The Myth of Scarcity

Exodus 16
October 22, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

How much must you have to have enough?  When should you worry that you don’t have enough and when should you consider whether what you have is too much?

The story of manna in the wilderness is a story about what is enough.  It is a story about scarcity and about abundance and what happens when we cannot tell the one from the other.

Sometimes the question about ‘what is enough’ is easy to answer, especially when we are answering it for someone else.  Alexander Kennedy Miller, for example, became famous for not knowing the difference between scarcity and abundance.  Miller was born in 1906, the son of a wealthy stockbroker from New Jersey and, as an adult, his primary employment appeared to be the acquisition of cars.  No one knew exactly how many he owned, because he and his wife Jean were extremely reclusive: they dressed like paupers and lived frugally in the back woods of Vermont in a house with no central heating or hot water.  Nevertheless, word leaked out about Alexander’s collection but when people approached him interested in seeing his cars, he quoted scripture accusing them of being covetous.  In 1993, Alexander died at the age of 87 and his wife died three years later leaving no heirs and no will so the state sent assessors to evaluate the Miller’s holdings.  When they opened up the house and the barns, they discovered that the barns were filled with thousands upon thousands of engines and car parts and more than 50 vehicles, many of them rare vintage cars.  None of the cars, however, had been driven in years.  In fact, they were up on blocks, paint dulled and chipped, the luxurious upholstery ravaged by nesting raccoons, mice, and other animals.  In the house, another surprise awaited the assessors.  Hidden in cupboards, under floorboards, and buried in the earth around the property were huge caches of coins and stock shares, valued at two and a half million dollars. 1 2  Andrew Miller may have quoted scripture about coveting but he and his wife were perfect examples of Jesus’ warning, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume… for where your treasure is, there is your heart also.”

We hear a story like that of the Millers and it is obvious that they didn’t know when enough was enough.  The Millers didn’t enjoy their wealth but neither could they let go of any of it or share it with others.  They even bristled with fear at the suggestion that someone might want what they had.  When people like the Millers are driven to acquire and protect possessions for no other reason than to possess things, we label them hoarders and dismiss them as mentally ill, and yet at the same time we are uncomfortably aware that we all too well understand the fear that underlies their behavior.  We understand the, “What if’s” that drive hoarders to squirrel away everything that comes into their possession: what if I might need this someday?  What if I regret getting rid of this?  Or the more serious what’ifs: What if the stock market crashes and my retirement funds disappear?  What if I lose my job or am diagnosed with a catastrophic illness?  Do I have enough to keep me safe?  Do I have enough to keep my family safe?  Do I have enough?  How do I know when I have enough?

The story of manna in the wilderness is a story about what is enough.  It is a story about scarcity and about abundance and what happens when we cannot tell the one from the other.

The story of the manna begins with Israelites recalling Egypt and life under the Pharaoh, a man who, like the Millers, never knew when enough was enough.  The Pharaoh operated from a worldview that has been called “the myth of scarcity.”  The myth of scarcity is based on the assumption that life is a zero sum game meaning that if you have more of something there will be less for me.  When we think of the world in this way, we are driven to acquire as much as we can as fast as we can for ourselves because if we dilly dally, you’ll be out there acquiring what should be our share and we will lose out.  Since there is not enough to go around for everyone, we think, we want to make sure we get ours plus a little more (or a lot more) to secure our future.  This is the myth of scarcity and it was this myth of scarcity that drove Pharaoh to enslave the Israelite people in the first place.

“Look,” Pharaoh says at the beginning of Exodus, “the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase….”  Pharaoh enslaves the Israelite people in order to prevent them from growing in power because in his mind, power is a zero sum resource: if the Israelites grow in power and influence, the Egyptians will have less power for themselves.  This is the myth of scarcity: it’s called a myth because it is the false assumption that if you have more, I will have less, and that everything — money, power, social standing, respect, and even love — are scarce resources that need to be hoarded and protected to ensure that we don’t end up without.  Pharaoh operates, as so many imperial powers do, on the false worldview of the myth of scarcity and so he reacts to his fear by taking all power away from the Israelites.

“I will take it from them,” he argues, “to ensure that they don’t take it from me.”

Pharaoh’s reaction is achingly familiar to us even thousands of years later because is this not a factor in every argument our country has had over immigration?  Isn’t it the basis of fights about raising the minimum wage?  Isn’t it the argument of white nationalists?  Wasn’t it the underlying assumption of the fight against allowing gays to marry?  The distorted thinking of the myth of scarcity says that if I give you something, the sheer act of giving it to you will mean somehow that there is less for me:  If I increase your wages, the myth of scarcity says that there will be less money for me because economic well being is a scarce resource.  The myth of scarcity says that if I respect the rights of African-Americans to just and fair police policies that means I will be disrespecting the police who risk their lives to protect our cities because in this false world view respect is a limited resource and if I give it to some, there will be less for others.  The myth of scarcity even led people to feel that allowing gays to marry somehow devalued heterosexual marriage because the sacredness of the marriage bond is, according to this false thinking, a limited resource and if I give some of it to you, I will have less for myself.

The myth of scarcity is all around us, permeating so many of our social conversations, and it is the prevalence of this myth that makes these arguments with one another so heated.  Without the myth of scarcity, we could have thoughtful conversations about matters of social justice and debate the best way forward but when the myth of scarcity enters the conversation, fear takes over and thoughtfulness goes out the window.

Martin Niemöller, the German pastor who heroically opposed Adolf Hitler, first met Hitler in 1933 when Niemöller attended a meeting between Hitler and a delegation of leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  Niemöller stood at the back of the room just watching and listening.  When he went home, his wife asked him what he had learned that day and Niemöller replied, “I discovered that Herr Hitler is a terribly frightened man.” 3

The Bible invites us to see the world not through the myth of scarcity and the fear that results from that myth but through God’s promise of abundance.  Over and over again, the Bible tells us not to be afraid because God has given us a world brimming with promise, a world that is fruitful, nourishing, and overflowing with goodness.  When the Israelites cry out in their hunger and say that they would have rather died as slaves in Egypt because at least they had food, God says that this is not an either-or choice.  God promises that they can be both free and fed, that there is enough for everyone and then, to show what God means, God blankets the earth with manna.

The Bible says that the Israelites gathered the manna, some gathering more, some less, but when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.  Exodus 16:18 says in a phrase that we should carry in our wallets, “they gathered as much as each of them needed.”

The myth of scarcity, God declares, is a myth because the world God has made is good and there is enough for everyone, and if some people lack, it is not because resources are scarce but because we human beings have failed to share what we have.  In 2015, the United Nations made a commitment to end world hunger by 2030, a goal that they claim is possible because by their estimation, there is actually more than enough food in the world right now to feed and sustain every one of the earth’s seven and a half billion people. 4  Hunger, the UN has concluded, is a result of political and economic inequities; it is a result of some people having more than enough while others go without.  We who live by the myth of scarcity hoard our food, we hoard power, we hoard respect, we hoard our civil rights afraid that giving rights to other’s will somehow diminish our own, we hoard money, we hoard status, we even hoard love, becoming possessive, jealous, and abusive.  And as a result, we live in fear, divided from one another, and obsessed with protecting what we have.

God tells us to open our hearts and hands and trust that there is more than enough to go around.  God invites us to live in a world of freedom from fear and want because we have recognized and shared the abundance available to all of us.

Back in the 1970s, a Catholic church in downtown Rochester named Corpus Christi was facing serious financial problems.  The neighborhood around the church had become impoverished, affluent members had moved to the suburbs, and the church was dying.  The diocese assigned a new young priest named Father James Callan to the pastorate, giving him what they assumed would be a hospice sort of assignment.  Callan decided that as long as the church was dying, it might as well die well so he convinced the congregation to spend all of their assets on programs to help the poor in their neighborhood. They turned some of their buildings into a homeless shelter, began a free medical clinic, provided a home for former prisoners, and sent some of their money to ministries in Haiti.  In addition, Callan opened up the mass to the neighborhood inviting people traditionally excluded by the Catholic church.  He allowed Protestants to share the bread and cup; he invited women to help oversee the eucharist, and he performed same-sex weddings in a decade before gay marriage was recognized by the state, let alone the church.

One member remembered, “Everybody was welcome.  There was no difference from being a Catholic, a Protestant, a woman, being gay, being Jewish, whatever.”

Father Callan insisted that God’s blessings are not scarce but abundant and that sharing those blessings with others doesn’t diminish the blessings we ourselves receive.  He rejected the myth of scarcity preached by our society.  He rejected the myth of scarcity preached by iour nstitutional authorities and by the haves against the have nots, and instead he proclaimed a God of abundance who has given us more than enough if we will only learn to share with one another without fear.  And as a result, instead of dying, the church began to grow exponentially.  When Callan began his ministry there were less than 400 people on the rolls but by the time he left, there were 4000.

And he did have to leave, because, in spite of the flourishing ministry and the revitalization of the church, Callan’s acceptance of women in priestly roles, his sharing of the eucharist to all who desired it, and his blessings of same-sex unions went against church doctrine.  When the Bishop told him he had to stop these practices, he refused, and so the Bishop excommunicated him.  When Callan left, a majority of the members of the church left as well.  They formed a new church called Spiritus Christi which they call “an independent Catholic church.”  Several decades later, Spiritus Christi continues its unique ministry conducting a Catholic style mass every week led by their senior priest who is a woman.  Their mass is open to every person regardless of creed, sexuality, race, or background.  And today, Spiritus Christi has thousands of members while Corpus Christi, the original church, has returned to its former diminished state.5 6

God blessed the Israelites with manna in the wilderness to show them that the world God has created is a world of abundant blessing with plenty for everyone.  When we trust in that promise, we become people who can open our hearts in caring without fear because we know now that to show compassion and respect for others won’t diminish our standing but will increase the respect of all people for one another.  When we trust in God’s promise of abundance, we will be able to share without anxiety.  We will be people of generous hearts who know the truth that to give to others doesn’t diminish us but increases the well being of all and create a society grounded in peace for every person.  And when we trust in God’s promise of abundance, we will become people who dare to live lives of radical boldness on behalf of others, welcoming all people into God’s family and in so doing, expanding the dimensions of our own lives and hearts leading us to the wholeness of salvation.



3. As told by Walter Brueggemann



6. NY Times