Frederick Buechner once said, “Greed is the mathematical truism that the more you get, the more you have. The opposite of greed—the selfless love of God and neighbor—is based on the truth that the more you give away in love, the more you are.” The more you give in love, the more you ARE.
Let’s take a look at today’s story and its context. First, I’ve read that poverty was a huge problem in first century Israel. Many people were homeless and hungry. While the rich got richer, the poor got poorer. And though it starts to sound a lot like things today, the difference is that in Jesus’ day, there were no programs to help the downtrodden and hopeless. There was no SNAP and Medicaid and disability insurance. So, it’s highly possible that those who followed Jesus not only didn’t have homes to go back to; they may also not have had money to go into the towns to buy food for themselves. They are people that went in search of hope—and found it in Jesus.
The passage says that “when the crowds heard it.” It’s not clear whether that refers to hearing about Jesus going off by himself or hearing about John’s beheading. Perhaps they had been following John in search of hope and new life. When they heard about his death, they moved on to the one he baptized. Like lost sheep looking for a shepherd, they gravitated to those who weren’t satisfied by what the government was doing but pushed for justice. They gravitated to the trouble-makers and protesters because the way things were just wasn’t cutting it.
And yes, this passage follows on the heels of John’s arrest and beheading. He was arrested in response to his challenge of Herod’s immorality and corruption. Herod was having relations with his sister-in-law. And the fact that her daughter—his niece—‘danced in such a way that deeply pleased him’ for his birthday holds its own connotations. So when he drunkenly and stupidly promised the girl anything because of her dancing, her mother suggested she ask for John’s head on a platter. Herod was a weak and fearful man. He feared the crowds when he arrested John. He feared his guests, meaning he had to follow through with his promise. He feared Jesus, thinking that he was John resurrected and holding even more power than before. And where fear reigns, violence isn’t far behind.
Our world is filled with fear—legitimate and real fears. We fear sending our kids to school and exposing them to COVID. We fear keeping them home and stalling their education and our own sanity. Black people fear cops. White people fear losing our hold on the status quo. Churches fear losing members. Many people fear losing their jobs. And now we get to fear the seeds being sent in the mail. And we fear riots and military presence and martial law. And we fear those liberals who will let all sorts of drug runners enter the country; and we fear those conservatives who have no compassion for children hurting and hopeless at the border. And we fear those who would allow abortions and those who would ban abortions. And we fear China and Russia and mail-in ballots and countries meddling in elections. And we fear that Trump will be elected and we fear that Biden will be elected.
And we fear trans people in bathrooms. And we fear the suicides of our kids who are trans or gay or queer. And we fear and we fear and we fear. We fear paying off the kitchen and we fear more changes in worship and we fear not being able to keep up with the needs of church members—and we fear.
But where fear reigns, violence is close behind.
I wonder what the disciples were thinking when Jesus told them that the mass of close to 15,000 people didn’t need to go away and find their own food. When he said, “You feed them.” And they looked at their meager bits of food, not even enough for themselves. They had already planned to ration, but this was ridiculous. “We have nothing here!” they cry. “We’re no better off than they are.”
And Jesus reminds them, “You have me.” “But we haven’t had time to prepare. How will this work? What will we do? Think of the logistics for all of these people. And don’t forget, we have nothing here!”
It’s not the right time. It’s not the right place. We have nothing to offer. How many times have we spoken similar words in fear of what God is asking us to do? How is this going to work? Where will we get the resources? What if…what if we run out? What if someone doesn’t like what we offer? What if we can’t get to everyone? And what about us? What are WE to eat and have? And what about tomorrow? And the next day?
These are all questions of fear. What about us? What about our security? What about our people? What about our jobs? What about our health? Why should we worry about people on the other side of the border? Why should we worry about people we don’t know—people of other faiths and religions—people of other colors and ethnicities—people who want to change themselves and change the country—people who don’t want to honor our history? Why should we worry about them when our ‘own’ people are struggling and hungry? Why should we worry about those in prison when they put themselves there with their behavior? Why should we worry about black people if all they need to do is obey the law? Why should we worry about hungry people when all they need to do is get a job? Why do they have to be our problem, Jesus?
What about us? We have nothing here. We don’t have enough for ourselves. Greed is the mathematical truism that the more you get, the more you have. The opposite of greed—the selfless love of God and neighbor—is based on the truth that the more you give away in love, the more you are. ‘Selfless love of God and neighbor.’
Jesus doesn’t give in on this. He doesn’t say, “Oh, I’m sorry. You’re right. They should take care of themselves. You don’t have enough. Take care of yourselves first, and give away anything YOU have left.” No. He says, “You feed them.” And then he takes the food, blesses it, breaks it, and only after the people have their fill do the disciples get to gather the leftovers. And with Jesus in charge, there is so much more left over than there was to start with.
He looked on the people with compassion. He looked on the disciples with compassion. He looks on us with compassion. And he tells us to go. Feed. Give. Let go. Trust him. Love others. For the more you give away in love, the more you are.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church