Jesus’ words about the lilies of the field (Mt. 6: 25–33) are among the most quoted of his teachings for their poetic beauty but among the most disregarded for their obvious inapplicability to human life as we know it. This teaching seems to be as inapplicable as Jesus’ invitation to the rich man to give away everything he had and follow him. (Mk. 10: 21) If it is impossible to give everything we have for the Kingdom of God, then it is just as impossible to trust God to feed us like the birds of the air and clothe us like the lilies of the field. However, in reference to the rich man, Jesus said that all things are possible with God, so let us, on this day of thanksgiving, reflect further on the birds of the air.
Nature is a system that has a balance to it. Everything is built to provide for other beings. The balance is delicate enough that it can get out of kilter with events such as the plague of locusts the Prophet Joel wrote about. Nature’s balance happens by natural growth as with plants or by instinct as some animals eat plants or prey on other animals. When all is instinct, there is no room for gratitude. In the case of humans, René Girard has shown that there is a whole different system which he calls “mimetic desire.” That is, although humans strive for food out of the same need as the birds of the air, human striving goes beyond these bodily needs. Humans are wired to respond, not just to food itself, but to the desires of other people. This deep connection to the desires of others can lead to generosity and sharing, creating a system of exchange similar to the balance of nature. But mimetic desire can also lead to deadly competition where it becomes important to have more food than other people and more and more things than others. In such a scenario, the desires of others (or the imagined desires of others) drive us to desire way more than we really want or need. This is the system that undergirds the economic system of our world which is driven by acquisitiveness. This system also leads to ecological destruction way beyond what a swarm of locusts can do. If, instead of loving our neighbors, we have to have more than our neighbors, it is not possible to be grateful, because our eyes and hearts are fixed on having more. There is also no room for generosity that would generate thankfulness on the part of others. This is what it means to strive for these things “like the Gentiles.” This is life as we know it.
So insidious is competitive acquisitiveness that gift giving can become a system of power plays. This was the way “generosity” worked in the Gentile world in Jesus’ time. The rich and powerful would choose certain people to be their clients. They would provide their clients with many gifts but there were socially understood obligations imposed in the giving of these gifts. This was a system of acquisitiveness like onto our modern system. There was no room for gratitude here either.
But God, in Christ, from outside the Gentiles’s system and our modern economic system, gives much more than food and drink. Jesus entered the heart of the primary system of mimetic desire and took on the violence of this system, even to death on the cross. By rising from the dead in the spirit of forgiveness, Jesus opened up a whole new life of the Kingdom made up of generosity and gratitude. The more generosity and gratitude, the less room there is for acquisitiveness and striving for things “like the Gentiles.” There is more for everybody if we don’t always have to have more for the sake of having more. This kind of generosity and cause for gratitude isn’t a human invention, which is why, humanly, it is not possible to be carefree like the birds of the air or the lilies of the field. Jesus embodied true generosity on the cross and in his resurrection as the forgiving victim. Can we respond to this divine generosity with gratitude that unlocks generosity in our own hearts?
For more on the theme of generosity, see The Eleventh Commandment and God’s Kingdom in Two Small Coins.
For a more extended piece on thanksgiving see Giving Thanks to God.
For an introduction to René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire see: Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim.