Most of us in Australia we are surrounded by abundance. We take for granted that there will be food for the day and for tomorrow. We have clothing for every day of the week. Advertising bombards us and warps our appetites. We are even conditioned into thinking that shopping for things we don’t need will make us feel better; we call it ‘retail therapy’.
COVID-19 has reminded us that much of the world lives in scarcity. The World Bank estimates that 10% of the world’s population (734 million human beings) exist on less than $1.90 a day, and that number will rise because of the pandemic. They believe that ‘the COVID-19 crisis will have a disproportionate impact on the poor, through job loss, loss of remittances, rising prices, and disruptions in services such as education and health care.’
Jacob had an abundance of possessions, human and animal. Living with his uncle Laban, he had acquired ‘oxens, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves’ (Genesis 32:4). When he returned to his brother Esau, these possessions gave him no comfort. They simply made him afraid: afraid that Esau would attack and purloin all his wealth. His plan is to sweeten his brother with gifts. The numbers are fantastic: he offers Esau ‘two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys’ (Genesis 32:13-15), and that’s just the first tranche!
It is only when he has completely separated himself from these possessions, ‘when he was left alone’ (Genesis 32:24) that Jacob finds his true treasure, One who will bless him, One who re-names him Israel for a new purpose. Simply by himself, Jacob sees God face to face (Genesis 32:30).
How are we to find the way to undo the emotional attachment we have to our abundance? What could motivate you and me to learn how to do without the material things surrounding us?
In the Gospel reading, Matthew shows the crowds who came to Jesus in a deserted place with nothing: no food for the day, nothing extra except their desire to follow him. The five thousand men, plus women and children, have only five loaves and two fish to eat. Jesus distributes what he has, he gives and goes on giving, and it turns out to be abundance.
Our desire as Christians is to follow Jesus, a path which is difficult to tread with our abundance. Having possessions is itself a burden for us. Like Jacob, they make us fearful, because we know the security that they offer is a fiction.
But we find it so difficult to change. Our challenge is to detach ourselves from our emotional connection with possessions. We begin with the desire to do so, and then, like Jesus, we give and go on giving. In sharing everything with those who are without, we find a new kind of abundance, and a security that will last forever. Our new-found generosity will also be such ‘good news for the poor’ (Luke 4:18).