A true story:
Sendhil Mullainathan is a professor of economics at Harvard, and Eldar Shafir is a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton. A few years ago, they decided to work together to study a subject that doesn’t get a lot of attention: scarcity.
They wanted to know what happens to our brains and our behavior when we don’t have enough money or food or time or whatever. And they wanted to know how we could help people who don’t have enough money or food or time or whatever.
One day, they told an economist colleague of theirs that they were studying scarcity. And he replied, “There’s already a science that studies scarcity. You might have heard of it. It’s called economics.”
And that colleague was right. Economics is the study of how we manage limited resources. You only have so much money: do you buy a new coat, or enjoy a night out on the town? The government only has so much money: does it spend it on cancer research, or on highway safety? Those questions, and so many more like them, are economic questions. ((Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Kindle Edition, (New York: Times Books, 2013), 10-11.))
And economics, and economists, are incredibly powerful. Most of our big political debates revolve around not having enough. Will we spend our limited money on tax cuts? On a giant wall along the southern border? On big infrastructure projects like high speed rail? On grand social programs like a federal jobs guarantee? We only have so much. What will we use it for?
And that makes it sound like we live in a world where there is not enough. That makes it sound like scarcity is the organizing principle of our society. We can’t help everyone. We have to make some tough choices. We have to be adults about this.
And I am pretty convinced that that’s a big lie.
In today’s reading, Jesus has been rejected. And he’s gone out to a deserted place to be alone.
You see, he was visiting his home town, he was teaching in the synagogue there, and the people were astounded by him. They said, “Who is this guy? Who does he think he is? Is this not the son of that carpenter guy? It this not the son of Mary? It this not the brother of James? C’mon. Where is he getting this stuff?”
And they were offended by him. And he left. And he went out to a deserted place to be alone.
But the crowds heard about this. They knew where he was. They followed him from the towns. And they brought sick people with them.
And Jesus had compassion on them, and healed the sick among them, and night fell.
And the disciples decided to be adults about this. They came to Jesus and said, “It’s getting late. We should send these people back to the towns so that they can get some food.”
And Jesus replied, “Don’t you have food?”
And the disciples looked at what they had and knew that it wasn’t enough. And they said to him, “We have five loaves and a couple of fish.”
And Jesus replied, “That’ll work.”
And he took the bread and the fish. He blessed it. He handed it to the disciples. They passed it around. Everyone ate and was filled. And they collected twelve baskets—twelve baskets!—of leftovers.
They fed five thousand men, plus women and children, with five loaves and a couple of fish.
That sounds like a miracle. It is a miracle.
We could not feed five thousand men, plus women and children, with five loaves and a couple of fish. We certainly would not have twelve baskets of leftovers if we tried. We would be sending people away hungry and empty handed. Jesus feeds all of these people and it is definitely a miracle.
But we have more. We have more than five loaves. We have more than a couple of fish. We have more.
And we have a little voice in the back of our heads—and a whole lot of big voices in our public discourse—saying, “We can’t help everyone. We have to make some tough choices. We have to be adults about this.”
After they fed the people, Jesus sent the disciples away in a boat. He dismissed the crowds. He went up to the mountain to pray. And when morning came, the boat was out at sea. So he decided to walk to it.
When the disciples saw him coming… they freaked out. They thought it was a ghost, a spirit, a threat. And they cried out in fear.
So Jesus said to them, “Take heart. It’s me, Jesus. Do not be afraid.” Which is exactly the kind of thing a ghost would say.
So Peter says to this… thing… walking on the water, “If you’re really Jesus, command me to get out of the boat and walk to you on the water.”
So Jesus does. And Peter climbs out of the boat. And he steps onto the water. And he starts walking towards Jesus. And it is a miracle.
And then the wind picks up. And Peter gets scared. And I am sure that there was a voice in the back of his head saying, “You cannot be doing this. This cannot work. This is not how the world works.”
And Peter starts to sink.
A true story:
Gary Anderson is a professor of ancient Christianity and Judaism at Notre Dame. His wife was once in charge of an adult swimming class. And that class included people who had had near-drowning experiences when they were younger. They were afraid of the water, and they would tense up when they were in it.
And if you swim, then you know a simple truth: in order to float, you have to relax. If you listen to the little voice in the back of your head that says, “You can’t do this,” then you will tense up. If you tense up, you will sink. If you sink, you will panic. If you panic, you will thrash about. If you thrash about, you will drown.
To float, you have to trust the water.((Anderson, Gary A. Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition, Kindle Edition (New Haven: Yale University, 2013), 108.))
I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. Faith is trust.
Having faith in Christ means trusting Christ. The Christ who was born in a manger, to a dispossessed people, in a backwater province of a great empire… and who healed the sick in a crowd… and who fed five thousand men, plus women and children, with five loaves and a couple of fish… and who walked on water… who went to the cross… and who got up again.
Having faith in God means trusting God. The God who created the whole world… and who feeds the birds of the air, even though they neither sow nor reap… and who clothes the lilies of the field, even they neither toil nor spin… and who came to be one of us.
Faith is trust.
And, I know, it’s a hard trust.
I would like to believe that if I were on a boat, and I saw Jesus walking towards me on the water, and he told me to step onto the water and walk towards him, I would do it. But I also know that I know—without a doubt—that I cannot walk water. And I would sink faster than Peter.
I would like to believe that if I were standing with Christ in front of a crowd, and I only had five loaves and a couple of fish, and Christ asked me to feed the crowd, I would do it. But I also know that I know—without a doubt—that five loaves and a couple of fish cannot feed five thousand men, plus women and children. And Christ would have to perform a miracle to feed those people.
You see, I have that little voice in the back of my head that says, “You cannot be doing this. This cannot work. This is not how the world works.”
And I hear the big voices in our public discourse that say, “We can’t help everyone. We have to make some tough choices. We have to be adults about this.”
But here’s the thing: I don’t need to have that kind of faith.
I have never had to walk on water. Walking on water is like everything I learned in trig class… it has never come up.
And I have never had to feed a crowd with five loaves and a couple of fish. Doing that is like everything I put on the study guide for The Scarlet Letter… it has never come up.
I am called to do much simpler things. You are called to do much simpler things.
A true story:
In 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. The island was devastated and people were hungry. So chef José Andrés started feeding doctors and nurses at a hospital, because no one was feeding them, and they were hungry.
But then calls started coming in. The whole island was hungry. So the chef and his crew started commandeering kitchens in restaurants and schools and a basketball arena (because sports stadiums are giant kitchens with entertainment). And they bought food. And people donated food. And people volunteered. And they served 150,000 meals a day.
We are not called to walk on water, or feed a crowd with five loaves and a couple of fish. We are called to do much simpler things: to share from our abundance, to love our neighbor as ourselves.
And the truth is, in this world that God has made, you can do this, sharing works, it is how the world works. The truth is, in this world that God has made, we can help everyone. That is the choice we have to make. That is being an adult.
And, yeah, if we do that, there are going to be people who say, “Who are these people? Who do they think they are? Where are they getting this stuff?”
And then we can tell them. And they can join in, too. Thanks be to God!