For a religion that’s centred around grace, Christianity has a curious failing: we’re particularly susceptible to a starvation mindset. Afraid that we’ll never have or be enough, we hoard our things and our selves, living close-fisted lives. We see this in many churches. They either over-invest in showmanship, as if to say, “We sure have enough!”, or they hold on to “tradition” as if to declare, “Because we don’t have enough, we have to look after ourselves.”
I’ve been on more than one diet in my lifetime and let me tell you, nothing ramps up hunger than imagining going without. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has started a diet by eating everything “bad” so that it won’t tempt me later on! Similarly, few things threaten God’s grace more than thinking there isn’t enough of it to go around in the world.
Jesus knew this. In Matthew chapters 14 to 17 he addressed the “starvation mentality” so rampant in his time. He did this in a few ways:
He fed the crowds
Jesus’ ministry rarely divorced the practical from the spiritual. His disciples urged him to send the crowds home after he had taught them (Matthew 14:15), but feeding their physical hunger was as important to Jesus as feeding their spiritual hunger. In doing so he demonstrated a very basic truth: that his “bread”, his body broken on the cross, would be enough for the multitudes under the power of sin.
He fed “the dogs”
The story of the Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman (Matthew 15:21-28) has always puzzled me. Here we see a Gentile appeal to Jesus for help, only to be called a “dog” by Jesus – a racial slur. But Jesus used this encounter to turn people’s assumptions on their head: his disciples’ assumption that the Canaanite woman didn’t deserve help or healing for her daughter because she was a Gentile; and her own assumption that she wouldn’t receive help (or salvation) from a Jewish rabbi. Her faith bridged the prejudice behind both assumptions, and so her daughter was freed.
He “Transfigured” people’s need for Moses and Elijah
There’s a sad echo in Matthew 17:1-13: after Jesus’ transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah, Jesus returns to “normal” – a dusty, itinerant teacher, nobody worth erecting a shrine over (v4). Yet I believe it’s this nondescript moment after his transfiguration that carries the most weight: it showed that Jesus incarnate was enough. He far superseded the old laws and the old ways because he had chosen to live as a human and to die for the sins of humanity.
He paid the temple tax
In Matthew 17:24-27 Jesus paid the temple tax on his and Peter’s behalf, saying as he did so that “children owe nothing”. Jesus demonstrated on a small scale what he would achieve on a global scale: he would “pay the debt of the law” for every person who calls on him. Interestingly, the amount Jesus paid was actually more than he owed, another sign. Far from being stingy with his sacrifice, Jesus’ death paid more than what was due.
All of this is to say that Jesus denounced false nourishment. In Matthew 16:5-12 Jesus warned his disciples against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. This yeast of theirs – that there wasn’t enough, and that only being holy by the standards of the law would grant you God’s forgiveness – would continue to threaten the gospel message among the disciples, both when Jesus was alive and after he had ascended.
The same yeast continues to threaten the Good News today. Rather than living as if we have more than enough, we try to hoard God’s immense grace, mercy and love in our personal, congregational and communal lives. But Jesus asks us, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread?” (Matthew 16:7 NRSV). Just as he easily fed thousands physically, he feeds us spiritually with the same abundance. In Jesus we not only have enough; he is enough.