Gospel-nomics (Message for August 3rd, 2014)

Scripture:  Matthew 14:13-21

A few months ago I was talking with some high school seniors, and they were telling me about, how to their surprise, they were really enjoying their AP Econ class.  They were sharing with me some of the concepts they had learned and found extremely fascinating.  As all amateur discussion on economics do, someone eventually chimed in with the old economic universal truth, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”   Now I was feeling a litter argumentative that morning, so I challenged them stating that I am not sure if that is true.  This drew a stunned gasp from the students followed by a challenging, “Of course it is, when is there a free lunch?”  It was a hypothetical question, so I began to draw a far-fetched hypothetical answer.  I asked them to imagine an island with a small hunter gather society and all of the resources they could possibly need.  Food is just sitting there waiting to be eaten, so if a person on this island eats a few apples off a tree, how is it not free?  This was very quickly (and correctly countered) by one of the students pointing out that there was opportunity cost involved.  By eating the apple, this person paid the cost of not being able to eat berries.  We all went back and forth for a few minutes with the whole hypothetical situation getting ever more absurd.  However, the youth would not let go of the idea that there is no such thing as a free lunch.   I finally pulled out my trump card and switched to a less hypothetical example, and I asked “What about the time that Jesus fed 5,000?”   The teens immediately tried their previous arguments, but realized that in this case they did not quite work.  Finally, one of them said, “That does not really count, because the rules of economics do not apply to that event.” 

An event where the rules of how we understand the world do not apply, well that is a description of a miracle.   The rules on how fires work states that a bush should burn up, but for Moses the bush was not consumed by the fire.   The rules of physics make very clear that a person cannot walk on water, but Jesus did that too.  The feeding of the 5,000(plus), was a huge miracle.  This is the miracle that Jesus performed that people were still talking about weeks later.  We know this miracle had a big impact, because with the exception of the resurrection, this is the only miracle that is recorded in all four gospels.  This miracle does not follow the rules of how we understand the world.   Mathematically, this miracle breaks the rules.  Jesus divided by zero or something because he took a small amount and turned it into a larger amount.  However, this miracle also breaks the silent rules, the assumptions, and the world views that impact all of our lives even today. By taking a closer look at this miracle, I believe that we can better understand how to follow the example that Jesus sets for us. 

Remember the discussion with the youth about economics.  The rules do not apply to this event.  That is a very accurate statement.  Here is a text book definition of economics: “Economics is the study of how people make choices under conditions of scarcity and the results of those choices for society.”   Economics does apply to this miracle because this is a miracle that results in an overabundance.  All economic theory holds true that scarcity is an absolute constant.  A sensible economic world views assumes scarcity in everything.  Jesus is a great teacher, but he would have made a poor economics professor.   Economics has a world view based on scarcity.  Jesus has a world view based on abundance.  All things come from God, the creator and sustainer of the universe. 

In this scripture Jesus is very clearly testing his disciples.   The test comes in verse 16: Look back at verse 16, “Jesus replied. “They do not need to go away.  You give them something to eat.”   In fact in the version found in John, it even flatly states Jesus was testing his disciples.   Jesus was testing to see if the disciples would view the situation in terms of scarcity or abundance.  Jesus was testing to see if the disciples would see the great need and see a place for God’s abundance to be displayed, or to see if the disciples would only see an overwhelming scarcity.   Of course, the disciples failed the test and only saw a need they could not possible meet.  In our hindsight it can be easy to berate the disciples.  This is especially true, when we consider the account of this story from Luke.  Luke tells us that this miracle happens shortly after the disciples returned after being sent out by Jesus.  When the disciples were sent out they were sent out with nothing and essentially told to rely on God to provide.  After weeks of relying on God, of getting firsthand experience with God’s abundant provision, the disciples come back and Jesus test them to see what they learned. 

Now in fairness, we would probably have the same reaction as the disciples.  There were a lot of people.  The miracle is titled the feeding of the 5,000 but as Matthew reminds us that was just the men, the women and children were also fed.  This means that there were probably 15,000 to 20,000 people there.  This is a really big deal when we remember that they are in the middle of nowhere, and the two closest villages only had populations of 2,000 to 3,000.  This crowd was much bigger than the disciples had expected and it was much, much bigger than they had any clue on how deal with.  The disciples knew that there was not enough to go around.  They had enough common sense to know that hungry people are grumpy people, and that you do not want to deal with 20,000 grumpy people.  The disciples viewed the world with a worldview based on scarcity, but Jesus put his world view based on abundance into practice.  I do not understand the physics of it or the math.  I do not know how five loaves can multiply like that, but the rules do not apply.  It was a miracle, and God’s perfect abundance was on display as all had their fill.  A world view that sees God’s abundance as a basis for understanding how the world works was displayed.  

When Jesus fed the 5,000 he set an example of us to follow.  I do not think that means we are supposed to go to Subway and try to feed the entire restaurant with one $5 foot long.  The example Jesus expects us to follow is a change in our worldview.  The example we are to follow is to have an economics of abundance instead of an economics of scarcity.  Jesus challenges us to view our lives not in terms of how little there is to go around, but in terms of how much there is to give away.   Jesus challenges us not focus on how we are going to eat, pay the mortgage, pay into our 401k, buy a new car, or get the new TV in time for the game.  Instead Jesus challenges us to seek God’s Kingdom, his righteousness, and then trust on God’s abundance.  Ultimately, Jesus challenges us to switch from a paradigm where we spend our lives collecting and acquiring to one where we give away and bless others.   This is a problem; because it goes against everything we have been taught our entire lives. 

We live in a world that is based on having a viewpoint of scarcity.  Like the disciples, we see things in terms of how little there is.  We are taught that whatever it is-money, time, things, opportunities- there is only so much to go around and if we want any of it we need to claim what we want to be ours.  Scarcity is the way of the world, and our consumer focused culture in America makes that worse.  We often forget that we are the most prosperous nation to ever exist.  Compared to the disciples, the way that many of us live today put the rich of their time to shame.  Despite all of our prosperity, we are still governed by scarcity.

What if we changed that?  What if we followed Jesus’ example and traded out or worldview of scarcity for a worldview of abundance?   What if we did not view everything as a limited resource but instead viewed everything has a blessing from a God who has an unlimited storehouse of blessing?  What if instead of acquiring what we want, we lived as if our lives was already a rich overflowing of abundance?  What if instead of building our lives and decisions around scarcity we trusted in God’s abundance to provide?

             Living that way does not require a supernatural intervention like what happened in this morning’s scripture.   It just requires a different approach.  A few years ago I took part in an annual conference service project.  The plan was to have people divide by districts, eat lunch together, and then serve.  There was mix up in the lunch delivery, and the place I was gathering was really short on lunches.  What happened is that people began sharing.  Instead of evaluating things on scarcity people gave out of abundance, and everyone ate.  There was no supernatural multiplication of the food, there was just a different way of looking at things.  Opportunity cost did not apply.  The chips and half a sandwich I gave up was not a loss or cost for me, because I viewed it as an abundance that I was sharing not a scarce resource I was spending. 

             Money and material possessions are not the only resources we treat with scarcity.  Along with there is no such thing as a free lunch another common economic saying is that time is money.  When it comes to being a scarce resource we certainly treat time like that.  We always have much to do and only so much time in a day.  I could say more about this, but I think it works better to illustrate it with this short video:

            Let me ask you a question.  Towards the end of the video and they showed how many beans are left, what did you think?  What did you feel?    Did you see those jelly beans, that time, as a scarce and rapidly diminishing resource?   Or did you see each of those jelly beans as an individual blessing, as an outpouring of God’s blessings?  If we view our time as a scarce resource, then we will horde it, keep it to ourselves, and eventually grow resentful of anything other than ourselves that requires our time.  However, if we view our time as a blessing from God, if we view each day as a gift that has been given, then we begin living a life based on abundance.  We begin to see our time has a rich blessing that is overflowing in our lives, and we can are quicker to share it with others.  We are better able to take time to notice those who go unnoticed.  We pause and invest in loving the unloved.  We become the type of disciples who say “Ok” when Jesus says “You give them something to eat.” 

 Remember, after everyone had ate their fill, there were twelve basketfuls left over.  In the rules of economics, scarce resources are always diminishing but in God’s kingdom, in gospel-nomics, generosity always leads to abundance.  May we give generously to others.  May we give our money, our resources, our time, and our compassion.   In the world around us, may we not see scarcity but may we see God’s generous abundance.  This may require us to change how we view the world and how we act.  This is not easy, but remember with God all things are possible.   May we stop seeing the world as a wasteland of scarcity.  Instead, may we realize the abundance we have in our lives, and may we share that abundance with others.    At the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus tested his disciples to see what they would do.  We still get tested today.   When we are confronted with the choice of hoarding what God has blessed us with or trusting God and sharing our abundance, may we always choose abundance.  May we always be the kind of disciples that follow the example of Jesus.   May we become the kind of disciples that transform the world