There are many altruisms, cliches, and aphorisms out there that have came into such common usage we don’t even stop and think about their meaning or original context.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. There is no I in team. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. The trouble with the rat race is even if you win you are still a rat. A penny saved is a penny earned.”
Or take for instance, the phrase “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” Lunch happens to be deeply on Matthew’s mind in today’s gospel reading. Before today’s reading we hear of Herod’s disastrous lunch which led to the beheading of John the Baptist. After today’s reading we go on and listen to Jesus debate with fellow Jews about the necessity of washing one’s hands before lunch. From there Jesus goes on to Tyre and uses the metaphor of lunch to concede to a Canaanite woman that even gentiles have a place at God’s table.
This phrase “there is no such thing as a free lunch” originated in the common pre-prohibition era practice of offering a “free lunch” at bars if the patron bought a beer. The bar owner expected to recuperate the money spent on these lunch with the profits made in beer and repeat business. So this “free lunch” is in fact hardly free, hardly comparable to the prophet Isaiah’s words, “Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
However good of a business practice it might be to draw customers in with a “free lunch” this practice is centered on an assumption of scarcity. There is only so much money in this world and if the customer doesn’t have it the bar does, and if the bar doesn’t have it the customer does. And for many this assumption of scarcity is not limited to economics. It is also assumed that there is only so much--food and power, housing and love-- to go around.
Assumptions of scarcity were the backdrop of Jesus’ world—the foundation of the Roman Empire, that occupier of Africa, Europe, and Asia, including Jesus’ own Galilee. This assumption of scarcity was the means by which the Emperor maintained control. The Emperor theoretically controlled everything in the empire, land, coin, and people—the abundance of the known world was his and he was Patron to the whole world. He was able to do this in the same way the Mafia controls neighborhoods and get rich quick pyramid schemes take advantage of their employees. The Emperor would gain the fidelity—the loyalty—of the aristocrats and the wealthy by handing out government and religious positions to them. The aristocrats in turn kept control of the “equestrian order,” that is the soldiers and the mid-level bureaucrats by handing out titles and land holdings. From there smaller gifts were given to citizens, and peasants, and finally slaves—this last group received the momentary joys of cruel entertainment and a little nourishment to quiet their empty bellies in the form of “bread and circuses.”
In this way loyalty was bought from above, and in this way gifts were not gifts, but burdens and bribes. There could be no relationship amongst equals, because everyone was racing to the top, trying to do anything to have leverage over others, trying to be a patron instead of a client. In such a system, bread became that which was not bread and the circus that which does not satisfy.
Let us imagine for a moment how today’s reading would sound if it found its foundation in scarcity, instead of in the abundance of God’s love that Jesus knew of from the prophet Isaiah and from his own experience of his Father.
To start off with the crowd would not have followed Jesus on foot, but on their knees, begging to Jesus’ enforces, the disciple, for access to their boss. Jesus would not have had compassion on them, but instead forced fidelity upon them as a price for his miracles. The disciples wouldn’t have sent the crowd away, but schemed how they could get more leverage over the crowd. The five loaves and two fishes would not have fed all, but been auctioned off to the highest bidder. There would not have been leftovers after five thousand plus people were fed, but instead four thousand nine hundred and ninety three people left out, unfed, because they couldn’t earn the disciples bread or fishes.
And this isn’t too different from today. Presidents have been talking about scarcity of oil since Carter’s speech entitled “Crisis of Confidence.” There is enough food to feed the world, yet America has an obesity epidemic and Africa goes to bed hungry.
And as a chaplain I am often confronted with spiritual scarcity. I hear sick people ask me if they’ve done enough to go to heaven, if their church attendance or born again experience or good works, have earned their salvation. They also ask if there is enough heaven out there for them too.
A world of scarcity is a scary place, a place where we succumb to our own self-interest. We want the assurance that we have acquired our own salvation, because we want to make sure we are the patron not the client, the fed not the hungry, the saved not the damned, the sheep not the goat.
And yet if we are honest with ourselves we will note that we are both sheep and goat. The most sinister of us is still human and so too is the most moral. The sheep and goat within each of us has permanently locked horns. It is this conflict within us that Martin Luther King Junior called the “schizophrenia of man.” It is this conflict that author William Falkner says, “alone makes good writing, because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” It is this conflict that Jungian psychologists call the “realization of the shadow self” and Freudians discuss as the interaction between the Id and Superego. Robert Lewis Stevenson personifies this conflict in his book The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Reformer Martin Luther said that we are Simul Justus et pecator, simultaneously justified and sinner. The Apostle Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” In the beginning—at the start of Genesis humanity is made from dirt enlivened with God’s breath. We are a mess of mud and spirit.
We are both sheep and goat, from the lowest slave to the mightiest Emperor, from Mother Theresa to a common criminal. And so we can not entrust our salvation to ourselves—to the meagerness of our morality, the scarcity of our works, the insufficiency of our enthusiasm, or any such thing.
And even if this was not so the real question we need to ask is “is God a carnivore? Does God want to eat us? Does God want either lambchops or Goat Shishkababs?” No! God is with us and for us.
So we can find an unearned assurance in a simple trust that “the LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Trust that ours is a God of abundance, trust that God calls to us saying, “come to the waters, come eat bread, come for wine and milk without price.”
Trust that God came in the flesh as Jesus the Christ healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and proclaiming the forgiveness of sins to a broken and conflicted humanity. When we killed him his abundance overflowed the mortal coil and he came back forgiving us for the murder of him and de-fanging death that we might live eternally and abundantly.
Trust that the Spirit leads us toward reconciliation with, and concern for, fellow sinners. Living in a way that promotes equality and justice, the feeding of the hungry and the healing of the sick. In all this, and with our words, we are proclaiming Christ crucified and raised until he comes again.
There may be no free lunch, but at Christ’s table there is always a meal waiting for us. A+A