A man that I knew recently passed away. I didn’t know him well, only having met his acquaintance through various parties and social gatherings over the years, but I always enjoyed his company when I was around him. He happened to do the same work as I, a carpenter, and we both enjoyed talking about music and, specifically, guitars.
His death was unexpected, stemming from an accident at work. He was working under a house in a tight area, and (probably while fumbling around), accidentally fired a nail from his nail gun into his heart. He was air lifted to a hospital, treated, went through rehab, and was sent home to recover further. Several days later, his wife arrived home from work to find him dead, looking “almost as if asleep”.
Moments like this in life, when an acquaintance, friend, or loved one passes away changes your perspective, if only for a little while. Our time here is limited, and while we struggle daily against that fact, eventually our bodies will decay, we will contract a disease, or suffer an accident, and suddenly we will be no more, our existence being extinguished like the flame of a candle being blown out.
As it turns out, this absurdity of life is something I happen to think about often. What makes life meaningful? Why? Is my life meaningful? Is there or can there be an objective standard of meaningfulness? I struggle to answer these questions, but increasingly I feel as though I am being pushed away from the things that I think are constraining me; work, money, etc. I wonder how much I am actually constrained by these things I worry about, and how much is dead weight that I am forcing myself to carry to my own detriment.
I can’t claim to know what makes life meaningful, but for me personally, I enjoy it the most when I feel free.
Life is short. Live freely.
John 6 1-15 says:
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near.
5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages[a] to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks,and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
We just covered this passage in church today, and although I have heard the story before, I found it interesting from an economic perspective.
Economics centers around the idea of scarcity; resources are scarce, yet our wants are endless. The purpose of economics is to attempt to explain how and why people make the decisions they do in light of the limitations that they face. Going by the subjective theory of value, items cannot be said to have intrinsic value in and of themselves. People choose to trade what they have for things that they prefer more, and attempt to satisfy as much of those wants as they can with their finite resources, and the willingness of individuals to trade for things is what determine’s an item’s value.
However, in this story Jesus completely breaks those rules. The very thing that most limits us here on earth in our ability to satisfy our wants and needs, scarcity, is completely broken. All of the five thousand are fed, to the point where there is even twelve baskets left over! This of course points to how God is able to abundantly meet our needs, and isn’t bound by the same constraints as us humans.
My immediate thought is to say, “Well, in a post-scarcity economy, that would mean that everyone’s individual ends are satisfied, because there is no longer any reason for them not to be; everyone would be able to ‘afford’ whatever they want.” That would lead us towards the joy of heaven, where we experience happiness and community like we never had on earth. However, there is still a constraint here, at least from an earthly perspective. Jesus didn’t simply multiply the silver coins (which, from other sources I’ve read that an average day’s wage at the time would be one denarius, and if we assume a denarius to be one tenth of an ounce, then it would be $542.60 in today’s dollars to buy all the bread needed), and allow everyone to buy their own bread. After all, perhaps some people preferred wheat bread to barley bread, or some didn’t like fish (admittedly unlikely), or what have you. Jesus directly provided for their needs; he didn’t simply provide everyone the means to provide for themselves as they saw fit (ignoring, of course, the practical problem of how they would actually do that in this exact situation, with presumably no market nearby). What this tells me is that we as Christians are still to seek Jesus for our needs, that He still retains some sort of control over how we are provided for, even in a post scarcity setting.
There’s one more thing I would like to highlight: The people try to capture Jesus and make him King, by force. Besides the irony of trying to force someone to rule over you, Jesus rejects the idea and escapes. It reminds me of 1 Samuel:
4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead[b] us, such as all the other nations have.”
6 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to theLord. 7 And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. 8 As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. 9 Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. 22 The Lordanswered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”
Then Samuel said to the Israelites, “Everyone go back to your own town.”
This is quoted from Kierkegaard’s Spiritual Writings, translated by George Pattison:
“Every good and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of Lights, in whom is no change or shadow of turning.”
These words are so healing, so curative, and yet how often has the penitent soul understood them in such a way as to let itself be healed by them; how often has it understood not only the seriousness of the judgement it implies but also its merciful grace?
Or, my listener, perhaps you never had occasion to find these words difficult? Were you always satisfied with yourself, so satisfied that you perhaps thanked God that you were not like other people? Did you perhaps get so clever as to understand the deep meaning in the meaninglessness saying that it was good not to be like other people?
I admit that I am sometimes proud enough to be glad that I am not like other people. It’s not a comforting position; to not be like other people is to feel misunderstood and alone, with only the authenticity of self to assuage the deep seated uneasiness. To be like other people, on the other hand, is to deny some part of who you are as an individual, and is like a slow death, a constant drip of water eventually wearing through your artificial skin and penetrating deep within your being, forcing you to make a decision: Is this who I am, or is it not?