Scarcity & The Feeding of the 5000
Just prior to Lent I had the blessing of hearing a very fine sermon based on Matt 14:13-33, which is the story of the feeding of the 5000 as well as Jesus walking on the water. It was pointed out that as the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 is in every Gospel, it is indeed important. The main takeaway is that God’s love, mercy, grace and redemption is boundless and infinite. I absolutely endorse this view and it is a point worth repeating often. As this preacher is wont to say, this is amazingly good news.
All of this got me to thinking, however, about the issue of scarcity in our world. There are those among the preaching class and other assorted leftists who argue that scarcity is a result of unjust political and economic symptoms, as if it were all a conspiracy of the capitalist class. This was not a point made in the sermon I heard but is emblematic of mainstream Protestant thought. The focus by preachers on the infinite saving grace of God is most appropriate but this abundance is not in any way transferable to our material world. I suspect this transference is why so many ministers let themselves be drawn into economic error, well-intentioned though they clearly are.
Scarcity is not a result of an unjust system any more than gravity is. Scarcity is THE absolute reality of our earthly existence. It is a facet of a fallen world and innate in the nature of our creatureliness. It is the price (literally as I will discuss in a moment) that we pay for having gotten ourselves rightly thrown out of Eden. Scarcity drives all our material realities as we seek to survive in an often-hostile natural environment. Scarcity also drives our discussion of human rights, as humans are in competition for scarce resources.
In the story of the feeding of the 5000, Jesus is making an eschatological point about the abundant power of God, not about what we have to face day to day in our material world. We are not often presented with a miracle from God when we go about feeding ourselves. Also, in this story, there being 12 baskets returned is emblematic of God’s salvation for the 12 tribes of Israel. In Matt 15 Jesus miraculously feeds 4000 with 7 baskets returned, emblematic of the 7 Gentile nations of Canaan, thereby widening God’s saving grace to all the world. This underscores the eschatological nature of this story and it is right that a good sermon focuses on this point.
If the main point of this story is not about material goods and scarcity is ever-present in our world, then what are we to do? First and most importantly; do not deny the reality of scarcity. Scarcity gives rise to the concept of cost. Every first-year econ course goes over this idea, even if only the notion of opportunity cost. If we do one thing, we cannot do another; I can either produce this or that, not both; I can acquire X or Y, not both. The introduction of money into this equation does not change this reality one bit. To imagine that scarcity is part of a capitalist conspiracy or is “fake news” is to imply that we can eliminate it and only God can do that. That darn First Commandment again!
If we can firmly grasp the reality of scarcity and its ever-presence in our lives, then the next question is; can we make it any better? Yes, in fact, we can make it better; not perfect but better. The best way to make it better is to produce more goods and services. The best way to produce more goods and services is to get ourselves better tools. We call those tools capital. With more capital (tools) we become more productive, therefore we produce more. If we produce more then we can consume more. All of this implies the arising of a market with real prices communicating real information about the best use of these scarce resources at our disposal. This is really the only true way to mitigate scarcity. It is how we have improved the lot of humanity ever since the industrial revolution. We can do this simply by living out the Gospel and treating others the way we wish to be treated; loving God and neighbor; and loving one another the way God loves us.
Again, we can only hope to mitigate the effects of scarcity, not eliminate it. We should also understand that scarcity is a relative concept. Our resources are scarce relative to all that we want from existence. This leads many, especially of a more liberal bent to argue that we should simply want less. This is a valid point, particularly in the prosperous West. There is no end to the increase in happiness if we simply lower our expectations. The United Nations defines absolute poverty as living on $2 a day or less. Perhaps it is time for Western Christians to develop a notion of absolute wealth, a point beyond which we do not need to consume. I am all in favor of this effort. Let us keep in mind a few things, though. For one thing, to impose this kind of satiation on the developing world seems more than objectionable. How are we to tell the mass of humanity that has never experienced anything close to the standard of living of the West that they have to be happy with the way things are now? There is also no need. We can have sustainable growth that lifts the developing world up without destroying the planet (I will discuss radical environmental stewardship in a later post) and it will help everyone in the process.
Another thing to keep in mind is that everyone’s definition of “too much wealth” tends to be just a little bit more than they have. So, the whole project is at risk of devolving into hypocrisy. Also, as the capitalist miracle took hold humanity made those things that were once considered frivolous luxuries and turned them into absolute necessities. Think refrigerators, televisions, cars and now cell phones. So, while I am all for being satiated it is not as simple as morally scolding people who want to be comfortable.
Even if we attained a level of satiation and gave the rest of our income to those in need, the question immediately arises: which needs get priority? The need is always greater than the resources; our old friend scarcity come a calling once again. I also have not dealt with the scarcest resource that affects us all; time. This scarce resource is present in all human activities.
In the end we as Christians need to recognize that everything comes from God. All that we need eternally He has freely given us. This is true abundance and is truly an infinite thing. As for living in a fallen world we have to do the best we can with scarcity as our companion. Jesus points the way in this very text when He looks at the Apostles and says, “go get them something to eat.” It is up to us to roll up our sleeves and get to work, helping those less able to do so in the process. If we do it via Kingdom living, then we will soon find that we have gone a long way toward taking God’s infinite love and putting it to good use in a fallen world of scarcity.
Praise Be to God