14 February 2010
Matthew 14: 13-21
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 14th February 2010
There’s a deep logic in this text, a deep pattern. It’s a fundamental, even foundational insight into the laws of God’s economy. Sure, we’ve heard this story countless times. It’s one of Jesus’ most famous miracles. All four gospels include an account of this event. That’s how central it was to the early church. We can try to wrap our minds around how something like this could take place: thousands fed with five loaves of bread, two fish. There was so much food left over of broken pieces of bread it filled twelve baskets full. We can try to figure this out, but we would probably end up with a really nasty headache. There’s actually more than mathematics going on here; it’s more than a miracle story.
Pay attention to the verbs describing Jesus’ actions. After he ordered them to sit down (in order to allow them to be served, because Jesus has become a gracious host), Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed, and broke, and then gave them to the crowds. He focused upon God and then he blessed, broke, and gave. And then all were fed. Blessed-broke-gave. That’s the deep logic, the deep pattern, the archetypal undergirding of God’s kingdom. Blessed-broke-gave. This is the fundamental, even foundational law of God’s economy. I’m being very intentional here in the use of the word economy, as it’s rooted in the Greek word oikonomia, meaning, not high finance, but literally, “household.” It’s a word found throughout the New Testament. In God’s oikonomia, in God’s household, in the ordering of God’s people under the dome of God’s kingdom this is the way the world works, this is the way Christians live, this is the way church organizes itself: blessing-breaking-giving.
This is how it works. We bless, that is we give thanks to God for all that we have received, all the blessings, something so simple as fish and a piece of bread. We bless or thank God for what we have received. And because what we have received does not belong to us, it’s not ours, and because we have a responsibility for our neighbor, we take what God has given us and we break it – we fracture it, we break it up into two or three pieces or more, and then we then give it away. We share it. We pass it on. Then someone else, your neighbor or a stranger, finds himself/herself on the receiving end of a gift, that which you have shared. Thus giving that person occasion to bless God for what was received. And then after the blessing, they, he or she gets to break it, and give it away. And so the cycle continues. This is how God’s household, God’s economy is arranged. It all centers around thanksgiving. It all centers around eucharisteo, the Greek word for “thanksgiving,” or what Presbyterians call Communion or the Lord’s Supper. That’s what going on here at the Table of the Lord – it’s a sign, a witness of God’s Kingdom economy. We bless-break-share.
And when we live this way we soon discover there’s enough to go around for everyone. Thousands are fed. Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourner’s community in DC, an evangelical Christian who, because he is an evangelical, is passionately concerned about social justice, is really a modern-day prophet. He’s calling the church and the nation to give an account for the way it lives its life. In his newest book, Rediscovering Values: On Wall St., Main Street, and Your Street, he makes this very simple point. This is what life is like and can be like in God’s kingdom. “God’s economy, [God’s household] has two basic points: 1. There is enough; 2. If we share it.” (1)
Unless we share what we have, then there’s never enough for any one, which is precisely the point of this story in Matthew. Jesus wants his people to live from a sense of abundance, not from a sense of scarcity. Believing there’s enough and then sharing what we have, we find there’s more than enough to go around. It allows everyone to be fed. This is why the church has a rich history of being extremely generous – and why the church of Jesus Christ, I believe, should be one of the most generous institutions on the face of the earth. Because we know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of God’s blessings, of God’s love profoundly given in Jesus Christ. I/we are extremely grateful for the generosity expressed by this congregation to support Haiti relief, of the support for our programs and ministry, of the extraordinary way we finished up 2009, of the way we’re confident facing 2010. The more we’re aware of how much we have received, the more we risk breaking it and then giving it away, the more blessing abounds in and through the church.
And yet, overall, did you know that giving in and to the church nationwide is on the decline? I was surprised to learn this in Wallis’ book, even as the overall wealth of Americans has escalated over the decades, particularly since World War II. In fact, the highest percentage of giving to the church and its mission, with numbers adjusted for inflation, was back in 1933 – in the midst of the Great Depression. And we haven’t seen those numbers since.
This story in Matthew, which is really more of a parable, is designed to remind us, to teach us, to inspire, and equip us, to remember how God’s world is ordered – or should be. Jesus wants his people to live from abundance, not scarcity. There’s enough if we share it.
M. Douglas Meeks put it so well in his extraordinary text, God the Economist. “If the righteousness of God is present, there is always enough to go around.” (2) I lift up this quote because righteousness is at the heart of Matthew’s gospel; the meaning of this word stands behind the message of this text, it grounds the meaning of the parable. Meeks puts it clearly. The “economy of God…is the distribution of God’s righteousness.” Biblically understood, righteousness is not a moral term, nor is it a human characteristic. Righteousness refers to God, “the righteous one,” the One who does “steadfast love, justice, righteousness in the earth.” It’s an expression of God’s being, what God does. It can be translated as “God’s power for life.”(3)
If God’s righteousness – God’s power for life – is present in our lives, in the church, in the world, then this power will bring people alive, it will seek to secure one’s livelihood, one’s ability to live, it means the hungry are fed and the homeless given shelter, it means reconciliation and peace are known because that’s when human life can flourish, not in times of alienation or war. When this power for life is manifest within our hearts, within our families, within our communities and churches, we’ll know it because people will be given an opportunity to live, to thrive, to flourish. “There’s always enough to go around” because God’s intent is that everyone be fed.
This is the truth we affirm every time we gather around the Lord’s Table. Come eat. Be fed. Be filled. This meal is more than just a memorial meal, remembering what took place long ago. It is the shining presence of God’s promise to be with us and provide for us, which is why John Calvin (1509-1564) wanted the Lord’s Supper included in every Sunday worship service. It informs, shapes our ministry and mission. For example, I love the fact that we’ll go from here into fellowship hall for the Souper Bowl of Caring Luncheon, where we will break bread together around tables in Fellowship Hall, beautifully linking the meal in the Fellowship Hall with the meal we will share around the Lord’s table.
And Communion is appropriate on this Sunday as we ordain and install officers. I have a question for all the new officers to consider, as you make your way to the table. Indeed, let us all consider this question as we approach the feast. What gift, what resource, what blessing which you have received, do you need to break, to share, and then give away that someone might have a glimpse of God’s kingdom, thus giving someone occasion to give thanks to God?
Image: “Feeding of 5000,” Painting by Justino Magalona.
1. Jim Wallis, Rediscovering Values: On Wall St., Main Street, and Your Street (Howard Books, 2010), 120.
2. M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 12.
3. Meeks, 94. “The oikos [house] of God is a gracious gift of God’s righteousness, God’s power for life. God’s gracious goodness gives enough, more than enough, for everyone in the household to live abundantly. The question of economics, will everyone in the household get what it takes to live? is referenced not to scarcity but to the righteousness of God which makes possible the sharing of the household’s store. In any case the work of God the Holy Spirit is to subvert any oikonomia based on scarcity. The reason for this is that scarcity as a starting point will always produce an oikos in which some are excluded from the means of life.”