Monday, July 30, 2012

The Gospel Imperative to Feed the Hungry

The story about Jesus feeding a multitude of people is one of the few stories about Jesus that is found in all four Gospels. This tells us that this story was of great importance for early Christians in describing who Jesus was and what Jesus’ ministry was about. And, while all four tell this story, I am particularly intrigued by John’s rendition in John 6:1-14.

In reading John’s account, one should notice that Jesus goes up on a mountain. This portrays him in Mosaic terms, and because John mentions that the Passover was near, we are to perhaps understand that this feeding story reflects the Exodus story, and specifically the wandering in the wilderness when God provided manna for the people to eat.

But wait, something is different in this story concerning the provisions for nourishment.  In the giving of manna to Israel in the wilderness, it is God who causes the manna to fall from heaven to the people. Manna just falls from heaven. 

But in the story of the feeding of the multitude in John, Jesus asks one of his disciples, Philip, what they were going to do about feeding the people. Yes, John does insert the little comment that Jesus asked Philip this question in order to test him, because, as John tells us, Jesus knew what he was going to do. But why is Jesus testing Philip in this way?  Why does he not just create enough food for the people? Why get the disciples involved in all of this?

What seems most interesting to me is the question Jesus asks Philip: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” It seems like a very leading question to me. Why did Jesus not ask, “Do you think I can miraculously create enough bread to feed these people?”After all, if the people followed him because he had cured many of great illness, would not the disciples, his closest followers, know that he could do most anything? This seems to be a more testing question than asking Philip where to buy food.

Philip’s answer to Jesus’ question is very telling as well: “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” In other words, even if they had a half year’s wages, they could only give each person a small amount of food, perhaps only a mouthful.  Philip seems to suggest to Jesus, “Surely this is not your plan.”

Philip’s answer exposes what he is most concerned about—Money. You can almost hear him say, “This will cost too much, Jesus.” “Even if we had this money Jesus, would we want to spend it on feeing this multitude of people.” “These folks are not our problem.”  Or, as he might say in our American context, “These lazy people need to work for their own food.”

Philip is not the only disciple to fail in this story. Andrew, the only other of the Twelve to be mentioned, comes to Jesus with some bread and fish he has received from a young boy. But in doing so, he looks on the small amount of food with doubt, as if it is nowhere near enough to feed the large crowd.

Which brings us to one other character in the story who is not mentioned by name. This character never speaks, but his actions speak loudly. He is the little boy. Even though he appears to be insignificant, this little boy plays a very important and central role in what Jesus does. Unlike the disciples, this boy shares what he has, possibly all he has. He probably knows that it is very little, but he is willing to share what he has.

In this way, the young boy serves as a model of faithfulness. If he and his gift, so insignificant to the followers of Jesus, can have an impact on feeding the large crowd, then no one can excuse themselves from giving and sharing in generosity in an effort to work toward the end of human hunger.

The problem facing Jesus, the disciples, and this crowd was hunger. We still live in a very hungry world. This story is also about real hunger, something millions in our world, yes even in our neighborhoods face each and every day.

But hunger is a symptom of something that is more deeply troubling: Poverty.  When people live in poverty, they cannot provide for themselves or their family members and this manifests itself in different ways, but particularly in the need for food.

Moreover, we know that hunger leads to sickness, which causes health care costs to rise. Hunger contributes to an inability for children to concentrate in school, thus they fail to learn, which leads to underemployment and unemployment. We could trace poverty and hunger to many of the ills facing our society today. But the question for us is the question Jesus posed to Philip, “How do we feed the hungry?”

We can approach feeding the hungry in two equally important ways.  First, on a personal, we can find ways of sharing what we have with others who are in need of food. We can support food banks that provide food for the hungry. We can serve lunches to children each day, especially during the summer months when they do not get meals at school. We can provide fruits and vegetables to homes that cannot afford to purchase healthier foods. We can give money to international food programs such as Bread for the World or Heifer International. There are many more ways that we can help feed the hungry.

Yet, another way to combat hunger and feed the multitudes often escapes us, for we have so reduced Jesus’ message of love and justice to a person level. We need to understand that hunger and poverty are caused by political and economic circumstances. People do not choose to be hungry. For most, and especially women and children, hunger is caused by the system in which we live that often favors the more fortunate while neglecting those who are poor.

Christians, indeed, all caring human beings have a moral imperative to proclaim to our lawmakers that God demands justice for the poor. We must understand our role in changing systems that contribute to the hunger of people and that continue to entrap people in poverty. We must stand against economic policies that cut programs that help the poor, and we must push for programs that lift the poor out of their plight to find not only nourishment, but also human dignity.

It is not enough to give a little money here and there to feed the hungry. Doing this is right and good; but it only treats the symptoms of poverty and not the underlying causes of hunger and poverty.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Jesus and God’s Economy

It is often said that Jesus had more to say about money than any other subject. From his statements about wealth and possessions, to his parables about agriculture and land, to his calling his followers to invest in treasures in heaven, Jesus’ teachings are replete with the theme of wealth and possessions. We might say that Jesus was, to some extent, an economist.

By saying that Jesus was an economist, I don’t mean that Jesus was an economist in the sense that you and I think of an economist. Jesus did not earn a degree in economics. He was not a major investor in the Roman economy. And, he wrote no book on the issue of financial success. But, he had a great deal to say about economics, and specifically how he envisioned God’s economy.

But what do we mean by God’s economy? Our modern word, “economy”, really has more to do with profits and losses and wages and benefits. It is concerned with trade deficits and budget deficits. It is focused on unemployment and welfare, and a host of other issues. All of these are legitimate concerns in a modern day economy like our own, but this is not exactly what is meant when talking about God’s economy.

Before we move to unpack what we might mean by God’s economy, we need to dispel some fallacies that I think are ingrained our cultural subconscious. First, while the idea is popular among religious conservatives, Jesus was not a capitalist, and his teachings should not be interpreted as being specifically supportive of capitalism.

It is hard to believe that Jesus even would have been a capitalist since he sided with the poor over the rich, and he gave up worldly possessions and called others to do the same. So, when some Christians want to argue that the Bible and Jesus support capitalism as God’s ordained way of doing economics, they are sadly mistaken.

Second, one can be a follower of Christ and be a capitalist or a socialist. Following Jesus is not about one’s concept of the best form of modern day economics, despite those same religious conservatives saying the opposite in recent years. We should never equate any political or economic ideology, such as capitalism or socialism, with being Christian or non-Christian.

Again, this is not to say that Jesus was not concerned with economics, for he clearly was. So, in considering what Jesus said and did that defined God’s economy, perhaps the idea we should dispel the most goes back to the word economy, and what exactly this word means. 

The Greek word from which we get our English word economy is oikonomia. The word means house-law, or perhaps better, house rules or management. It would have been used to talk about a family managing their household. But this would apply to more than simply managing the finances of the home.

If we consider, then, that Jesus was concerned with the economy, that is managing the household, we should ask exactly what this means. We could take it as Jesus talking about individual households and families taking care of their own business and managing their own affairs. But this seems a bit limiting, particularly when Jesus does not appear to be concerned with the financial success of individual families.

What if we consider Jesus to be talking about all of creation as God’s household?  This, at least from my reading of scripture, seems to make sense, and I think the story of creation from Genesis captures this idea wonderfully. We are told that the representatives of humanity were to care for the garden in which God had placed them. They were charged with caring for God’s household, and specifically with caring for each other.

And this, it appears, is how Jesus views God’s economy; an economy that is not so much concerned with profits, but with the welfare of all.

Economic systems that are focused on profits are inherently inconsistent in the effects on the lives of people within a society, for they create the haves and the have-nots. But God’s economy, as envisioned by Jesus, confronts the economies of the world with their inherent inconsistencies toward humanity that caused some to be rich and others to be poor, and judges them as unjust.

What is needed to move our economics in line with God’s economy is more fairness and equality.

When Paul was writing to the Corinthians to ask them to share with those in Jerusalem who were experiencing famine, he based that appeal on what Christ had done for them by becoming poor so that they could become rich. Paul was, of course, speaking of a spiritual richness.

But, he also understood that the economy of God was about justice and fairness, and in calling the Corinthians to give up some of their wealth for the benefit of others, Paul said, 

I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little." (2 Cor. 8:13-15)

Both Jesus and Paul understood that God was concerned with more than the spiritual welfare of people, and Jesus’ message was certainly more about economics than we often admit. But they also understood that God’s economy was about fairness and justice, particularly towards the poor. 

Christians can disagree as to how we create an economy that is more just and fair, but we cannot deny that Jesus was very clear about what constituted God’s vision of a just and fair economy. It was not the greedy accumulation of wealth that left others poor and destitute. It was the viewing of wealth and possessions as that which God graciously gives to some so that they might share with others.

The test of faithfulness to Jesus is always in how we treat the vulnerable of society. Christians who seek to follow Jesus in authentic discipleship should strive for the fulfillment of God’s economy in which the one who has much does not have too much, and the one who has little does not have too little.