How much is "enough"?
In our society, and in the depths of our psyches, the answer may well be "Never enough."
The powers and principalities, the various impersonal systems that run our world, keep us in a state of constant perceived want and in constant fear of not having enough -- enough money; enough stuff; enough status; enough power; enough love. But these systems can only be as good as the people running them; and because we are flawed, inward-curved creatures the gaping maw of "never enough" exists within each of us. Whether we're a two-year-old howling in rage at being asked to share a toy...a teenager tormented by self-loathing because we don't perceive ourselves to be loveable or attractive or popular...an adult caught in the game of "whoever dies with the most toys wins"...an elderly miser with a death grip on our wealth, to the point of self-neglect...any of us in between, with our own secret bottomless pits of wants and lists of fears...we can find ourselves enslaved by the twin masters of disordered wants and fear of not having enough. L. Shannon Jung, author of Food For Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating, likens this brokenness to the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the "hungry ghost" -- an entity always eating, yet always famished, never getting enough of what it desires.
This dyfunctional dynamic, aided and abetted by our institutional religious experience, can even affect our spiritual lives. We may grow up in a religious milieu where we are constantly exhorted to be perfect or "good enough" to make God love us or at least keep from damning us, where it's all about "earning points by doing stuff"; and when we fail to live up to expectations, we live in terror of God's wrath. Or our fear of not enough may give us a distorted perception of God's grace and mercy as a limited quantity, and that if grace is extended toward the "wrong" person, or to too many people, it somehow diminishes our grace, our relationship with God.
That is the way it works in the world, when we run the show. But in today's Gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a lesson in God's economy, in God's reign.
Jesus has just received terrible, shocking news: His cousin John, his precursor and fellow preacher in proclaiming the inbreaking reign of God, has been beheaded by Herod. Jesus would have been heartbroken on a personal level; perhaps John's death would have also led him to question the validity of his own mission. He wants to go away with his disciples to a quiet place, and attempts to do so by boat; but the people whom he has taught and healed won't leave him alone. They follow him by the thousands on foot along the shore as Jesus heads for a deserted place. They meet him there. In the midst of Jesus' own sorrow, he feels compassion for these needy people, and helps them, until day turns into evening. The disciples -- evidently feeling that the crowds were imposing on their teacher's time and energy -- suggest sending them all away to scrounge up something to eat on their own. Jesus responds, "No -- you feed them." The disciples sound not only a little incredulous, but a little reluctant to part with the small stash of food they have on hand; nonetheless, they give what they have to Jesus, who blesses it, breaks it and gives it back to them to give to others. And we know the end of the story -- twelve baskets of leftovers after feeding a massive crowd.
Here is what Jesus says to us in this story: There is enough. There is enough of the things we need if we acknowledge God -- the crazily generous God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, who wants to give us an abundant life, heaped up and running over -- as the source of what we have. There is enough of the things we need if we trust in God's providence over and above our own attempts to figure out how to obtain and hang onto what we have. There is enough of the things we need if we model God's generosity in sharing with others. And God wants us to share what we have with all comers, not just the perceived "good enough." That's a point that is often overlooked in this story. What does it say, in a culture obsessed with ritual cleanliness, where a myriad different things can render a person ritually impure and thus contaminate someone who even touches him or her, when Jesus says, "Let's eat!", has thousands of strangers all sit down together and starts passing out food? What does it say about the person and power of Jesus that an individual in this culture, having experienced the Word made flesh, is moved to share his or her own store of food with the strangers next to him or her, until all are fed and then some?
And, in this story, not only is there enough food to go around, there is enough God to go around. Note Jesus' response to the people crowding around him: He heals them. He takes care of their needs, even when his followers want to shoo them away. God does not want to be hoarded, to be protected from our needs and wants. God wants to be poured out into them, filling them in ways that make us whole. Likewise, God does not want God's grace and mercy rationed to "the right sort of people"; God wants to spill it out generously, in an unending supply. And, just as Jesus gave his disciples a job to do in meeting the people's physical needs, Jesus gives us a job to do, in proclaiming and in sharing God's care and generosity as each situation calls for it.
Shannon Jung asserts that God's purpose in making us enfleshed creatures with appetites and desires is twofold: delight and sharing. We are, each of us, gifted in marvelous ways by God every day. Let's delight in them, just as the crowds who followed Jesus no doubt delighted in their unexpected picnic supper hosted by Jesus himself. And let's share that delight, as we're able, with those who need to hang onto the hope that God is a God With Us, who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us.
Loaves and Fishes by John August Swanson