Scarcity and Abundance

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 55:1–5
Matthew 14:13–21

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Your answer is supposed to indicate your basic orientation to the world—your attitude about life. The pessimist says it’s half-empty. The optimist says it’s half-full. The pragmatist says it depends—if it was full and I drank half of it, it’s now half-empty; if it was empty and I poured in some water, it’s half-full. The post-modern thinker just gives an ambiguous smile and says, “Both.”

I’ll let you decide for yourself which category best describes you. But a different question presents itself to us in today’s Scripture lessons. The passages from Isaiah and Matthew don’t ask if we are pessimists, optimists, or something in between. They ask us to look at the glass and say what we see as children of God. What do we see as disciples of Jesus Christ? Specifically, they ask us whether we see the world as a place of scarcity or of abundance.

The prophet who has come to be known as Second Isaiah begins his passage by saying, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost” (v. 1).

We have all had enough experience with scams to be suspicious when someone offers to sell us something “without money and without cost.” We have all heard the warnings, “Let the buyer beware,” and, “If a deal sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.” I imagine the prophet’s audience felt the same way. These were people who had been burned before.

The prophet is speaking to the exiles living in Babylonia in the late sixth century BCE. These are the children and grandchildren of those who were forcibly removed from their homeland in the Babylonian Exile some fifty years earlier. These people have lived as refugees their entire lives, and have become reconciled to their situation. They have settled into their lives in exile. They have built homes, raised their children, found jobs, and assimilated themselves as best they could to this foreign culture. So much so, in fact, that they hardly consider it foreign anymore.

But things are changing. Cyrus the Great of Persia conquers the Babylonians in 538 BCE and soon after taking power issues a proclamation allowing the people of Judah and other refugees to return to their homelands. The prophet interprets this not just as the consequence of war and the turning tides of history, but as the work of God. He sees Cyrus as God’s instrument to redeem God’s people, erase the shame of exile, and get them back to the land of promise. For the prophet, the land of Israel is an essential part of the covenant between God and the people, so he wants very much to convince his fellow exiles to go back home.

He finds this no easy task, however. Two generations have elapsed since the Exile, and many of those to whom he preaches have no recollection of the glories of Jerusalem and the temple apart from their grandparents’ stories. Now, of course, the temple is gone and Jerusalem lies in ruins. It will take a lot of work and effort to go back. They will have to rebuild the towns the Babylonians destroyed; they will have to construct a new temple; and they will have to repair the wall of Jerusalem. Many wonder if it’s worth the bother. After all this time, they have no palpable ties to the land of their ancestors and, all things considered, life isn’t so bad. Sure, they’re refugees, but once you get used to it, you can make do.

Isaiah finds this attitude baffling. They have an opportunity to return to the land of promise after their long exile. They should be leaping with joy, not yawning in complacency! He paints the return as a new event in Israel’s history that will overshadow even the Exodus from Egypt. He declares that goodness and blessing await them if only they will exercise the faith it takes to make the trip. Chapter 55 serves as a summary of the case he has been trying to make.

The gist of what he says in these verses is that the people need to see the world as a place of abundance rather than scarcity. He says, “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare” (v. 2).

He wants them to see that their perspective on the world is out of whack. What they spend their money on—where they have put their treasure (and therefore their hearts, Jesus would say)—will never satisfy their deepest needs. For that, they must come to God, who offers all they require free of charge. Right now they are living on a presumption of scarcity. They need to trust in the God of abundance who wants to supply their every need.

Ay, there’s the rub. Trust. In order to see the world as a place of abundance, one has to trust God instead of relying on one’s own limited perspective. To the exiles, and to us as well if we’re honest, the offer of buying “without money and without cost” does sound too good to be true. Because we don’t understand what songwriter Bill Mallonee calls God’s “strange economics,” we’re satisfied with scratching away according to the world’s rules and expectations, instead of taking the leap of faith necessary to discover the extraordinary treasure God has for us.

We see the same thing in our story from Matthew. The disciples can only see scarcity, while Jesus sees God’s abundance. After an arduous day of healing, one might imagine that Jesus would be exhausted and would want to send the crowds away. His disciples certainly are and certainly do. But the same motivation that led Jesus to care for the people in the first place—his compassion for them—leads him now to want to feed them.

The disciples are not on board with this plan. They come to him and say, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves” (v. 15). On the surface, this sounds like prudent, even compassionate advice. But it’s more likely expediency than empathy that lies behind it. “Send them away and get them out of our hair” may very well be the subtext of the disciples’ request.

But Jesus recognizes not only the disciples’ disingenuousness but also the true condition of the people in the crowds. These people are the poorest of the poor. They are those who in many cases have lost their homes and farms through the greed and deception of the rich. They are the ones who have been taxed into penury by the Romans and their aristocratic collaborators. They are the ones Matthew describes elsewhere as being “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). Jesus knows, and he knows the disciples know, that sending these people away to buy food for themselves would be like telling a fish to climb a tree to get its gills cleaned.

So Jesus comes up with a solution to both the people’s hunger and the disciples’ callousness. He says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (v. 16, emphasis added).

The disciples are flabbergasted. In an effort to point out how ridiculous Jesus’s suggestion is, they produce five loaves and two fish. “That’s all we’ve got. It’s really not even enough for us, let alone all these people.” Jesus, however, chooses to deliberately misunderstand their gesture. He says, in effect, “That’ll do. Give them to me.” Score one for Jesus.

He takes the bread and fish, gives thanks, and hands the food to the disciples, who begin distributing it to the crowds. Then Matthew says, “All ate and were filled” (v. 20). Notice that he doesn’t give any indication of how everyone got something to eat, just that they did. We have traditionally interpreted this as some kind of magical multiplication—that the five loaves and two fish suddenly turned into enough to feed these five thousand men and their families.

But I’m not sure that’s what happened. One reason I doubt it is that Jesus rejected the possibility of such a magic trick earlier in the gospel. When presented with the opportunity to turn stones into bread—to feed himself, sure, but why not to feed everybody else, too?—he rejected it as a temptation from the devil. If he chose not to go that route then, why would he change his mind and do it now? I think maybe something else is at work here. Something not magical, but miraculous nonetheless.

What if it is the generosity of the disciples (forced generosity, maybe, but still…) that produces the miracle? And what if the miracle is that the people choose to share what they already have? Let’s imagine for a moment that most people in the crowd have some food with them. They followed Jesus out to a deserted place, after all, and stayed around all day. Surely at least some of them packed a lunch. But if these people are as poor as I have made them out to be, they know that food is hard to come by, so it is in their interest to keep their lunch under wraps, both figuratively and literally. If they know we’ve got this, the logic goes, they’ll want some, too. Worse, they might try to take it from us. So let’s keep it on the QT, okay?

That’s what comes of a presumption of scarcity. When we believe there is not enough to go around, we become protective, suspicious, selfish, greedy. We turn into misers hunched over our treasure, eyes darting back and forth, certain that everyone who approaches is a thief or worse.

Jesus, however, knows that the world belongs to God and is therefore a place of abundance. He doesn’t see life as a zero-sum game whose object is to amass more of the world’s limited goods than the other players. He doesn’t suffer the miserly fear of these others. He doesn’t share their grasping competitiveness. He’s playing by an entirely different set of rules. That’s what makes it possible for him to share. He offers up the meager meal, thanks God for it, and tells the disciples to share it with the crowd.

If this or something like it is what really happened, here is where the miracle kicks in. Shamed or, better, inspired by his example, the people in the crowd loosen their grip on their possessions. Little by little, folks begin pulling from their baskets loaves of bread, figs, dates, fish—whatever they brought with them—and offering to share it with the other families around them. This sharing begets more sharing, and soon everyone is eating, laughing, and enjoying God’s bounty and each other’s company. The crowd has become a community.

Everyone eats and is satisfied—even those who really did come with empty pockets. The contagion of generosity spreads so widely that no one asks who did or did not contribute to the feast. In this new community, it simply doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, the leftovers fill twelve baskets—one for each of Jesus’s disciples who didn’t want to share what they had. Just in case they didn’t get the point.

What would our world be like if we began to see abundance where now we see scarcity? When you think about it, many of the problems we face derive from a worldview of scarcity. Think of all the wars that are fought because different groups want the same land or the same oil or whatever, and can’t find a way to work out their differences except through violence. Think about how hateful so many people in our country have become because they think foreigners are coming here to take our jobs or make us pay for their health care. Consider all the misery that results because our entire economic system is based on the idea of scarcity. That’s what supply-and-demand is about, after all. Many poor people are miserable because they don’t have a piece of the pie, and many rich people are miserable because they are always worried about losing the pieces of pie they have, or are thinking of ways to get more pie, because what they have never seems like nearly enough.

And consider how much we suffer as Christians because we think forgiveness and grace are scarce resources. “Yeah, I know all about God’s unconditional love,” we say, “but my sin is so bad that surely God has lost patience with me.” When we think this way, we become terrified that we will mess up again and push God over that line once and for all, and a state of fear is a lousy breeding ground for joyful living and selfless service.

When we see abundance instead of scarcity, on the other hand, we can begin to live in joy and freedom. Knowing the abundance of God’s forgiveness lets us live fearlessly, and makes us more forgiving of others. We often cling to what’s ours because we’re afraid there is not enough to go around, but in God’s abundance we find the freedom to share, and that’s when real community begins to develop. We are sometimes tempted to despair about our church because we think our best days are behind us, but in God’s abundance we find the creativity to dream new dreams and the courage to live them out, and that’s when surprising, wonderful, weird things begin to happen. God wants us to live abundant lives, immersed in the inexhaustible flood of God’s grace, joyfully sharing our lives and our resources with glad and generous hearts. God wants us to know that we are all in this together and that God is with us.

The pessimist says the glass of water is half-empty. The optimist says it is half-full. But the child of God, the disciple of Jesus, looks at the glass and says, “That’s my water, but you go ahead and drink it. There’s always more where that came from.”

Robert Turner