MORE THAN ENOUGH
People in Jesus’ day did not go for picnics. It just wasn’t the done thing – mostly because it was difficult to follow all the religious rules about food when you were out in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps this explains why in a crowd of 5000 people no-one had packed a lunch – no-one except a young boy with five small loaves and two small fish.
When Jesus saw this crowd coming towards him, he immediately recognized that food was going to be an issue. He said to Philip, “Where can we buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip did a quick estimate of the size of the crowd, and a quick calculation of the amount of bread they would need, and then he said, “We don’t have that kind of money! There’s no way we can feed this crowd!”
Jesus, of course, knew differently. He knew that even five small loaves and two fish would be enough, if they were shared in accordance with God’s generous love. So he told the disciples to get the crowd to sit down. He took the loaves and the fish, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. When everyone had eaten, he told the disciples to collect all the scraps. “Let nothing be wasted,” he said. And the disciples filled twelve baskets with the pieces of bread that were left over.
This miraculous provision of food was a re-enactment of something that Israel had experienced many centuries earlier. The Israelites had been out in the middle of nowhere, in the Desert of Sin, after they’d come out of Egypt. They were free, but they were hungry – and they grumbled to Moses about it. The Lord told Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.” And that’s what he did. Every morning thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. The people said, “What is it?” And Moses said, “It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat.” Each one gathered as much as they needed.
In feeding the 5000, Jesus was giving bread from heaven. That’s why the people began to say, “He’s a prophet – he’s the new Moses who will lead us to the Promised Land.” But Jesus saw the danger in this. He saw that they wanted to make him king by force. So he withdrew from them, because that’s not why he had fed them.
Jesus had fed the 5000 to demonstrate the abundance that characterizes the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not a kingdom in which good things are in short supply. It’s not a kingdom subject to austerity measures. It’s not a kingdom where the essentials have to be rationed. It’s not a kingdom where the resources are going to run out. Instead it’s a kingdom overflowing with goodness and plenty. It’s a kingdom where no-one goes without. It’s a kingdom where all are fed. It’s a kingdom where there is always more than enough.
According to the highly respected Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann, this is a message Christians often overlook. Instead of celebrating God’s abundance, Christians are dangerously influenced by what Brueggemann calls “the myth of scarcity” – the myth that we never have enough. Brueggemann says, “The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being.” God has given us more than enough, and yet we still think we always need more. Brueggemann says, “We are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity – a belief that makes us greedy, mean and unneighbourly.”
The irony is that it’s the belief in scarcity that leads to the very behaviours that cause suffering in the world. Gandhi once said, “There are enough resources in the world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Greed drives people to take what doesn’t belong to them, and greed hinders people from sharing with others. It’s this wrongful taking and reluctant sharing that makes it look like there isn’t enough to go around, when in fact there’s more than enough.
We know, for example, that there’s enough food in the world to feed everyone, but people go hungry because that food isn’t being properly shared. An article last year in the Scientific American stated that 25% of the food produced each year is wasted. Some studies place the figure closer to 50%. If people are going hungry, it’s not because food is scarce. As Walter Brueggeman says, “The only shortage in the world today is the shortage of will to share what God has provided to us.”
Walter Brueggemann underlines the demonic power of the myth of scarcity by relating a story about the German pastor Martin Niemoller, who heroically opposed the Nazi regime. Niemoller was part of a delegation of church leaders who met with Adolf Hitler in 1933. Niemoller didn’t take an active part in the discussion. He just stood at the back of the room and looked and listened. When he got home later, his wife asked him what he had learned that day. He said, “I discovered that Herr Hitler is a terribly frightened man.” Martin Niemoller could see that Hitler believed in the myth of scarcity, and that made him deeply fearful. This fear made him want more and more and more – and it filled him with a demonic ruthlessness.
Jesus stands over against those who promote the myth of scarcity. Jesus reveals God’s abundance with exuberant generosity. He feeds 5000 people and it takes twelve baskets to pick up the scraps. He shows that God provides not just the bare minimum, but an overflowing bounty of good things. There’s more than enough to meet our needs – there’s more than enough to satisfy us.
This is something we have to be reminded of again and again, because we live in a world that tries to tell us it isn’t true. We’re bombarded with messages that stir up our fears that we just don’t have enough. We find ourselves thinking, “If only I had more money – if only I had more possessions – if only I had more time – then I could enjoy a full life – then I could put my worries behind me – then I could really be happy.” The answer to these fears is simply to have faith in God’s abundance. If we have faith in God’s abundance, our lives will be much less stressful, much more serene, and much more meaningful.
Of course, having faith in God’s abundance isn’t an excuse for being lazy or reckless. Just because we can count on God to provide for our deepest needs, that doesn’t mean we should live irresponsibly. We can’t just sit back and say, “God will do it for me, so I don’t have to make any effort.” God provides, but he expects us to do our share as well. We also can’t take reckless gambles on the assumption that God is certain to bail us out if we come up short. Celebrating God’s abundance doesn’t eliminate the need for prudence. I remember hearing one of our Area Ministers speak about a pastor in one of our churches who was pushing his congregation hard to take on an unrealistic increase in the annual budget. The pastor kept saying, “God will provide”. The Area Minister said, “Yes, God will provide, but why are you determined to make it so difficult for him?”
When we think of God’s abundance, it’s important that we think of the way God shares that abundance with us. He shares that abundance according to his will, giving us those things that he knows we need. When we clamour after God, insisting that he give us this blessing or that, we’re not really showing our faith in God’s abundance at all. We’re showing that we buy into the myth of scarcity – and we’re trying to use God to help us collect all those goodies we think we need. Having faith in God’s abundance means having faith that if we really need it, God will give it to us – and just because we really want it doesn’t mean we really need it.
The best way to approach the story of the feeding of the 5000 is to see it as a lesson in God’s grace. The one thing above all that God gives us without measure – without limit – without end – is his love. There is nothing in the entire universe that’s more abundant than God’s love. That love is what we really need. That love is what will satisfy our deepest hungers.
The poet Maya Angelou says that when she was in her twenties she moved to San Francisco and became an agnostic. She says it wasn’t that she’d stopped believing in God; it’s just that God didn’t seem to be around the neighbourhoods she frequented. Then one day her voice teacher asked her to read a passage from a book that ended with the words “God loves me.” She read the piece and closed the book, and the teacher said, “Read it again.” Maya pointedly opened the book and sarcastically read, “God loves me.” The teacher said, “Again.” After she was asked to repeat it several more times, the words she was reading began to sink in.
She says, “After about the seventh repetition I began to sense that there might be truth in the statement, that there was a possibility that God really did love me. Me, Maya Angelou. I suddenly began to cry at the grandness of it all. I knew that if God loved me, then I could do wonderful things, I could try great things, learn anything, achieve anything. For what could stand against me with God, since one person, any person with God, constitutes the majority?
“That knowledge humbles me, melts my bones, closes my ears, and makes my teeth rock loosely in their gums. And it also liberates me. I am a big bird winging over high mountains, down into serene valleys. I am ripples of waves on silver seas. I'm a spring leaf trembling in anticipation.”
The love of God, in all its limitless supply, comes to us through Jesus. When he wrote his second letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul said to them, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” What Paul was saying was that God’s love comes to us through Christ’s death on the cross. On the cross, Christ willingly became poor for us, so that we might become rich in the things of God – so that we might receive life in all its abundance. We may not be rich in money or stocks or real estate, but we are rich in what really matters. We have more than enough, because Christ has given us his all.
Once we begin to appreciate the abundance we’ve received from God, we too can be generous – we too can begin to share. It’s no accident that the relief and development arm of our Canadian Baptist Ministries is called The Sharing Way. As recipients of great blessings from God, we’re called to share with others what we have received. That includes sharing with others who don’t have adequate food, or clean water, or needed medical care. It includes sharing with others who are victims of wars and natural disasters. It includes sharing with others who could provide for themselves if only they received a helping hand.
All of these types of sharing are appropriate responses to the abundance we have received from God. And there’s another type of sharing that’s vital as well. It’s the sharing that goes beyond the needs of the body and addresses the needs of the soul. This is the sharing of the hope we have in Christ – it’s the sharing of the love and forgiveness Christ has given us.
The famous theologian Jurgen Moltmann was a member of the German army during the Second World War. He was captured and held in a prisoner of war camp in Scotland. While in the prison camp he began reading the Bible, and was deeply moved when he read of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. He was even more affected when he came to the story of the crucifixion. When he read that while on the cross Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, a light turned on in his mind. Moltmann writes, “I knew with certainty this is someone who understands me. I began to understand Christ because I realized Christ understood me. And I began to summon up the courage to go on living.”
But the really defining moment for Moltmann came when some Christians came to the camp to visit the German prisoners. These young people were from the Netherlands. Moltmann says he was afraid to see them because he had fought in the Netherlands. The Dutch Christians said to the German prisoners, “We are here because Christ has sent us here. We will tell you that without Christ we wouldn’t even be talking to you.” They then went on to describe being terrorized by the Gestapo, having their homes destroyed, and losing Jewish friends. Then they said something else. They said, “Christ has built a bridge from us to you, and we come across it to greet you. Now you come across and confess your guilt and seek reconciliation.”
Moltmann says that’s exactly what they did. They all embraced. Moltmann says, “It was a richly blessed time. We were given what we did not deserve, and received the fullness of Christ, grace upon grace.”
These Dutch Christians showed what is possible when you have faith in the abundance of God, and share with others what you yourself have received – what you yourself have received from the lavish, exuberant and life-giving generosity of God.