By Jim Vitale
“You are enough.”
You’ve all probably heard those encouraging words. “You are enough.” I see them just about everywhere these days. On bumper stickers, decorative signs, videos, and tattoos. I’ve heard it in sermons, TV shows, and even from the mouth of my own therapist. “You are enough.” It’s meant to be a comfort. Yet, I have to say, that phrase doesn’t usually sit well with me.
“You are enough.”
The story of the feeding of the 5,000 in the gospel of Matthew (14:13-21) seems to disagree.
In this familiar story, Jesus hears that his cousin John the Baptist has been executed, and Jesus retreats to the desert: a desolate place to match his desolate mood. But when he arrives to the middle of nowhere he discovers he is not alone: a great crowd has gathered to hear him preach, perhaps also seeking comfort in the wake of the news of John’s death. Jesus is moved to a deep compassion and so he ministers to them.
Before long the sun begins to set and the disciples, ever pragmatic, suggest to Jesus that he send the crowds away to find food. Jesus, still overwhelmed with compassion for the crowd, turns to his disciples and says, “We don’t need to send them away. You feed them.” Of course, the disciples are always one step behind Jesus and, instead of opening their minds to the manifold opportunities of the Kingdom of Heaven, they notice only their lack. “We can’t feed these people. We only have five loaves of bread and two fish.”
But that doesn’t stop Jesus. He takes the bread and the fish, blesses them, breaks them, and hands them back to the disciples, who then offer the food to the crowd. And in the end, the Greek text reads, there is an over-abundance—twelve baskets of food. Jesus takes the disciples’ meager offering and transforms it into abundance.
Now, Jesus is not the first person to do this (and, if you read further in Matthew and Mark’s gospels, you’ll see Jesus do it again with a crowd of 4,000 people soon after). There is a long biblical tradition of transforming meagerness into abundance. When the Israelites complain of their hunger in the wilderness, Moses intercedes for them and God sends enough manna and pigeons to feed each hungry Israelite. Later, the prophet Elijah helps the starving widow of Zarephath and her son by making their scant supply of flour and oil miraculously last through a long famine and into the rainy season. Elijah’s disciple Elisha performs similar miracles. A poor widow comes to Elisha, telling him that she cannot pay her debts and will soon lose everything to debt collectors. Elisha tells her to gather as many empty jars as she can find and then pour what little olive oil she has into the jars. Miraculously, her little jar of oil fills the dozens of jars she collected. She is then able to sell the oil and pay her debts. Again, soon after, the prophet Elisha meets one hundred hungry people. When another man comes along with a small food offering for the prophet, Elisha tells the man to give it to the hundred hungry people. The man doubts Elisha but does what he’s told, and guess what? All one hundred people are fed and filled.
This is the story we hear over and over again in the scriptures. People’s meagerness is transformed into abundance. This is why I have a hard time with the expression “you are enough.” It doesn’t quite match the biblical narrative. The story of the Bible is that of people consistently coming up against their own inadequacies. The disciples weren’t enough. Left to their own devices, their five loaves and two fish would have only fed a few people—not 5,000. The Israelites weren’t enough. Left to their own devices they would returned to slavery in Egypt. The widow of Zarephath and her son would have died. The widow in debt would have become homeless. The hundred hungry people would have starved.
It is only when the meagerness of these people meets with God’s mercy that it suddenly becomes enough—more than enough. An abundance. It is true that you are enough—but by the mercy of God. That’s why that phrase, “you are enough” doesn’t quite capture the whole truth. It leaves out that it is God’s mercy that makes us enough. Without God, we are just a series of inadequacies. But with God, we are an over-abundance.
We came up against this in a big way this past summer at Camp Mount Luther. We started off the summer with only seven counselors. That’s about half of what we would consider to be the minimum required to run a summer camp. But it’s all we had. Our choices were either to give up and cancel the camp season or to push forward trusting in God’s mercy. So we laid our inadequacy before God. And God blessed it.
Somehow, despite a small staff, despite two counselors contracting Lyme disease, despite two counselors losing loved ones, despite broken water lines, loss of electricity, and logistical confusion we have had a remarkable summer of ministry. Just as we have no idea what the multiplying of fish and loaves actually looked like (the gospel doesn’t describe it), so we have no idea how we’ve managed to make it through this summer. Except to say that we brought our meager offering before God, dedicated it to the Kingdom of Heaven, and God blessed it and made it abundant. It’s as simple as that. The extraordinary, exciting, faith-enriching experiences campers have had this summer are a testament to the way God turns our meagerness into abundance.
Now, there are those who would misuse or misunderstand this profound truth of the gospel. You don’t have to listen to Christian radio or watch Christian television or walk through a Christian bookstore very long before you will encounter the message that God desires to make you prosperous. A whole sub-culture of Christianity is built on the idea that God multiplies material wealth for the faithful. It’s called the prosperity gospel, and if you hear it, turn it off. It’s a lie. In every story I have mentioned, God does not prosper the faithful so that they will be wealthy. God prospers people because God is a God of mercy. Each act of abundance starts with a need. People are hungry. They are in debt. They are suffering. And God intervenes with God’s mercy to bring abundance: not so that these people will be rich but so that they will have faith. Do not confuse the gospel with possessions. This isn’t about things—it’s about the mercy of God poured out on our inadequacies, transforming them into abundance for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. God meets us where we are lacking and transforms us into abundance so that God’s mercy and love might be experienced and shared throughout the world.
So praise be to God. Because it is by God’s mercy that you are enough.