Sharing in God’s Bounty
It doesn’t seem to matter where you’re at these days – you will find people talking about scarcity. There’s a scarcity of jobs, food, water, money, young people (in church), and more. Consumer confidence decreases by the day and people are pulling inward, focusing on themselves. Why? Could it be that many people don’t think there’s enough “stuff” to go around. You have to take what you want, even if it’s at the detriment of others.
In the United States, we have about 5% of the world’s population but we consume about 24% of the world’s energy. You can see the disparity here. And then there’s the whole issue of taxation – what is fair and what is just and what is necessary? Consider that the top 1% of Americans holds 42% of the nation’s wealth – and that is on the rise not the decline, even in a time of economic stagnation. Why does that 1% need so much wealth? Is it good for the nation? Or, I might add, is our nation’s level of consumption sustainable?
These are all important questions that require our attention as we reflect on God’s provision. Is God a God of scarcity or abundance? What is your vision of God’s nature and character? The old adage that has governed much American life is thought by many to be biblical – “God helps those who help themselves.” Although this maybe more information than you really want, the phrase isn’t biblical and seems to have originated as one of Aesop’s Fables and then given its current form by British political theorist Algernon Sydney. After that Benjamin Franklin picked it up and passed it on. It has had a certain resonance, but does this statement resonate with the message of Jesus?
In the texts for Week 9 of Ordinary Time we hear words that speak of God’s overflowing gracious provision. The reading from 2 Kings features Elisha feeding one hundred with twenty loaves, with leftovers. John retells the feeding of the 5000, with more drama. The word from Ephesians doesn’t speak of seemingly miraculous distributions of bread, but it does speak of great breadth of God’s provision. If we are followers of Jesus, can we be people who dwell with a vision of scarcity?
The reading in 2 Kings 4 is brief and simple. A man comes to Elisha bearing twenty loaves of barley bread and some fresh grain. Elisha asks that this offering be shared with the people so they can eat. The servant wonders – how can this be? But Elisha is undeterred. Give it to them, and they’ll eat and there will be leftovers. It sounds incredible, and yet, when the servant follows the instructions the bread feeds the crowd and all are satisfied, with leftovers. It sounds like a typical church supper. No matter how many show up, there’s always more than enough, even if the crowd is larger than anticipated. Why is that? The answer is simple – they acted “in agreement with the LORD’s word.” God is the provider.
Does that mean that I should quit my job and expect God to feed me? Not likely. I remember right after the 2008 election, critics of the newly elected President, picking up on the near messianic fervor expressed by some fans of the candidate suggested that they were ready to receive their benefits. That’s not the point, really, as we quickly see in the mirror event of John 6.
The whole of John 6 provides immense amounts of material to consider. There are Eucharistic elements present. There are questions of identity. But there is also a word here about God’s provisions. Although there’s clearly a reflection here on 2 Kings 4, there is also a very explicit connection with the Exodus story. John tells the story a bit differently than the Synoptics. Jesus climbs a hill above the Sea of Galilee, and when a crowd gathers, he asks Philip – how are we going to feed the crowd? We’re told that Jesus was testing Philip, who isn’t quite sure how to answer. It would take six months wages to feed this crowd – not the kind of money the disciples would likely have on them. Now Andrew, brother of Simon Peter, mentions that a boy has five barley loaves and two fish – but surely that’s not enough (more people and less bread than Elisha had to work with). Not deterred by the reports, Jesus has the crowd sit down on a grassy hill, and the food is distributed (after he gives thanks -- eucharisto). When they’re finished, the disciples gather up twelve baskets full of leftovers – God does provide. Now we could try to figure out how Jesus did this. We can take a supernaturalist or nonsupernaturalist view, but that would miss the point – God provides. God is true to God’s word. And they people recognize something special is in their midst, calling Jesus “the prophet” of God come into the world.
What happens next should not surprise us. Jesus realizes that the crowd will want to make him king. It’s only natural. He’s provided for them, why not make him king. The Romans take their food, their land, their money and offer little in return (besides new highways). Jesus seems like a better option. Realizing their intent Jesus escapes into the wilderness. Now, as we read on, we’ll discover that they figure out where he’s at and pursue him, but that’s for another day. What’s clear is that Jesus isn’t interested or ready for such a turn of events, and so he goes away. The disciples, after sitting around for awhile, decide to get in their boat and head across the lake. When a storm arises, they become disturbed, but they’re really terrified when they see Jesus walking across the lake. John ends the conversation a bit abruptly – there’s no conversation recorded, but when they get Jesus in the boat they will have reached the other side. Now we’re set up for the next encounter with the crowd, who recognize in Jesus one who can provide for their every need, but John’s Jesus has something else in mind – food for the spirit not just for the stomach. Still, there is here the recognition that God is the provider.
We now come to the Ephesian text. The author – traditionally Paul – offers up a prayer for the Ephesians, recognizing that God recognizes and hears the prayers of every ethnic group on earth. This is a rather universalist start!
So, what is the focus of this prayer? Request is made that God will strengthen the inner self of the Ephesian community, “from the riches of his glory through the Spirit.” God shares the riches, the bounty, and the abundance of God’s glory with the people of God! He asks that Christ will live in their hearts through faith, and rooted in this love of God, asks that they’ll have the ability to “grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all the believers.” What are the riches of God’s glory? It’s clear – it’s love in all its fullness. And the author asks further that they will know the “love of Christ that is beyond knowledge.” It’s not just a matter of the head; it’s a matter of the heart. This is a love that is deeply rooted, deeply felt, and expressed with a sense of wide generosity. It’s so great that they will be completely filled with the fullness of Christ.
Then the prayer continues and it’s a clause that we need to attend to as we ponder the question of scarcity and abundance. We need to ask the question – do we really believe that God is good and gracious? Do you believe that God is “able to do far beyond all we ask or imagine by his power and work within us”? Do you believe this? Do I believe? Is my God too small? If I believe it what does it require of me? While God doesn’t necessarily help those who help themselves, is it possible that God does help those who help others? Is it possible that when we open our hearts and our lives to others, and let loose of that stuff that gets control of our lives that we can truly experience the presence of God? Glory to God – in the church and in Christ for all generations!
What is the nature of God’s abundance? How do we share in it? And Elisha and Jesus ask us to share the bread with the neighbor.