NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious God, you have placed within the hearts of all your children a longing for your word and a hunger for your truth. Grant that we may know your Son to be the true bread of heaven and share this bread with all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
John’s account of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand differs from that of Matthew, Mark and Luke in several respects. Perhaps the most significant detail we learn from John is that the people Jesus fed in such a remarkable way responded by trying to seize him by force and make him king. And why not? Jesus would likely make a great king, wouldn’t he?
Yes and no. Jesus understood only too well the nature and pitfalls of empire. He was well aware of the criticism leveled by the prophet Jeremiah against the kings of Judah reflected in our lesson for this Sunday. But he was not about to identify with the “righteous Branch” from the line of David for which Jeremiah longed. Jesus understood that the flaw lay not merely in the character of Judah’s kings, but in the monarchical system itself. A king’s integrity cannot transform the imperial machinery of injustice into the gentle reign of God. A government that rules through coercion backed by violence cannot bring forth justice and peace-even in the hands of a good ruler. That is why Jesus would not be king, would not permit his disciples to raise the sword in his defense, would not invoke angelic power to deliver him from arrest and execution. In so doing, he would only have become another tyrant. Under the reign of Jesus, we might have seen, relatively speaking, a “kinder, gentler” empire. But it would nevertheless still have been the same oppressive and dehumanizing governmental machinery that runs on war, exploitation and blood.
Yet in the proper sense, Jesus is a king. When Jesus informed Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world,” he did not mean to say that his was a kingdom of the afterlife or of inward spiritual perfection. He said rather that his kingdom does not operate under the same violent ideology of empire that props up the nations of the world. If it were such a kingdom, then of course, Jesus’ disciples would be expected to take up the sword in his defense. Pilate simply cannot comprehend how Jesus can be so indifferent to his power. “Don’t you know,” he fumes, “that I have power to release you, and to crucify you?” John 19:10. The threat of violence is the only weapon in Pilate’s quiver. When it fails to intimidate Jesus, Pilate suddenly finds himself powerless and he knows it. Rome is face to face with the ruler of a kingdom it cannot defeat. The empire crumbles when nobody takes its threats seriously anymore.
It is hardly the case that Jesus is indifferent to actual, physical hunger. He recognizes, however, that the machinery of empire cannot finally redress injustice, oppression and violence that cause hunger among the greater part of humanity. The systemically evil empire cannot be reformed. Nor will it do to sweep it away with violence, thereby sowing seeds for the rise of a similar imperial regime. The allure of empire can only be dismantled by the creation of a new regime in its midst unmasking it with truthful speech and refuting its claim to allegiance by its existence as a peaceful and just community allied solely with God’s just reign. Empire is undone when the church begins to live as though Jesus really did rise from death and that his resurrection makes a difference.
This story, as John tells it, has radical implications for a consumer culture with an economy driven by greed, where economic growth is measured in terms of corporate profitability while the availability of good jobs with benefits evaporates, wages decline and working hours increase. “Food insecurity,” which is a euphemism for malnutrition and hunger, is increasingly prevalent in our country even as the market indicators reach historically high levels. Stimulating this perverse economy will do nothing to bring about bread for all. It is time we all stop pretending that it will and recognize that a radical reversal must take place in order for all to eat. The Bible has a term for such a reversal: repentance.
Repentance is, to be sure, a change of heart. But a genuine change of heart cannot help but have societal ramifications. The call here is for a church that identifies with the hungry, not merely to solicit their votes in a campaign to reform the empire, but to enlist them as partners in dismantling the machinery of oppression. While it is hard to imagine a church such as mine, that is so far removed from the realities of hunger, engaging the hungry in such a way, imagination is precisely what we need. Faithful, prophetic imagination is to the church what the sword is to the empire-the weapon of choice.
This short story is one of many about Elisha and his miraculous works found in Chapter 4 of the Second Book of Kings. Elisha, you may recall, was the prophetic successor to Elijah who was taken up into heaven by a chariot of fire. He was a member and perhaps the leader of an obscure group identified in Second Kings only as “the sons of the prophets.” According to Professor Gerhard Von Rad, these groups constituted separate communities within the framework of Israelite society closely associated with local sanctuaries. Von Rad, Gerhard, Old Testament Theology, Vol. II, (c. 1960 by Oliver & Boyd) p. 26. Members of these groups were likely drawn from a very low economic and social stratum in the population lacking both power and status. Ibid. They seem to have lived together in communities. Von Rad further states that “[w]e are probably right in thinking that these bands of prophets were almost the last representatives of pure Jahwism and its divine law” in a society increasingly dominated by Canaanite religion and culture. Ibid 26-27. They were married, had children and apparently held property and so should not be understood as a monastic order of any kind. Over time, as kings in Israel and Judah favoring the traditional faith of Israel came to power, the sons of the prophets evolved into a professional guild of persons with the unique ability to speak on God’s behalf. By the time of the prophet Amos, the guild appears to have become little more than the mouthpiece of the monarchy of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Hence, Amos specifically denies being the son of a prophet. See Amos 7:14-15.
Based on what proceeds in II Kings 4:38, we know that this story takes place during a famine. A man comes to Elisha with a “first fruits offering.” Exodus 23:14-19. We do not know precisely why this offering was made under these circumstances. There is no statutory requirement in the Pentateuch for first fruits offerings to be presented to prophetic communities. As the sons of the prophets were frequently associated with shrines, however, it would not be unusual for them to take on priestly duties as well. Elisha orders his servant to share the offering (twenty loaves of bread and a sack of grain) with the rest of the sons of the prophets numbering about one hundred. The servant, quite understandably, balks at the notion. After all, the offering is not large enough to feed the whole community. It is better that the community’s leader, Elisha, be spared than that he perish from starvation along with the entire community. Elisha is confident, however, that there will be enough for the community and to spare. This confidence is based on a word he has received from the Lord to that effect. Vs. 43. Like Jesus, Elisha focuses not on the magnitude of the hunger or the scarcity of his resources, but on the promise of the Lord to provide. Once again, this story challenges us to join the psalmist’s affirmation that God can indeed be trusted to provide for every living thing.
This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 25. Each new verse begins with the next letter in order of the Hebrew Alphabet. An English example might look like this:
Awesome is our God and Creator.
Breathtaking are God’s mighty works.
Clearly, the Lord is God and there is no other.
And so on down to letter Z. This kind of composition assists in memorization which, in a pre-literate society, is the primary means of passing down music and literature.
The psalm as a whole extols the character of God as both compassionate and mighty. It is both an expression of praise to God as well as a confessional statement made to the people of God declaring God’s goodness to all of Creation. Prayer is fluid in the Psalms. Often the same psalm will address God, the worshiping community, the whole of creation and the psalmist himself/herself within the same prayer. Note that although the people of the covenant are in the best position to recognize and witness to this God, they are not the only beneficiaries of God’s compassion. God is receptive to all who call upon him. vs. 18. The entire earth is God’s concern.
We can see in vs 15 an echo of the petition from the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day or daily bread.” “The eyes of all look to thee, and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, thou satisfiest the desire of every living thing.” Psalm 145: 15-16. It is just because sustenance comes from the hand of God that we can be content with this day’s bread without worrying about tomorrow. The assurance and confidence in God’s willingness and promise to meet our needs ties in very nicely with the feeding of the five thousand and the discourse that follows throughout John Chapter 6.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” Vss. 14-15. There is a play on words here that gets lost in the translation. The Greek word for “father,” “pater” is the root for “patria” which means “country” or “father land.” The significance of this claim would not have been lost to folks living under the yoke of Rome which claimed to be the father of all peoples. This is a question of “Who’s your daddy?” aimed directly at Caesar. Disciples of Jesus owe their ultimate allegiance only to their Master. Nationalistic loyalties cannot be permitted to fracture the unity of Christ’s Body in which there are no national, racial, tribal or cultural divisions.
When Paul speaks here of “power,” it is always the power of the Spirit that is grounded in love. Urging his listeners to “put on the whole armor of God,” Paul turns this militaristic image on its head by identifying the church’s weaponry as truth, righteousness, peace, faith and prayer. Ephesians 6:10-20. He prays that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” Vs. 17. It is through being “in Christ,” that one becomes grounded in love; for Christ Jesus is God’s concrete expression of love.
Perhaps more than any of the other Pauline letters, Ephesians pictures the church as a counter-cultural community whose worship and practices place it on a collision course with the priorities of the Roman Empire. Though it takes different forms, empire is very much alive and well today. Multi-national corporate interests that manipulate governments with their vast resources, educational institutions that promote a violent sports culture, the glamour industry that denigrates the bodies of young girls and the banking industry that holds our economy hostage to its interests are all examples of imperial power. Because we owe our jobs, financial security and education to these entities, we find it hard to resist having our lifestyles dictated by them. Nonetheless, as I have previously noted, there are a growing number of intentional communities seeking to give expression to such radical discipleship. See my post of Sunday, November 23, 2014.
In John’s gospel, Jesus’ miracles always trigger questions/dialogue/confrontation spinning out lengthy discourses by Jesus. This story about Jesus’ feeding of five thousand people serves as an opener for a lengthy discourse he is about to have with his disciples, the crowds and his opponents. The dialogue is rich with sacramental imagery. Just as Jesus drew a distinction in his dialogue with the Samaritan woman between regular water and living water (John 4:7-15), so in the chapters to come Jesus will distinguish between bread that is merely “food which perishes” and “food that endures to eternal life.” John 6:27. Jesus finally discloses to his conversation partners that he himself is “the bread which came down from heaven” and that whoever “eats of this bread…will live forever.” John 6:51. At the end of this discourse, many of Jesus’ disciples desert him.
Unique to John’s telling of the story is an unnamed youth. He appears on the scene just as the disciples are facing what they view as a crisis. Five thousand people have been with Jesus for a long time out in the wilderness. They are hungry and we all know that hungry masses can easily turn violent. Buying food for all these people is not an option. Even if the disciples could have scared up two hundred denaii and there had been a deli nearby, the likelihood that it would have food on hand to serve five thousand is slim.
At this point, Andrew brings the young boy’s tendered lunch to the attention of Jesus. We don’t actually know whether the boy offered his lunch or whether Andrew commandeered it. The lesson does not tell us one way or the other, but it would be just like a kid to do something like putting up his lunch under these circumstances. A kid doesn’t understand that what little he has in his lunch box cannot possibly make a dent in the hunger of five thousand people. When he becomes a man, he will understand that there is only so much to go around; that if people are hungry it’s their problem, not his; that the best chance you have of survival is to hang on to what you have got and defend it with all means necessary. But at this point, he is just a kid. He doesn’t understand “the real world.” The only thing he does understand is that Jesus wants to feed this hungry crowd. He believes Jesus can do it and that he has something to offer that Jesus can use. Small wonder, then, that Jesus tells us “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3. The first step to becoming a disciple of Jesus is unlearning all the lessons of adulthood.
After feeding the five thousand, Jesus must beat a hasty retreat to avoid being taken by force and made king. Vs. 15. At the end of the chapter, Jesus will be deserted not only by this crowd who would have made him king, but also by most of his own disciples. This discourse is therefore a microcosm of the gospel narrative set forth at the outset: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God…” John 1:11-12.
For reasons that are not clear from the text, the disciples got into their boat and embarked without Jesus. Was this because they had become separated from Jesus in the hubbub ensuing as the crowd tried to acclaim him king? Or, sensing the danger that might result from the crowd’s coronation of Jesus, did the disciples simply flee and abandon him? In either case, they were relieved to discover that the approaching figure was none other than Jesus. On their own, the disciples appear to have been struggling against the sea. But on taking Jesus into the boat, they discover that they have arrived at their destination. This is, I believe, one of the many instances in which John wishes to make clear that “apart from me [Jesus], you can do nothing.” John 15:5. As I have often pointed out before, John’s gospel ends not with Jesus ascending to the right had of the Father or with Jesus sending the disciples out, but with Jesus calling his disciples to follow him. John 21:15-23. John cannot imagine the church without the presence of Jesus in its midst leading it forward.