, should end up satisfied. The culture of scarcity thrives on dissatisfaction, and breeds it as well.
Sometimes, especially in our society which is so focused on individualism, we forget how important community is– to every one of us. There are other societies where community is far more important than we perceive it to be. In Nigeria, there is an emphasis on community:
In Africa, Osusu is a community practice of pooling savings and sharing those monies with those of the group who are in need. Members will give what they can, as little as one dollar or as much as a hundred dollars a month. The communal pot is then given to one member of the group. The next month, the communal pot will be given to the next member of the group. This will continue till everyone in the group receives the pot. Then the cycle will begin again.
Osusu has been practiced for generations in Nigeria and has long been part of the Yoruba tradition. Osusu groups depend on trust and cooperation. Such communal sharing rises out of a belief that each person’s survival is tied to everyone else.
So what do we model and what do we imitate? Again we’re brought back to the core question: Are we in this together or are we fighting to make it alone? What do we place value on and what do we pass on to our children: that sharing or hoarding is the way to survive? It’s a strange truth that those with less tend to share more. Perhaps because once we’ve suffered, we understand and feel each other’s fate more easily.
-Mark Nepo, “The Migration of Care”
Rather than seeing Jesus as miraculously creating bread and fish where there were just a few morsels- for me, seeing this as Jesus helping this large crowd to see the resources that they had if they got together is so much more powerful for us today.
I believe that this understanding of this event has much to teach us, whether it happened exactly this way or not. When we give thanks, and count our blessings, we often find more than we realized. Sometimes we must stop and examine what is going for us, even in the midst of what is going against us.
When we come together with other people in community, in a church family, in a hospital waiting room, we realize that we are not alone, abandoned, facing life with such a scarcity of resources. There are surprising resources that we don’t even see are there yet, but they may be revealed to us.
And, most of all, when we view this event in this way, we realize that we are the incarnation of God’s love, of abundance on this earth. We are not dependent on some miraculous, magical work of God to help people be “satisfied.” It is a wonderful realization, but also a sobering one. It means God is counting on us, calling us, encouraging us, loving us into responding with what we have, and who we are. This is a very different way of understanding this story.
Whether it happened this way or not, I believe there is a lot of truth in this view. It is both a call to action and a reminder that we are not alone in our time of need. In a world that looks at everything with the eyes of scarcity, perhaps we will see abundance, or at least enough for all to be “satisfied”.
Parker Palmer actually warns us about what can happen when we adopt a view of reality and of our society as filled with scarcity:
There is a powerful correlation between the assumption of scarcity and the decline of community, a correlation that runs both ways. If we allow the scarcity assumption to dominate our thinking, we will act in individualistic, competitive ways that destroy community. If we destroy community, where creating and sharing with others generates abundance, the scarcity assumption will become more valid.
But a culture of abundance both arises from and creates a sense of satisfaction. In such a culture, enough is enough, and the very fact that people are willing to share scarcity in community produces a satisfaction that leads to more sharing, more abundance.
I invite us all to consider these things. After all, we are all in this together.
I’d like to finish with something Walter Brueggeman once said. Walter Brueggeman, an extraordinary Old Testament scholar, once gave the following prayer at a seminary chapel service. He entitled it, “On Generosity.”
On our own, we conclude:
that there is not enough to go around
we are going to run short
we should seize the day
seize the goods
seize our neighbor’s goods
because there is not enough to go around.
And in the midst of our perceived deficit: You come
You come giving bread in the wilderness
You come giving children at the 11th hour
You come giving homes to exiles
You come giving futures to the shut-down
You come giving Easter joy to the dead
You come- fleshed in Jesus.
And we watch while
the blind receive their sight
the lame walk
the lepers are cleansed
the deaf hear
the dead are raised
the poor dance and sing.
and we take food we did not grow
and life we did not invent
and future that is gift and gift and gift
and families and neighbors who sustain us
when we do not deserve it.
It dawns on us- late rather than soon
that “you give food in due season
you open your hand
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.”
By your giving, break our cycles of imagined scarcity
override our presumed deficits
quiet our anxieties of lack
transform our perceptual field to see
the abundance . . . mercy upon mercy
blessing upon blessing.
Sink your generosity deep into our lives
that your muchness may expose our false lack
that endlessly receiving, we may endlessly give,
so that the world may be made Easter new,
without greedy lack, but only wonder
without coercive need, but only love
without destructive greed, but only praise
without aggression and invasiveness . . .
all things Easter new . . .
all around us, toward us and by us
all things Easter new.
Finish your creation . . . in wonder, love, and praise. Amen.