Scarcity: The experience of not enough. We all encounter it as human beings, and the form it takes impacts us in drastically different ways. For example, the person who is chronically homeless faces scarcity of food, shelter, and safety. Someone with cancer feels the scarcity of health, strength, and autonomy. The person whose marriage is dissolving feels the scarcity of faithfulness, companionship, and love. Each of these individuals faces different forms of scarcity, and those sharply influence how they are able to cope with their circumstances.
Reading Matthew 14 today forced me to take another look at scarcity. In verse 9, Jesus learns that Herod had John the Baptist beheaded, and Jesus decides that he needs some time to himself. While he’s trying to retreat, though, the crowds follow him. Jesus sees them, and the text says that he “had compassion on them and healed those who were sick” (v. 14). The disciples then ask Jesus to send the crowds away so they can buy food for themselves, but Jesus instead tells the disciples to feed everyone. He takes their five loaves and two fish, blesses and breaks the bread, and dispenses them to the crowd. The text says, “Everyone ate until they were full, and they filled twelve baskets with the leftovers” (v. 20).
On the surface, this seems like a story of scarcity that we can apply to the need we witness around us today. The disciples doubted Jesus, yet Jesus was able to use the measly loaves and fishes to feed all 5,000 people with abundance. Certainly if we believe enough, Jesus will do the same for everyone who is hungry here on earth! While I have witnessed God providing for us in miraculous, incredible ways, if we choose to look around for just a little while, we inevitably face the question, “But then why did and why do people still go hungry?” This is where we meet the gritty, uncomfortable truth of scarcity: it exists.
While the truth of scarcity is prominent in Matthew and all around us, the myth of scarcity exists as well. We see the disciples function within a Zero-Sum Framework when they doubt that the five loaves and two fishes will suffice. In Zero-Sum thought, the quantity of any commodity is limited, to the degree that if someone else has, I must have not. If Jeff gets the promotion, I will get relegated; if Cindy gets married, she takes one more off the market; if Johnny gets attention, I will be ignored. In a Zero-Sum framework, we feel the myth of a scarcity that does not actually exist. We quantify uncalculable data to determine that, ultimately, regardless of the situation, we lose.
Jesus corrected the disciples’ thinking. He forced them out of their Zero-Sum frameworks by grabbing those 5 loaves and 2 fish, blessing them and breaking the bread in a foreshadowing of the Last Supper, and distributing them until everyone had their fill. We are not meant to live within the myth of scarcity. Rather, in the face of our doubts and insecurities, we must trust in the One who can provide abundance.
And when we encounter the truth of scarcity, it is then our duty to remember the gifts God has given us, and to do our best to create abundance. As the 16th Century Carmelite nun, Teresa of Avila, said:
Yours are the feet with which [Christ] walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
When we see true scarcity, we are called to be Christ’s body. We are meant to look one another in the eye, to feel one another’s pain, and to do whatever we can to create abundance. As Christians, we need to hold in tension the reality that God can provide abundance, and that we also must work to create abundance as well.