A couple of days before the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’,” a neighbor and I were discussing rumors about the encyclical and what it might contain concerning the state of the earth and economic systems. It was an intriguing conversation, because my neighbor does not identify as a Christian, or even a theist, but his concern for the needs of humanity and the earth is evident in how he lives. We were discussing the need for all people to have food, clothing, education, a home and all other basic necessities, when I noted that there would never be genuine equality among people with respect to money and goods because of a variety of factors, including talent, skill and even luck.
It was then that he said, “But no one should have nothing.” That cut to the heart of the matter. All of us as God’s precious creations deserve in this world the basic necessities. And there is enough. In fact, with God in our sights, there is always some left over.
There is a story in the Second Book of Kings, a story that Christopher T. Begg says “is obviously the inspiration for New Testament multiplication miracles” (NJBC, p. 176), in which Elisha is given the first fruits of the harvest as a “man of God.” Most Old Testament traditions see these first fruits as offered to the priests and Levites or to the house of God (e.g., Ex 23:19, Lv 23:10), but all of the first fruits are truly an offering to God through the representatives of God, which Elisha really is.
Elisha does not keep the first fruits offering for himself, however, but offers it to the people, saying, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” Elisha’s servant complains that the 20 barley loaves will never feed 100 people, but Elisha reiterates that God had said, “They shall eat and have some left.” What Elisha received as a representative of God, he gave back to the people. Everyone ate, as promised, and there was some left over.
Jesus’ teaching on the multiplication of the loaves and fishes starts with human need too, in which the few fish and loaves of a little boy became an outpouring of food for the gathered crowd. Jesus, says the Gospel of John, knew what his plan was, but he asked his apostle Phillip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” “Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’” Jesus then took the five barley loaves and two fish and fed 5,000 people, with 12 baskets full left over.
There is no question that Jesus’ actions and the stories that recount them, found in all four Gospels, are modeled on the account of Elisha feeding a hungry crowd. There is also no question that in both stories there is a spiritual meaning that runs deeper than the simple physical act of nourishing the body. Elisha gives the people the food dedicated to God as the first fruits; Jesus will offer himself, the “first fruits of those who have died” (1 Cor 15:20), as the spiritual bread from heaven. But the spiritual truth does not negate the meaning of the material bread and the necessary sustenance it offers.
It was the miraculous act of multiplication that drew the people to Jesus, says John, that made them want “by force to make him king” and led them to proclaim, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” But it is the act of giving what is needed physically that allows people to see with the eyes of the soul, to look beyond this world to the world eternal, from the barley bread to the bread of heaven. God’s abundance, poured out over the whole earth, is intended for everyone. All are called to participate in this richness, to be a part of the one body and one Spirit, sharing in the material and the spiritual bread.
This is not Elisha or Jesus teaching lessons in economics but lessons in theology, the nature of God’s ways. If our economics does not make room for feeding everyone, with some left over, it is not because the church’s science is faulty but because of our hardened hearts. There is enough for everyone, and no one should have nothing.