Over the last couple of months, I’ve been studying for FINRA’s Series 24 exam for my job. As I’ve been getting ready for the test, trying to make sense of the intricacies of underwriting stock and attempting to memorize a ridiculous number of SEC, FINRA, and State Regulations, I’ve been amazed by the complexity of our financial system. It’s made me think, what is this all for? What is the central problem these systems are trying to address? It seems to me that, in the end, it all comes down to one thing. Scarcity. At the core of all our elaborate economic and financial systems is a desire to create abundance in a world where there is never “enough” (1). However, this understanding of the world runs counter to the Christian story. As Sam Wells argues, “a world shaped by scarcity is a world that cannot trust that God has given all that we need.” So how should we think about these issues? What would a Christian understanding of scarcity look like? (2)
THE WAY OF MANNA
I want to start, trying to address this question, by examining the book of Exodus. In her lecture, The Way of Manna, the theologian Ellen Davis brought something to my attention that I had previously glossed over. She asked the simple question, “what were the Israelites building for Pharaoh?” In Exodus 1:11 we find the answer,
The Egyptians were using the Israelites to construct storehouses, places where they could stockpile their grain and other commodities, in order to prepare for famines (think of the food shortage recorded in Genesis 47). Like the rest of us, the Egyptians, were fearful that there wouldn’t be enough food to go around. They believed that, in order to protect themselves, they needed to hoard their resources. Scarcity was in the air they breathed. It was in this environment that the children of Israel were raised and it was into this situation that God intervened to set his people free. Understanding this helps explain why the Israelites were so unhappy in the wilderness. After all it was only a few weeks before they started grumbling and talking about going back to Egypt, where at least they could eat. They said:
“If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
This is when God interceded, He told Moses,
The manna story is a pivotal moment in Israel’s history. By raining down bread from heaven, God provided the people with an alternative to the closed system of Pharaoh’s economy. The people were faced with a choice, were they going to follow the way of Egypt or the way of Manna?
- In the way of Egypt, you had to store up food in order to survive.
- In the way of Manna, you couldn’t even store food for one day.
- In the way of Egypt, the rich ate more than the poor.
- In the way of Manna, everyone gathered as much as they needed.
- In the way of Egypt, fear was at the core of their economic system.
- In the way of Manna, the people had to depend on God’s faithfulness.
This economic shift had such a large impact on Jewish identity, that later rabbis said, “The Torah could be given only to eaters of manna.” There was a direct correlation between what the people ate and who they were. By eating manna the people understood that they were receiving their existence as a free gift of God, which fulfilled the ultimate purpose of creation. As, the theologian, Alexander Schmemann says,
“The natural dependence of man upon the world was intended to be transformed constantly into communion with God in whom is all life.” (3)
Every good gift of God exists in order to make God known to humanity. And by eating manna, the Israelites began to understand that they were were being sustained, not merely by bread, but by divine love. This is significant because as humans we were made, not merely to be passive recipients of God’s free gifts, but to recognize/name them and give thanks to the gift-Giver. We were meant to be priests receiving the world, as a gift, and offering it back to God in gratitude.
LIVING ON BREAD ALONE
Unfortunately, in our fallen world, we often refuse to acknowledge the free gifts of God. We fail to look beyond the gift to the gift-Giver. Or as Deuteronomy 8:3 puts it, we forget that “man does not live on bread alone.”
In his 2014 Payton Lectures at Fuller, Miroslav Volf had this to say about living on bread alone:
- When we live by bread alone…there’s never enough bread not even when we make so much of it that most of it rots away.
- When we live by bread alone…someone always goes hungry.
- When we live by bread alone…every bite we take leaves a bitter aftertaste and the more we eat the bitterer the taste.
- When we live by bread alone…we always want more and better bread, as if the bitterness came from the bread itself and not from our living by bread alone.
We refuse to be the world’s priest, and become its slave.
Ever since our first parents ate of the forbidden fruit, we have had an inclination to live as if the world were an end in itself. The problem is that when we live in this way, when we look for life merely in bread, we are communing with death. For as Schmenmann says, “the world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world” (4) And when we are cut off from God we inevitably become alienated from our neighbor. Love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably linked. As Volf says, “living by mundane realities and for them alone we remain restless and that restlessness, in turn, contributes to competitiveness [and] social injustice.” In our fallen state we see the world, not as God’s abundant gift, but as a closed system where our neighbor is a rival instead of a brother.
THE HEAVENLY MAN
However, according to the gospels, this supposedly closed system was broken open. In the incarnation:
- The Infinite became finite.
- The Truth became a truth.
- The Creator became a creature.
- The Transcendent God became a man.
If this truly happened, then it changes everything, including the way we should think about scarcity. In order to understand this more deeply, I want to examine Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, which mirrors the story of manna in the wilderness.
In this narrative, Jesus shows a blatant disregard for our most fundamental economic principles; producing bread and fish outside our closed system of commodification and exchange. He creates abundance in the midst of scarcity. However, his miracle did not heal the wounds of the world, as those he had just fed continued to follow him asking for more bread. They were using him to live on bread alone, treating him as a mere bread provider (5). This is when Jesus delivered his cryptic message in John 6:53-58:
“Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
The disciples were obviously confused by this teaching and many of them stopped following him because of it. But what did he mean? And how does his teaching relate to our questions about scarcity?
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
In his book, Heavenly Participation, the theologian Hans Boersma has a fascinating section where he examines Henri de Lubac’s understanding of the Eucharist. Writing in the mid-twentieth century, de Lubac was attempting to find a middle ground between the Protestant’s strictly symbolic view of the bread and wine, on the one hand, and the Neo-Scholastic obsession with transubstantiation on the other. He was able to navigate between these two extremes by drawing on Augustine’s reading of Paul. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 Paul says,
“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.”
In reference to this verse Augustine says the following about consuming the bread and wine: “If you receive them well, you are yourselves what you receive” (6). In other words, it is not the bread and wine which become the body of Christ, but the believers. Or to put it more simply, when you partake of the Eucharist, you become what you eat.
Like the Israelites before them, Christians are formed by what they eat. In a world where there is never “enough,” the bread and wine make possible our recognition that God has given us everything we need. For, in a world of scarcity, the Eucharist is a sign of abundance. It is, an eschatological meal, the present enactment of a future reality, and a foretaste of the coming kingdom. As James KA Smith says, “the Eucharistic feast is a tiny normative picture of the justice that characterizes the coming kingdom of God, where none go hungry because of poverty or alienated labor (Isa. 65:21-23)” (7). Like the manna in the wilderness, the bread and wine are meant to be freely and equally shared (think of Paul’s anger at the church in Corinth for sharing the table inequitably).
Moreover, we do not simply consume the bread and wine as autonomous individuals, receiving a private spiritual experience, but are instead assimilated into the body of Christ. And it is this ecclesial body, this eschatological community, which is meant to be a foretaste of an abundant kingdom. A kingdom brought into being by Christ who “though he was rich for [our] sake…became poor, so that [we] through his poverty might become rich.” In short, the Lord’s supper is God’s answer to our questions about scarcity. For it is in the Eucharist we discover that we cannot use Christ up…we discover that the more the body and blood of Christ is shared, the more there is to be shared.
(1) Economics would become unintelligible if we lived in a world without scarcity. For example, how would we think about an economic principle like comparative advantage in a world of infinite abundance?
(2) The Bible isn’t an Economics textbook and I don’t want to use it in that way. However, I also don’t think the Bible deals exclusively with “spiritual” matters. I think Christianity has important things to contribute to discussions about Economics/Finance.
(3) Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, pg. 17.
(4) Ibid. pg. 17.
(5) Jesus knew that the Kingdom of God would not come through mere material abundance. Remember Jesus’ refusal, in Matthew 4:3-4, to turn stones into bread. It was in the wilderness that Jesus resisted the devil and recapitulated Israel’s history, overcoming the temptations that they could not.
(6) Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, pg. 114.
(7) James KA Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, pg. 201.
* It is, of course, a lot easier to talk about these things than it is to live them out. Even in the Bible itself the utopian vision of Acts 2 (the believers held everything in common) soon gave way to Paul’s more pragmatic message in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (if you don’t work, you don’t eat). However, I do think Christians are given the resources to live as an eschatological community, in the here and now, giving the world a foretaste of the abundant kingdom that is to come.