The Rev. Lyndon Shakespeare
Economics, we are told, is a science that presupposes two things: one, that we live in a world of scarce resources, and two, that human desire in a consumer culture is limitless. Scare resources and limitless desire; the handy thing about these qualities is that it really doesn’t matter where you live or how much you carry in your wallet, the resources which constitute our life, be it food or oil or clothes, are always under some threat of running out. We speak now of the upcoming water economy, where access to, and control of, water will be what shapes human interaction and even future conflicts. And limitless desire; it too is free of geographical or sociological considerations. Whether in Manhattan, Kansas, or Manhattan, New York, there exists in us the mechanisms of more; sometimes expressed in the outlandish lifestyle of the rich and famous, but more often expressed in our quiet wants and needs for items or experiences that will satisfy and fulfill us.
Scarce resources and limitless desire; the so-called laws of supply and demand rest on these twin assumptions and have created a world view where there is simply never enough to go around and, that even if there was, we would want and desire even more. It is, by all measures, a rather tragic view of the world. Yet it is the world we occupy: scarcity and unlimited desire.
Now, to speak of desire as unlimited, is not to suggest that desire itself is something to avoid. Desire is what helps us get up in the morning; desire is what draws us to cherish our loved ones. Desire is what compells the Olympians to strive and compete. We live, and in doing do, we desire. The problem is that not everything we desire is equal in worth. How often have we desired something that fails to satisfy, only to give our attention to something else? We have been trained to accept as a birthright, the right and ability to be a consumer, and so we ought not be surprised when despite our best intentions, the freedom we think we have to desire freely whatever we want, has made us into creatures who struggle to know how to desire well, and what things in this world are truly worthwhile. Even when we are being careful and conscientious, we long for a better phone, better health, and even better ideas, in a culture where we can never have enough. And as I hope is clear, this desire has little to do with having money; what is at stake is the conviction that we are free to desire anything we want, even if we never finally possess it.
What would it look like to occupy a world of abundance and fulfilled desire? I dare say it would resemble our gospel setting this morning: hungry crowds gathered in a deserted place soon to eat and be filled with still more food remaining. Were this a different time and a different place, the gospel setting maybe the talking-point of how to win hearts and minds to a cause. Fill the bellies and give the people what they want, and you will win them over. Perhaps, the thought goes, if we order the desires of the people in our favor, then their desire for justice in the face of unjust systems of discrimination or violence maybe assuaged. The reality on the ground in our gospel reading is just as stark, just as fragile as any hungry crowd, in any part of the world. Surely, with economic prowess, Jesus could win over the crowd; coerce their hearts and stomachs towards taking his message of God’s gracious Kingdom to the ends of the earth. Heck, with the right touch, he could win their vote! Instead of self-promotion or scoring political points, Jesus follows a very different path. Food is scarce, the people desire fulfillment, and Jesus takes, blesses and breaks bread; and all ate and were filled.
There is an alternative economics at work in today’s gospel. The system of supply and demand is overwhelmed by Jesus, the one who Christians confess as the Kingdom of God in the flesh. It is customary to list the feeding of the multitude as a miracle; yet, a miracle to our enlightened ears is both the discovery of a left-for-dead survivor of an earthquake, and getting the choice parking spot at the grocery store. In other words, miracles are not always, well, miraculous. Thank God for Latin. In its precision, Latin has one word that stands for an act of God that elicits wonder, but more than that, for it is an act that re-organizes the center of our known world; mirabilia: it means, God’s wonderful works, God’s novel, extraordinary acts of grace and hospitality that welcome us into the fullness of divine life and love. mirabilia is the feeding of the multitudes that counters the assumed rule of scarcity-based economics that privileges those with abundance. In contrast, Jesus saw the crowds and had compassion. Goods that we generally consider ours after payment or trade, become gifts. Yet the language of scarcity is never far away; we do not have enough, the disciples say. And Jesus’ response? Simply, mirabilia. Jesus takes, blesses, and breaks the humble offering of bread and fish; the desire of the crowd is met in the overwhelming gift that Jesus offers, the gift that Jesus is and will be even today as we are fed on bread: taken, blessed, broken, and shared for all.
The economics of God’s kingdom is not defined by coercion or a supply and demand rationale; mirabilia is not embodied only for clever people or highly spiritual people, and much less for the sake of important people. God’s wonderful act of grace and hospitality that we practice in worship and through the elements of bread and wine is a gift of God’s self that transform’s our desires by absorbing them, wholesale. Our desire for more at low, low prices is re-ordered towards sharing a common meal as a public expression of the breadth of God’s provision. The economics of such an act challenges all other economics that are secured in the promise of individual gain at the cost of someone else’s loss. Theologian, William Cavanaugh extends this thought for us: in the simple bread and wine of communion, God breaks in and disrupts the tragic despair of human history with a message of hope and demand for justice… The endless consumption of superficial novelty is broken by the promise of an end, the kingdom toward which history is moving and which is already breaking into history. The kingdom is not driven by our desires, but by God’s desire, which we receive as the gifts of bread, wine, and blessing (W. T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, p. 98). The economics of God’s kingdom are manifest both in a simple meal of bread and wine, and in the promise of a heavenly banquet. Before us and what awaits us is mirabilia: God’s wonderful gift.
And what of our economics of scarce resources and limitless desire? The feeding of the multitude, the blessing of bread and wine, both actions form an alternative to cost-based analysis and scarcity-based programs. Even as the market is down and fuel is up, we are not without direction as people of faith. We have been equipped not with a new theory, but with a series of practices that display something of the wonder of God’s ways. For if the economy of Jesus is displayed in an act of sharing and fulfilment, there is warrent for people of good will and faith to invest in related activities with others as a sign of our participation in such an economy. This morning, as we share in what is taken, blessed, broken and shared; we participate in the economics of the Kingdom that signals to the world that abundance and fulfilled desire are not for sale, but are given, freely.