Posts Tagged hunger
NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Glorious God, your generosity waters the world with goodness, and you cover creation with abundance. Awaken in us a hunger for the food that satisfies both body and spirit, and with this food fill all the starving world; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
There is nothing quite so basic to well-being in the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament than eating. Biblical justice demands that all be filled. One should not have to earn the right to eat. Nor should one have to explain why s/he is hungry, demonstrate whether s/he qualifies for benefits, prove that s/he is unable to work, demonstrate his/her citizenship, convince anyone that s/he does not have a drinking problem, a drug problem or a criminal conviction in order to be fed. It is enough that a hungry person is created in the image of God, loved by God and ransomed by God at the cost of God’s Son for a disciple of Jesus to recognize in him/her the appeal of Jesus himself. Whoever denies bread to the hungry inflicts hunger upon Jesus and blasphemes his heavenly Father. Toleration of hunger is apostasy.
It is important to note that Jesus’ parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25 is told against “the nations of the world.” The command to feed the hungry, as well as the commands to welcome the stranger, care for the sick and liberate the prisoner, is a command by which all the nations of the world are to be judged. And it is against the backdrop of this command that we must judge a government that, having narrowly failed in its zealous efforts to deprive between 16 and 22 million people of their health insurance, now turns to consider a proposed budget that will cut nutritional aid over ten years by over $200 billion dollars. That includes $11 billion from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children known as “WIC” and another $193 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as “SNAP” (formerly Food Stamps). This same budget would, over ten years, cut international humanitarian aid by a whopping 51% or $160 billion dollars. Justify any or all of this under whatever economic theory or political ideology you wish. But don’t embarrass yourself by appealing to the Scriptures, much less to Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing could be a clearer expression of indifference or, more accurately, outright contempt for everything Jesus than this proposed budget plan. So for all of you so called “conservative evangelicals” out there following the likes of Rev. Franklyn Graham, Dr. James Dobson, Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins, Jerry Falwell, Jr. and the Duck Dynasty crowd who see in Donald Trump everything from an “unlikely champion” of all things Christian to “God’s anointed” (Oh, yes, there are some folks out there actually saying that), I just have once piece of free legal advice. Whatever you’re smoking, don’t do it in public. I’m betting that anything powerful enough to bend your mind that far out of shape is still illegal in all fifty states.
The current administration’s motto is “Make America Great Again.” Except for the “again” part, I can get on board with that. Only let’s be clear about what we mean by “great.” In biblical terms, a nation’s greatness is judged not by the size of its army, the strength of its economy or the glory of its cultural accomplishments, but by how well or poorly it treats the orphan, the widow and the most vulnerable people (citizens or not) in its midst. As of 2015, 42.2 million Americans were living in food-insecure households, including 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children. As of 2014, 5.4 million seniors (over age 60), or 9% of all seniors, were estimated to be food insecure. Food insecurity is defined as “an economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” The USDA breaks this definition down further into categories of “low food security” and “very low food security.” 
- Low food security(old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
- Very low food security(old label=Food insecurity with hunger): Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
The long and short of it is that some folks suffer malnutrition because they live in places that have limited access to grocery stores, markets and other sources of nutritious food. Consequently, they wind up consuming calories available to them-processed and fast food items-that are neither nutritious nor cost effective. Others are unable to obtain sufficient caloric content of any kind. That such conditions exist to the degree they do in a country that surpasses all others in the production of food is nothing short of scandalous. Such a nation is hardly “great” by biblical standards. The proposed budget, that cuts severely what insufficient support exists for the hungry in our midst, moves us in precisely the opposite direction of greatness. Hungrier, poorer and sicker is not greater.
Of course, we can blame poverty on the poor, just as we blame police brutality against African Americans on African Americans for “having an attitude”, violence against women on women because they dress too provocatively, and attacks on LBGTQ folks on LBGTQ folks because…well, heck, attacking them really needs no justification. Again, cite whatever cockamamie conspiracy theory you want to rationalize this malarkey, but don’t bother appealing to the scriptures. The Bible I read doesn’t say anything about the disciples setting up a screening process to ensure that all of those five thousand people Jesus fed in this Sunday’s gospel were deserving of food assistance. That is because food, like medicine, shelter, clothing and all other essentials are what disciples of Jesus owe their neighbor-whether they are deemed “worthy” or not. It is also the standard of conduct by which God will judge “all the nations.” At least that is what Jesus tells us at Matthew 25:32.
Food is gospel. Its abundance is the theme of the prophet’s song in our first lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the free gift of God to all God’s creatures as our psalm proclaims and celebrates. Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a joyful banquet. A gospel message that leaves behind an empty stomach is an abominable gnostic heresy.
Here is a poem by Pablo Neruda, an atheist who understands the gospel better than many Christians. It’s about the “justice of eating.”
The Great Tablecloth
When they were called to the table,
the tyrants came rushing
with their temporary ladies;
it was fine to watch the women pass
like wasps with big bosoms
followed by those pale
and unfortunate public tigers.
The peasant in the field ate
his poor quota of bread,
he was alone, it was late,
he was surrounded by wheat,
but he had no more bread;
he ate it with grim teeth,
looking at it with hard eyes.
In the blue hour of eating,
the infinite hour of the roast,
the poet abandons his lyre,
takes up his knife and fork,
puts his glass on the table,
and the fishermen attend
the little sea of the soup bowl.
Burning potatoes protest
among the tongues of oil.
The lamb is gold on its coals
and the onion undresses.
It is sad to eat in dinner clothes,
like eating in a coffin,
but eating in convents
is like eating underground.
Eating alone is a disappointment,
but not eating matters more,
is hollow and green, has thorns
like a chain of fish hooks
trailing from the heart,
clawing at your insides.
Hunger feels like pincers,
like the bite of crabs,
it burns, burns and has no fire
Hunger is a cold fire.
Let us sit down soon to eat
with all those who haven’t eaten;
let us spread great tablecloths,
put salt in the lakes of the world,
set up planetary bakeries,
tables with strawberries in snow,
and a plate like the moon itself
from which we can all eat.
For now I ask no more
than the justice of eating.
Source: PeacemealProject. Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was born Ricardo Eliezer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto in Parral, Chile. He adopted the pseudonym, Pablo Neruda under which he became famous while still in his early teens. A devout communist, Neruda was politically active throughout his lifetime in his native Chile running for president as the nominee of the nation’s communist party in 1971. He withdrew his nomination, however, when he reached an accord with Socialist nominee Salvador Allende. After Allende won the election he reactivated Neruda’s diplomatic credentials, appointing the poet ambassador to France. While living in Paris Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. You can read more about Pablo Neruda and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This lesson comes to us from the final chapter of Second Isaiah, the prophet who preached to the Jewish exiles carried away into Babylon following the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. We had verses 10-13 as our reading for July 16th. These were discussed in my post for that date.
This final chapter of Second Isaiah begins with an invitation to eat and drink well at absolutely no cost! The exiled people of Judah are invited to “delight yourselves in fatness.” Vs. 2. That might not go down so well in a culture like ours where we are being killed by overeating rather than starvation. But in a culture where starvation was always just one bad harvest away, the prophet’s delivery of God’s invitation sounded a note of incredibly good news. It also constituted an astounding reversal of Israel’s religious practices. Typically, the fat of an animal sacrifice was set aside as an offering by fire to the Lord. The rest of the animal might be consumed by the priests, by the one offering the sacrifice or both. See, e.g., Leviticus 3-4. In this passage, however, God is the one making the invitation and offering the choice portions of the feast to the exiles.
This invitation to the feast echoes (or is echoed by?) Proverbs 9:1-6 where “wisdom” personified invites all who will hear her to a banquet. Perhaps this passage or one like it lies at the base of Jesus’ parables about the ungrateful and unresponsive persons invited to the marriage feast. See Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:16-24. The prophet chides the people with some rhetorical questions: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” vs. 2. So also, keeping in mind that meat was eaten only on very special occasions and the opportunity to have as much as you could eat was a once in a life time event, those listening to Jesus’ parable must have been wondering what kind of idiot would pass up such an opportunity for the sake of inspecting his oxen. Answer: the same kind of idiot who goes on with life as usual when the kingdom of heaven is at the doorstep. In other words, us!
Of course, meals are viewed as sacred throughout the Bible. Biblical characters never just “catch a bite.” Our casual eating practices would surely be viewed by our biblical ancestors as expressing an attitude of thanklessness and contempt for God’s gracious provision as well as for the gift of family, friendship and community. Eating was sacramental. A meal represented both the generosity of God toward human beings and the hospitality of human beings toward one another. First Century Israelites did not break bread with just anyone. Who you ate with defined who you were. That is why Jesus created so much outrage by eating with “sinners,” that is, people deemed beyond the scope of proper Israelite society. But for Jesus, these meals demonstrated the radical hospitality of God that reaches out to embrace the outcast. Indeed, outcasts are not merely included. They are exalted to the place of highest honor. “The last shall be first and the first last.” Matthew 20:16.
In verses 3-6 God promises to make a new Davidic covenant with Israel. This is the only time David is even mentioned in Second Isaiah. That is hardly surprising. Israel’s experience with the line of David was not always a happy one. The descendants of David were largely responsible for the foolhardy foreign policies resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile. Only too well had Israel learned not to put her trust in human monarchs. Psalm 146:2-4. Thus, Second Isaiah specifically avoids laying any messianic overtones on David or any of his descendants. The new Davidic covenant will not be with any specific descendant of David’s line, but with all Israel. Just as David and his descendants were instruments of justice in Israel, so now Israel will be God’s instrument of justice in the world.
There is a striking contrast, however, between the old Davidic covenant and the new. In the psalms celebrating the old Davidic covenant, the king is given “the nations” as his heritage and instructed to “break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Psalm 2:8-9. In our lesson for today, however, the exiles are told, “you shall call nations that you know not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy one of Israel, for he has glorified you.” Vs. 6. God will reign over the nations through the glory revealed among his faithful servant people, not through any show of violent force. There is an echo of this vision in the Gospel of John where Jesus prays: “I do not pray for these [disciples] only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may be one; even as thou Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou has sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.” John 17:20-23. It is through God’s covenantal love toward and among his people that the world comes to understand that God’s glory is God’s deep, passionate and patient love.
This psalm is a hymn in acrostic form. Every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems usually do not develop ideas but consist rather of loosely connected statements. The technique aids in memorization, but also conveys the message that the whole of the topic is being addressed “from A-Z.” Other psalms in the acrostic family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 145 in its entirety.
This is a psalm of praise, probably from the period after the Babylonian Exile. God alone is acknowledged as “king” rather than any ruler of the Davidic line. Vs. 1. The verses making up our reading contain a refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Jonah 4:2; and Psalm 103:8. It is because God is so gracious and merciful that Israel felt free to address God in prayer, even-indeed, especially-when she knew that she had fallen short of her covenant obligations.
Verses 15-16 are commonly and appropriately used as grace for meal times.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.
It is always good to be reminded from whence comes our daily bread. Our American culture of individualism and self-initiative would lead us to believe that our bread is won by our own hard work and achievements. Wealth or “capital” is created by individuals whose genius creates products and services stimulating new markets and growing the economy. As long as we continue making more stuff and people keep on buying it, the economy keeps on generating jobs, opening up new investment opportunities and making life better for everyone. Of course, this all works better in theory than in practice as the growing disparity between rich and poor in this country demonstrates. Whether the system would work better with more government regulation or less is an ongoing debate. It is also a sterile one in my humble opinion.
The problem with economic liberalism is a theological one. It rests on the proposition that we are the generators of our own wealth. It constitutes a denial of what our psalm insists to be a basic truth: that all living things, from humans to microbes, receive their food in due season from the hand of the Lord. When that perspective is lost, life becomes a struggle of all against all. Instead of reflecting the glorious generosity of its Creator, the world becomes a ball of ever diminishing resources. Each nation, each household, each individual must jealously guard his or her share. There is no room for generosity, compassion or sharing in such a tight fisted world. Its people all too easily degenerate into an angry mob of fist shaking, hate filled, fear mongering bullies who threaten starving and abused children seeking refuge with the National Guard.
The psalm teaches us that the Lord “fulfills the desire of all who fear him.” Vs. 19. Yes, I know. We liberal, slightly left-of-center, ever polite and ever white protestant types get all antsy in the pantsy whenever “fear” and “God” get mentioned within one hundred words of each other. It seems we are practically tripping over each other in pained efforts to explain that “fear” does not really mean “fear,” but “awe” or “respect” or some other such malarkey. I don’t buy it. If God doesn’t scare the socks off you, then you have mistaken the God of the Scriptures for Mr. Rogers. Furthermore, it seems to me that we inevitably wind up fearing something. Whether it is communists, cancer or monsters under the bed, everybody is afraid of something. People driven by fear do foolish and destructive things, particularly when the object of their fears is mostly imaginary. Fear driven people wind up burning witches, running away from black cats and sending the National Guard out against sick and starving children. That being the case, I think we would be in a better place if our fears were directed toward things that really are fearful. Our gospels teach us that God is real and God is to be feared. This God is the one whose Son calls little children to come to him and tells us that the kingdom of heaven has been prepared for them. If the God of the Bible is real, then rather than fearing the consequences of welcoming needy children in our land, we ought to fear what this God might do to us if we do not welcome them. Perhaps the fear of the Lord really is the beginning of wisdom. Psalm 111:10.
The psalm ends with a declaration on the part of the psalmist that s/he will “speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.” Vs. 21. That declaration sums up the tone of the entire psalm. This prayer is one of sheer praise. It seeks nothing from God, asks nothing of God and expects nothing more than what God has already so richly supplied. There are many such prayers in the Book of Psalms and that ought to teach us something about prayer in general. Prayer is not all about us, our needs and our predicaments. It is first and foremost about this God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Vs. 8. On the worst days of my life (and I have had some horrible ones lately), there is never any shortage of reasons for giving thanks. It is with thanks, I believe, that all prayer ought to begin and end.
The original New Testament texts did not have chapter and verse numbers, paragraph separations or subject headings. These artifacts were added long after the Bible had been copied, re-copied and re-copied again, translated, re-translated and re-translated again from the Greek into Coptic, Latin and subsequently into other languages. It is important to keep that in mind, because determining where to end a chapter, begin a paragraph or place a subject heading is an interpretive decision. It shapes how the text is understood. Our English Bibles all seem to follow the chapter divisions between Romans 8 and 9, ending Paul’s discussion begun in Romans chapter 1 at the close of Romans chapter 8. At first blush, that feels right. Paul sums up everything he has been saying about the liberating grace of God with the following words: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39. It is all I can do to refrain from adding “amen.”
Yet refrain I must, because there is no “amen.” The “amen” does not come until the end of our reading for this Sunday. Verses 1-5 of Romans 9 are part and parcel of Romans 8:31-39. The impossibility of anything separating us from the love of God in Christ is the premise for what Paul has been arguing from the beginning of Romans, namely, that just as sin imprisons both Jews and Gentiles under the power of death, so the grace of God in Christ Jesus frees both Jews and Gentiles from the power of sin and the law. Throughout chapters 9-11 Paul will proceed to discuss the role of Israel and the church in God’s redemptive plan. Paul wishes to make clear, however, that both these communions are essential and complement each other.
Understand that at this point in history, there was no decisive break between Christianity and Judaism. Neither Jesus nor Paul understood the movement referred to as “the way” in Acts as constituting a new religion. The Jesus movement was a reform movement within Judaism. Paul would be shocked and saddened to learn that today Jewish and Christian communities live largely separate and independent existences. For Paul, the good news of Jesus Christ was the conduit through which the covenant promises given to Israel are now shared with the gentiles. This same good news challenged Israel to understand its role in a much bigger and more profound way, much as did the prophet of Second Isaiah. Just as Paul insisted that it was not necessary to convert gentiles to Judaism before welcoming them into the Body of Christ, so Paul was not interested in drawing Jews away from their ancestral faith. It was Paul’s hope that in Christ Jesus the gentiles would come to trust in the God of Israel and that Israel would discover a broader vision of all that was promised in the law and the prophets.
So Paul concludes his discussion of God’s grace in Christ by affirming his own Jewish faith and that of his fellow Jews. “To them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.” Vss. 4-5. Notice the present tense. Paul does not suggest that Israel has lost its status as God’s chosen people or that what once belonged to Israel is now the property of the church. What God has given with one hand, God does not take back with the other. Paul will make this point further on. Rather than taking away Israel’s covenant relationship, God is broadening it to include those formerly outside that covenant. We gentiles, who had no legal claim or right to the blessings given Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; who did not pass through the Red Sea, travel through the wilderness or enter into the promised land; who have none of the blood of the patriarchs pulsing through our veins; we have nevertheless been invited to take part in this marvelous story.
Over the centuries, we gentile believers have forgotten that we are invited guests. Instead of receiving thankfully the undeserved hospitality that has been extended to us in Jesus Christ, we have begun to imagine that we are masters of the house. Worse than that, we have attempted to expel the Jewish inhabitants, put our feet up on the furniture and redecorated the place to suit our own tastes. Over the centuries, our theology has treated Judaism not as the mother she is, but the wicked step mother whose presence cannot be tolerated. Christianity divorced from its Jewish roots cannot help but lose touch with its Jewish savior and the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures that cannot be fulfilled apart from the participation of the Hebrew people. When Paul’s letter to the Romans is read in the way I have just suggested, as I believe it was intended, we are compelled to look critically and with great sadness on the centuries of Christian hostility toward Judaism and the current gulf dividing church and synagogue.
Upon learning of John the Baptist’s execution by Herod Antipas, Jesus withdrew in a boat with his disciples to a “lonely place apart.” Vs. 13. But Jesus cannot remain hidden. The crowds seek him out with their illnesses, fears and hopes. Jesus, moved by compassion, remains to heal their sick. Now it is late and the disciples are concerned. The crowd is hungry and hungry crowds are dangerous. These people have heard the whisperings about Jesus, that he is John the Baptist raised from death, Elijah the miracle working prophet or perhaps even Israel’s longed for messiah. They have high expectations. Their hunger for greater miracles is as great as the hunger in their bellies. Now is the time to send the crowd away. Their sick have been healed; it is still light; they can still perhaps find their way to someplace where there is food. The disciples recognize the potential danger and the need to act promptly to avoid a riot.
Jesus, however, seems unconcerned. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Vs. 16. Evidently, Jesus cannot do math. Five loaves of bread and two fish will not go far among five thousand men and their families. But the math of the kingdom is far different from our math. We tend to approach the needs of our world with an eye toward our own resources. We ask, “How much can we do with what we have? How far can we stretch our dollars? What can we expect to accomplish, given that we are a small, aging and poor congregation?” By contrast, Jesus meets the needs of the world on the strength of God’s promises. It is never a question of what we can do with what we have. It is always a question of what God can do when we place our all into his hands, relying on his promises. No, we cannot solve the world’s problems with what little we have, but Jesus does not ask us to do that. Instead, he invites us to become part of and share in what God is doing to redeem creation.
Verses 20-21 echo the concluding words to the story of Elisha’s feeding one hundred of the sons of the prophets with twenty loaves of bread. II Kings 4:42-44. In both cases, the amount of food was insufficient. As did Jesus in our gospel lesson, so Elisha instructs his disciple to distribute this clearly inadequate food supply to a needy community. Both stories conclude with God’s provision of abundance through what appeared to be scarcity. This message dovetails nicely with the theme of our psalm reminding us that God is a God of abundance and generosity. Only when our trust strays from God’s gracious promise to provide for all of our needs do we see scarcity and want. I think that the comments of Rev. Dr. George Hermanson on this reading sums it all up very nicely: “What follows invites us to remember our own wildernesses, our own places of chaos, when our own insufficiencies may have been blessed, broken, and given away. And yet it was precisely in risking that impossible insufficiency that there was enough. Indeed, more than enough.” Holy Textures, Commentary on Matthew 14:13-21.
 “How Trump’s Budget Would Affect Every Part of Government” New York Times, 5/23/17
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.