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Abundance from Little

Psalm 17
Matthew 14:13-21

On first glance, this story seems to be pretty impossible to believe 2 loaves and 5 fish feed 5,000 men, let alone women and children (hmmmmmm–interesting who gets counted and who gets left out, eh?). Some of us switch off at the question “Did this really happen?” If a story doesn’t fit our Western scientific mindset, we throw it away. What a waste! Marcus Borg, one of my favourite theologians has a different approach. “Believe whatever you want about whether it happened this way; now let’s talk about what the story means.”

So let’s look deeper. Just a few sentences at the beginning of the passage set the context. “When he heard what had happened…Jesus withdrew privately by boat…But the people heard of it and followed in crowds….”IT” was the death of John the Baptizer. John, the popular leader of a religious renewal movement had been beheaded by Herod! This story takes place in the midst of the violence of Roman imperialism. No life in Palestine was untouched by the Roman occupation, abusive taxes; heavy militarism, pervasive fear, the deification of Caesar. It permeated all of life. John preached a different world-view calling for a turning around..a radical faith and hope in the Kingdom; in God’s way, God’s dream that John said was coming immanently. Jesus, as his ministry began, had gone into the desert to be baptized by John, in solidarity with John’s movement. And now John is dead, beheaded by Herod. John’s disciples, after burying the body, immediately come to Jesus…. This is a time of crisis, there is grief and confusion, and no doubt fear and despair. What will happen now? 

Jesus tries to get some space, crossing the lake in a boat, perhaps to grieve privately, perhaps to sort out his own next steps. But the people have heard it too and follow. So this isn’t some Sunday picnic group that have come to find Jesus. They are a devastated community who have gathered. In another version of this story, Jesus looks and sees a flock without a shepherd; people lost; hungry for healing, hungry for meaning, hungry for justice, and as the day goes on, hungry ultimately for food for the body.

Jesus’ heart goes out to them. He has compassion; this “feeling with” another. Jesus’ compassion leads first to healing and then to feeding. Compassion is more than an attitude. Compassion compels action. Opening the heart leads to faith in action.

Matthew’s community would also hear it at a different level I think. They would hear it as a story of resistance in the face of violence and oppression; for they too were living in violent imperial times. The story would remind them about how when John died, in spite of fear of Roman soldiers finding them, the people gathered. They came together with Jesus, and were reminded that God’s way is not about violence and injustice, but about healing and feeding, and compassion, and justice. They were renewed in body and in Spirit abundantly.

The words Jesus uses, Take Bless, Break Give are words Matthew’s community would recognize from their own bread breaking rituals, Words we recognize from communion. Breaking bread, sharing in community, is an act of resistance against the forces violence and fear of scarcity.

Jesus enacts kingdom….enacts the dream of God, the work of God, the way of God. In the face of suffering and news of John’s violent death, Jesus offers healing. In the face of a callous, violent world, Jesus shows compassion. His heart goes out to the people. In the face of a hostile world Jesus draws together community, people caring for one another,. In the face of the disciple’s fear of scarcity, Jesus creates shocking abundance. Indeed, in the hands of Jesus, scarcity proved more than enough. The Abundant God of Jesus multiplies our acts of generosity and compassion.

It is not only ancient people who need to learn to trust abundance, and live in harmony with it. It is not only ancient people who need to learn to look at the world with compassion; the kind of compassion that leads to action. It is not only ancient people who need to learn to break free of a collective mindset rooted in empire thinking.

Frances Moore-Lappé, in a 2oo3 article in The Ecologist, suggests our system is rooted in a Scarcity Myth, She suggests that there is enough and more than enough to feed all the world’s hungry, but that the mindset of scarcity in our system is what is, in fact, manufacturing hunger. She says:

“The dominant mindset tells us we’re in a perpetual battle to overcome scarcity. Without capitalism’s relentless drive, we’d probably all be going hungry by now. In reality, however, it is this mindset that is propelling us to create the very scarcity we say we so fear. …

Today, while hunger stunts the lives of hundreds of millions, between a third and a half of all the world’s grain goes to feed livestock.” {And one could add, these days the diversion of corn and other grains into biofuel for cars, one of the factors in the current food crisis. Our demand for meat and cars are creating scarcity. How we use our land and distibute what it produces manufactures hunger

“In many ways, scarcity-creation has sped up. During WWII US government posters advised: “Eat fish, they feed themselves.” Now, four pounds of “junk fish” like sardines (long a staple food of the poor) are turned into feed to produce just one pound of salmon. The latter is then priced out of the reach of the poor. Similarly, bottom-scraping dragnets used in shrimp harvesting capture (and largely destroy) ten pounds of sea life for every pound that goes to nourish humans. Typically, nearly a quarter of the total global marine harvest is thrown back dead or dying. This, in a world where over-fishing has led to declining catches of virtually every type of commercially sold fish.

Every species but ours has figured out how to feed itself and its offspring without destroying its life support. So, what’s up with us? How could it be that we’ve created a system that destroys more than it creates? …”

But Lappé also points out an alternate mindset arising. She tells the story of a visit she and her daughter made to Brazil’s fourth largest city – Belo Horizonte. “In 1993, its government had declared food a right of citizenship. This shift of thinking triggered dozens of innovations that have begun to end hunger in the city. Little patches of city-owned land were made available at low rent to local organic farmers as long as they would keep prices within the reach of poor, inner-city dwellers. The city redirected the thirteen cents provided by the federal government for each school child’s lunch away from the purchase of corporate processed foods to buying local organic food instead. The result is enhanced children’s nutritional intake…

With this new food-as-a-right-of-citizenship perspective, people began to perceive abundance where they had never seen it before: manioc leaves and eggshells previously tossed out as waste were processed into a nutritious additive for bread for school kids. All of these efforts consume, we were told, only one percent of the municipal budget”.(Like Jesus taking scarcity and creating abundance, refusing to give in to fear and hopelessness)

At the end of our stay in Belo Horizonte, we met Adriana Aranha, whose job in city government is to coordinate all these efforts. “When you began,” I asked her, “did you realize how much difference your efforts might make? Did you know how out of step you were with the neo-liberal approach that says government can do no good and the market can do no harm?”…”I knew we were out of step,” Aranha said. “We had so much hunger in the world, but what is so upsetting, what I didn’t know when I started this, is it’s so easy to end it.”

Lappe wondered, “Why was Aranha able to say “it’s easy”? I realize now that she is right if – only if – we can see with new eyes and free ourselves from the choking momentum of the inherited mental map. Then we can suddenly see new, more life-serving forms emerging. These breakthroughs may be hard to detect. They are about ordinary people trusting their deepest values as well as their common sense. In the process new mental maps emerge in which human beings are more than narrow consumers and democracy is more than a matter of pre-paid elections.” 1.

I also read this week about a group in the US who trusted their deep values and common sense and found new mental maps. The Society of St. Andrew looked at the food system where 900 million lbs of food is thrown out while 36 million people live with hunger, 12 million of them kids. It made no sense. Hunger in the midst of plenty. Their hearts went out to the poor among them and they acted. They formed a ministry rooted in the biblical tradition of gleaning. Volunteers collect from fields what is left by mechanical harvesters or pickers, and also what is rejected at distribution centres for having small blemishes or not being the perfect size.  They save 30-40 million lbs of food a year and distribute it to those who need it. There are also gleaning organizations in Canada I discovered. Changing mental maps, resisting destructive patterns, finding creative solutions to proclaim good news. Taking, blessing, breaking giving. Taking scarcity and turning it into abundance. Enacting the kingdom.
1.  “The Scarcity Myth:”By Frances Moore-Lappé first appeared in the MARCH 2003 issue of The Ecologist, Volume 23, No. 2. Used by permission.


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