Take the idea of abundance versus scarcity: how often do we see our cups as half-empty rather than half-full? How much news is fear-based rather than love-based? The nuclear crisis in Japan is no doubt horrific, but almost all the news I read, see or hear is about how bad things are, never about how brave are the people trying to contain the radioactivity, how amazing the world community is for trying to help. It’s not that we ought to ignore the problems of the world, but rather we need to find balance and means to bring about positive change.
Parker Palmer, in his book, The Active Life, gave me fresh insight about the miracle of the loaves and fishes (Mark 6: 30-44). I have always loved this Scripture. Even before I became a Christian, it spoke to me of the abundance of God’s love, and the grace, and the mystery, but Parker Palmer, author of The Active Life, brings deeper meaning.
He says Jesus, who is the very one who refused to turn a stone into bread, is now creating abundance not simply of food, but of community. When the disciples suggest the crowd be sent to villages, away from this gathering because it is getting late, and they have nothing to eat, they are acting out of scarcity. They want to get rid of the crowd and let the crowd take care of themselves. It never occurs to them they might do something more than direct the people. When Jesus tells them “You give them something to eat,” they must have felt bewildered. There were 5000 people on that hillside. The disciple’s immediate response is to leave and buy food, but Jesus suggests they might want to see what abundance is already within the crowd: “How many loaves have you? Go and see.”
All the disciples can come up with is five loaves and two fishes. I bet they felt stupefied. They didn’t have a clue about the abundance of God’s grace because they were locked into a fear-based, scarcity-based world. How on earth, they must have thought, are we going to take care of all these hungry people with so little bread? Furthermore, they are acting out of us-versus-them mentality–which rarely gets people to cooperate.
What might the disciples have said to the people? Jesus says for you to cough up whatever food you’ve got? I imagine people hoarding their supplies–many may well have brought along their lunch, expecting to stay a while to hear and experience this marvelous teacher and healer. They aren’t about to share their food because they want to take care of themselves first. The disciples, in their defense, were a little further along. They felt the heavy responsibility of the crowd weighing them down. Silly people did not realize God’s abundance is always available and it is there for everyone all the time.
Palmer says Jesus teaches about community by dividing the people into groups, and then dividing the bread and fishes evenly, thus causing the people in each small group to start to talk to one another and become connected to one another, and perhaps produce and share their hidden resources with one another. For Palmer, then, the mystery of the loaves and fishes is revealed as an act of explainable community action. He makes the case of the importance of not merely spiritualizing Scripture, assuming God will feed everyone and therefore we need do nothing. Rather, Palmer tells us, it is through human action that God’s grace enters the world and changes it.
Palmer quotes Black Elk, the Native American shaman, “Whether it happened so or not I do not know; but if you think about it you can see that it is true.” Even as a child, I always knew this story was true and always believed it literally, but now I see it is a deeply layered myth resonating with meaning for all who have ears to hear and eyes to see. As the saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher will come.