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Politics of Scripture

Jesus and the Economics of Scarcity

While even his closest associates would lean towards dismissing the people to fend for themselves, [Jesus] invites the community of the wilderness into a divine economy of care. Sharing, as a physical manifestation of that care, requires a suspension of the belief that scarcity is the only reality available in the moment of want.

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Matthew 14:13–21 (NRSV)

That winter all my family had to eat was the potatoes we had grown in our garden, the eggs our chicken laid, and the milk we could get for close to nothing from our neighbors. In the wake of the Russian ruble crisis of 1998, the fledgling economy of Lithuania plunged into a freefall dive, leaving thousands unemployed, flailing in the waters of disaster capitalism.

Every night on the news, I saw the haggard faces of people whose employers did not even attempt to console them with a promise of a salary. Crying mothers screamed into the camera, desperately gesturing towards their homes where children were waiting for food, clothes, and school supplies. Growing numbers of elderly and socially vulnerable people took to begging and rooting through trash containers for food. In their apathetic or crazed desperation, they did not even try to conceal such efforts when the camera zoomed in on them.

Against the backdrop of near universal despair, local and Western financial advisors in their perfectly tailored suits and crisp shirts smiled to the same camera as they pontificated on the causes and consequences of the crisis. James Cook, the senior vice president of the US Russia Investment Fund, even went as far as to suggest that the crisis was the best thing that could have happened to Eastern Europe, since it taught banks to diversify their assets and expand their operations through mortgage lending.

Meanwhile, my mother insisted upon taking a bagful of potatoes—from what in my eyes seemed like a rapidly dwindling supply—and bringing it to her friend on a weekly basis. “You keep doing that, and we will be gnawing on the trees in our yard by early spring,” I growled, my anxiety rising with every delivery. “If we don’t share what we have, what kind of people are we becoming?” my mom would respond, as she struggled with a heavy load of the precious spuds up the basement stairs.

She knew what I was yet to learn. She was not just toting potatoes to her friend; she was also bringing back tall glass jars of sauerkraut that her friend made and shared with us. The bags and the jars traveled between our households like shuttles in the loom weaving our lives together. In spite of salaries that were withheld for three, six, nine months at a time, in those simple acts of sharing we kept finding the strangest of abundances. Through mutual care of each other, we circumvented systems of unbridled capitalism and ever-increasing economic austerity measures lauded by the IMF and the World Bank and cursed by people broken by their burden. Somehow, a jar of jam or pickles would find its way from one home to the other; another tip about a good sale on some essential item found its way into a conversation; another moment of acceptance and compassion opened up as the burden became too heavy to bear; another story of vulnerability which previously would have been unimaginable to utter out loud was poured out to a friend or neighbor.

Having lived through this reality, I see so much of it in Matthew 14:13–21, with bewildered disciples and desperate, hungry crowds. That, too, must have been a night of strange abundance, and I would not be surprised if stories, tears, laughter, fears, and hopes were passed around along with chunks of bread and fish. Watching Jesus take the food, bless it, break it, and share it, they must have followed in kind, giving of themselves and of their lives to each other as generously as Jesus had given of himself that night to them.

Biblical scholar Warren Carter points out in his commentary Matthew and the Margins that the miracle of multiplying the bread and the fish happens in close juxtaposition to another feast, Herod’s birthday celebration. If gathering in the wilderness around shared food was life giving, with the sick being healed and the hungry being fed, the celebration in the palace was its exact opposite: wanton gluttony culminating in the beheading of John the Baptist.

Against the backdrop of brutality, state violence, arbitrary arrests, and the execution of those who dare to speak truth to power, Jesus takes a meager meal of fish and bread that would have barely fed him and the skeptical disciples, and beckons in a new world order. While even his closest associates would lean towards dismissing the people to fend for themselves, he invites the community of the wilderness into a divine economy of care. Sharing, as a physical manifestation of that care, requires a suspension of the belief that scarcity is the only reality available in the moment of want.

Jesus becomes the host of a divine feast, which prophet Isaiah dreamed of when he spoke of the inbreaking kingdom of God: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost” (55:1). Isaiah here invites people into an economy that makes no sense to the power-grabbing economies of his day: an economy practiced outside of the confines of monetary exchanges dependent upon social divides. Jesus realizes this economy by actively prohibiting an “each for themselves” mentality and instead sharing resources among all, even (perhaps especially) with women and children, the uncounted and invisible ones. This radical economy of sharing becomes sacramental in the sense that God makes God’s own self known to the community that dares to step away from exploitative economics.

This is especially important when we consider the more insidious ways in which Herod’s birthday bash is death dealing. The excess which makes the feast possible is created at the expense of the very people Jesus is healing and feeding; in fact, we may even think of it as a sort of cannibalism. The downtrodden status of the crowd is the necessary condition for the wealth and the power on which Rome was built. Gus Lubin writing for Business Insider notes that one percent of Rome’s population controlled sixteen percent of its resources, and that the grand ruins that we associate with ancient Rome were made possible by the economic activity of the elite top tenth. Quoting historians Walter Shiedel and Steven Friesen, he points out that:

…the disproportionate visibility of this ‘fortunate decile’ must not let us forget the vast but—to us—inconspicuous majority that failed even to begin to share in the moderate amount of economic growth associated with large-scale formation in the ancient Mediterranean and its hinterlands.

Lest the economic realities of ancient Rome sound too blood curdling and remote, we should set them against the state of things in today’s world. Inequality.org reports that currently one percent of the world’s population has amassed 44% of its wealth, while the bottom 57% share barely 2% of resources. In the United States, the Gini Index that measures social inequality in 2019 was estimated to be at 0.43 (with 0 being total equality and 1 being absolute inequality). For comparison, the Roman Empire at its fall is estimated to have been at approximately the same levels of social inequality—and some would argue, this is exactly what predicated its fall.

Certain political commentators and economists who toe the line of Irving Kristol may claim that income inequality has no provable correlation with one’s sense of happiness, hope, or well-being, and is therefore not a problem in need of fixing. Meanwhile, even the IMF recognizes that the extreme wealth gap we experience today harms the economy (to say nothing of the way it denies human dignity). New York Times correspondent Lola Fadulu writes in her 2019 article what many of us have known intuitively and experientially: poverty is deadly, and with the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor, life expectancy for the poorest is shrinking. She was writing this before the global pandemic of COVID-19, which has hit disenfranchised communities, especially those of color, with much greater force than affluent, white communities.

The deadliness of exploitative economics manifests in many ways. That winter, the winter of potatoes and sauerkraut, a part of me died, too—not literally, but figuratively. The part that died wanted to believe that this order of the world may be somehow redeemed. It died when I watched my parents age ten years in a matter of months as they fought to provide for me and my sisters. Part of me died when I watched the old ladies at the street corners begging for change, succumbing to acute mental illness. Part of me died when I saw homeless people freezing to death. Part of me died when I saw those whom we considered to be gods of wild capitalism, now fallen from the business Olympus, taking their own lives.

I have never recovered the economic and social optimism that died within me that winter, the feeling that if I could only become agile enough to climb the socioeconomic ladder, I could escape the cannibalism of capitalist competition. Perhaps this is why the words of J Kameron Carter on Jesus’ life as a fugitive resonate with me:

(Jesus’) mode of life, the way he lived, was fugitive from the order of things. He cared for the poor, fed the hungry, hung out with menaces to society, refused to judge according to our measure of judgment (indeed, his judgment was against all judgment); he worked on the Sabbath, doing good and healing the sick even and especially on that day. This was his mode of life, his way of being human. And it was a threat. … He was the quintessential enemy to both the religious order of things and, especially, to Roman imperial society. 

Fugitivity here is a life lived outdoors, away from the structures and strictures of an imperial socioeconomic order, a life we glimpse in the wilderness. It is a practice that cuts counter to all forms of exploitation. In Matthew 14, Jesus flees to the wilderness, perhaps to save his own life. The crowds follow—and even precede him—to save themselves from the imperial order of things in which they are disposable.

This active and conscious letting go of the socioeconomic logic that requires constant sacrifice of human life, this fleeing to the wilderness to save our own lives through a radical economy of sharing, is what in our times we might name a renunciation of the financial practices of whiteness. My friend and colleague Whitney Wilkinson Arreche has powerfully argued for such a renunciation, especially during the global pandemic. It is no mere rejection of forms, but also of the very logic that births them. James Baldwin articulates the logic behind the white American order of things in The Fire Next Time:

The American Negro [sic] has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure.

I feel the sting of those words to the very core of my being. Even as a white woman raised in a country on the periphery of Europe and thus the outskirts of whiteness, I know the truth of these words, and it scalds me. The part that flinches and screams is the part I wish had died that winter but did not. My faith in the existing socioeconomic structures was extinguished, but the ideas behind those structures remain deeply embedded in my consciousness, feeding scarcity fears that leave others literally starved.

For as long as I cling to these forms of logic, I continue to be a disciple of Jesus who is constantly prone to say: “Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food” (Matt 14:15). I wrestle with it whenever I am admonished to share, for I still fear I will have to gnaw on the tree in my yard when my supplies dwindle. But in Jesus’ economy of care, we do not compete for the crumbs of empire and whiteness that were never meant to sustain or satisfy. There will be enough potatoes, and there will be enough sauerkraut, enough bread and enough fish, because when we share, we all truly will “eat what is good, and [our] soul will delight in the richest of fare” (Isa 55:2).

2 thoughts on “Jesus and the Economics of Scarcity

  1. Gražina, this is beautiful, challenging, and, as usual, so very articulate. Thank you for publishing this piece.

  2. Grazina, thank you for your thoughts. i enjoyed reading your reflections. I wish people know the truth that liberates.

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