The Lectionary This Week — Feeding the 5,000 in Matthew 14:13-20

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:13-21 ESV)

“And they ate and were satisfied.” (καὶ ἔφαγον πάντες καὶ ἐχορτάσθησαν.) Jesus has wandered out to the wilderness, to the desolate place where he could be alone, after hearing the news that John the Baptist had been beheaded by Herod. John was a long-time critic of Herod, who desired to marry his brother Philip’s wife Herodias (in Matthew, we learn little of this, save that John said — probably often and probably very loudly — that it was unlawful for Herod to have her). Herod wanted John dead, likely because he was both enraged and embarrassed by John’s preaching. But he was bound by his fear of the people he nominally ruled (thanks largely to Roman backing; the Romans were in Palestine to begin with because they were asked to intervene on behalf of one group of Hasmoneans during a civil war), because the people believed in John as a Prophet.

An annoying character, John, who lost his head to an oath sworn to a little girl.

But more importantly, at the start of Chapter 9, we learn that Herod was convinced Jesus was this same beheaded John — meaning that John the Baptist, John the Annoying, John the Maddening, John the Moralist (“No, you cannot marry your brother’s wife!”), would not stay dead. “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” (Matthew 14:2 ESV) Such power, such miracles, Herod says, could only be done by someone risen from the dead.

Jesus is not John, of course. And he is not dead. Not yet. And hearing of John’s death, Jesus escapes, wanders out to a desert place, possibly to be far away from the very same crowds that had seen him restore life to a dead girl, heal the blind, the mute, and the wounded. He has calmed a storm, cured leprosy, cast out demons, and sent out his twelve disciples to heal and cleanse and cast-out and proclaim “the kingdom of heaven.” This is not a Jesus the crowds can leave alone. They — we — want, hunger for the work of God that he brings us, brings to the lost, brings to the world.

We follow him into the wilderness, into the desolate place. In Exodus, God’s people were driven into the wilderness by an act of horrific redemption, dragged kicking and screaming by God. Here, the people of God willingly follow God into the wilderness. God cannot get away from them.

The end of the day has come, and the people who followed are hungry. They have been touched, they have been healed, their ills and infirmities undone. The disciples see a logistics problem, and wonder — where and how are all these people going to be fed? Send them away, they say, to the nearest villages to buy food for themselves. It’s the “smart” answer, the one born of experience and wisdom and observation. This is the wilderness, and there is nothing here for anyone to eat.

But what is a matter of logistics and organization for the disciples is an opportunity for the miraculous kingdom of God. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat,” Jesus commands. I’m fairly certain the disciples were stunned. After all, we are in the middle howling nowhere, and we have so little — five loaves of bread and two fish. “That might feed six of us, but not all of these people” I imagine someone saying.

I’m reminded of the Exodus with this passage:

1 They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2 And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, 3 and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:1-3 ESV)

What does God then say to Moses? “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you (plural, לָכֶ֛ם)” (Exodus 16:4) Israel, the people God has just redeemed from slavery in Egypt, the people who have grumbled because in their servitude, in the well-stocked cities of Egypt where they served — worshiped — Pharaoh, their puts were full. And they ate their fill.

They were able to cook their meals, fill their pots, bake their bread, through the work of their own hands. They earned their keep, supported themselves, even as they labored for ends not their own. And now, here in the wilderness, Israel had gone maybe a a day or two, eating away at whatever rations they were able to take with themselves from Egypt, growing hungry. As only the once-comfortable can. “Would that we had died safe and warm and well-fed in Egypt!”

Instead, God rains bread from heaven. For the next 40 years, for the entire length of its wilderness wandering, God will feed Israel. A meal Israel will not earn, cannot earn, a meal that will fall from the sky every day — save on the sabbath; double would fall the day before — and provide enough for each Israelite as they wander.

In both instances, there is an objection. “We have only two small fish and five loaves!” “Would that we had died well fed in Egypt!” In the desert, God rains bread from heaven. Here, in this wilderness, Jesus takes what the disciples have, and blesses them. He then takes these five little loaves and two little fishes (to quote a song I wrote on the subject) and gives them to the disciples, and they distribute. This is communion. Jesus uses simple things at hand, blesses them, and offers them up to be signs of the kingdom of heaven.

Like at Exodus, this is a miraculous feeding in the wilderness, where there is no food.

Unlike at the Exodus, the hands of man are all over this. Jesus takes the bread and fish and blesses it. He then hands both over to his disciples, who “then gave them to the crowds.”

This is still an unearned meal, still the miraculous work of God, but this time, instead of each gathering enough for themselves, human hands pass this bread and fish onto other human hands. This is a shared meal in the way the manna was not.

There are also leftovers, which was apparently not true of the manna (though some was kept in the ark of the covenant). There was enough manna for everyone. There was more than enough for the five thousand men (plus women and children), enough left over to fill up twelve baskets.

This is not just subsistence. This is abundance. This is the kingdom of heaven, the economy of God, the miraculous provision. In the wilderness, when all we have is five loaves of bread and two fish, there is more than enough for many thousands.

Paired with this gospel reading is a passage from Isaiah 55, promising a banquet for all those who hunger, and rich food for all those too poor to afford such a thing. This passage comes in a series of prophetic messages of the coming redemption or Israel and of those “foreigners” (בֶּן־הַנֵּכָ֗ר, literally “the sons of the stranger”) who have joined themselves to Israel.

But I’m not going to say much more about this passage, except to note, I wrote a song about it — one I really, really like.

1 “Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
 come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
 hear, that your soul may live;
 and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
 my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
 a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
 for he has glorified you
(Isaiah 55:1-5 ESV)

On Laments, and the Bashing of Infants on Rocks

The folks over at the blog P.OST: AN EVANGELICAL THEOLOGY FOR THE AGE TO COME (it’s a fascinating blog I read frequently, and it’s sharpened my understanding of how I read scripture) have an interesting take on Psalm 137, which begins as a lament in exile and ends as, well, as a wish for mass murder…

(1) By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
(2) On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
(3) For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
(4) How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
(5) If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!
(6) Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
(7) Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!”
(8) O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!
(9) Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!

That last line is troublesome to many. What to make of such an aspiration, such a desire? (I wrote a song based on this psalm, and wanted very much to incorporate that last line, but the song wouldn’t let me, as much as I tried.) For the folks at P.OST, while the psalm is part of “our story” as Israel/church, we don’t “have the right” to misinterpret this verse by somehow assuming it belongs specifically to us, or speaks to our time and our circumstances:

We don’t have to suppose that these are our sacred texts. There is nothing wrong with rejecting the psalm as a “lament belonging exclusively to the piety of ancient Israel”. The Bible means what it meant and speaks to us on that basis. That is not a bad thing. It is a good thing.

Fine. I guess I can agree with this, so far as it goes. This particular psalm is the product of a time and place, and speaks to a circumstance — life in exile along to Euphrates River, serving the very people who drug you into exile — that is not ours. So, the sentiment at the end doesn’t have to be ours either.

Except… There have been times in my life, like the circumstances surrounding the end of my first internship while at seminary, that left my feeling very angry, very alone, very abandoned. It was that very experience that gave me the ability to see in scripture something of the story of my life, and the story of the church (I have sketched an outline for a book that compares the fate of the church today in the face of modernity and enlightenment to conquest by Assyrians and Babylonians, and that we face another exile, on the banks of rivers of Babylon, serving and entertaining cruel masters who have destroyed our cities and carried us off). How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land, especially to people who demand we sing for their amusement?

These are human feelings, feelings that are no strangers to us even as God’s people. As is the desire for vengeance, to see the pain and suffering of those who have inflicted such on us. And it’s okay to have them. To speak them. To even give them up to God in prayer. Anger as well as sadness and despair is one of the marks of lament.

Note, however, what the psalm does not say or do. It proclaims a judgment upon Babylon, and calls down blessing upon those who will destroy it. Who will murder its children. It is confident in that judgement. The one making the lament does not seek God’s approval to go and himself (I’m assuming here) inflict vengeance upon the Babylonians, and their descendants. It does not agitate, or organize, or demand. It does not call for war or liberation. It’s not the call of the powerful with a state, an army, and an arsenal. It’s not Genesis 34. This is the cry of the powerless, the conquered, the scattered, and it is assumed in the passage that the vengeance coming upon doomed Babylon and its daughters will be done by someone else.

It will be God’s vengeance. Not Israel’s. Not ours.

The vengeance of God, in this instance, is a thing to be trusted in and waited upon. It invokes the primal saving act of God, the rescue of God’s people Israel from slavery in Egypt, from that horrible moment when Israel believed itself done, ready to be overrun, trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s rapidly advancing army:

Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again.  The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.

This may not be pleasant thing to hear, and it may shock our modern (or post-axial) sensibilities to hear one of God’s people invoking God’s blessing upon horrific violence. But Psalm 137 gives us space, not just to lament in sorrow, but also in rage, and even to express our desire for murderous retribution. It is okay to want these things.

At the same time, the passage is coherent with the rest of God’s saving action for Israel, and Israel’s understanding of the ways its God has redeemed it time and again — through miraculous acts that demand Israel’s patience and it’s inaction. This is still true, and because of that, we can read this psalm without simply or solely discarding it. However, it’s not okay to do violence because our vindication, our vengeance, our redemption belongs to God and to God alone. Who will fight for us. We have only to be silent, and to wait.

Quite Possibly the Worst Sermon I’ve Ever Heard

As some of you know, Jennifer and I have been rambling a bit, staying with friends and seeing the country. We’ve been in Eastern Texas for a while, and last Sunday took in a worship service at a church in the small East Texas town where we live.

I won’t say where, or what church, save that it was a small, local, non-denomination, politically and culturally conservative church in the small town where we are staying outside Austin.

The pastor was a confident speaker, and began by showing his largely mainly white audience slides of various and Sundry buildings in Rome. He pointed out the crosses everywhere, even in the Coliseum, where Christians during the time of the Roman Empire huddled in fear that they might be arrested, tortured and thrown to the animals. Christians had no power, no influence, no standing, were a tiny, persecuted minority in the Roman Empire. Yet, within 300 years (and thanks to the declaration of “Emperor Constantinople”), Christianity became the official ruling faith of that very same empire.

“How?” the pastor asked?

Because Christians had an ethics grounded in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-16 seemed to be the text he was preaching on; there was no reading, just praise music and whatever moved the pastor to preach), an ethic which stressed being “poor in spirit, mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, mercy, being pure in heart, peacemaking, and being persecuted.” Because the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them.

More importantly, such people are “salt of the earth” and “light of the world.” When the culture becomes pagan, corrupt, based on “might makes right,” it is the call of the church to save the culture be being salt. There was a fascinating subtext here, and I suspect this sermon would never have been delivered in this way, using imperial decadence and power in such an up front way, had George W. Bush been president. But the pastor said nothing overtly political, at least nothing partisan.

Because Christians are the meek, persecuted “salt of the earth,” the pastor said “You have no standing politically, but you are the last stand.” To save the culture of death and make it a culture of life. (My phrasing, not his.)

At this point, he got his most overtly political. Condemning the recent deal to raise the debt limit, he said that all this empowered Christians to say “Enough is enough!” and to take a stand. The “ethics” of the Sermon on the Mount led to this, he said. This is Christian love in action. (Again, not his phrasing.)

Along the way, he did give some advice for daily living. That the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount begin in our daily lives, in how we live our lives at work, in school, wherever. But we did this not so much to show God’s love, but to do our part in the larger work on reclaiming the Empire and saving the society.

“Because it’s not about us. It’s about who gets the glory,” the pastor said.

Because the final goal of all this ethical action is take control of the Empire. Christians did it once, they can do it again, the pastor said. And to make being Christian respectable again.

The world wants to listen to what Christians have to say, he concluded. But the question for us is: are we going to act in a way that fills the world’s hunger and answers the desire to “make us believe,” or are we simply going to act in such a way that says we just “make believe.”

It was a culturally conservative sermon from top to bottom, one that spoke to the anxieties and fears of some reasonably well-off white Texas Christians, one that didn’t challenge them or invite them to participate in God’s actions in the world. Because aside from “creating an ethical system,” God doesn’t act at all. There was no saving Grace, no love, no sin (except in the culture), just a call to work to redeem the world. (The closest the pastor got to acknowledging anything like grace was noting that, “Some of us are messed up. But God is bigger than your mess!”) Because the saving work of God remains undone, and the call to discipleship is simply a call to organize the world the way God demands and finish God’s work of salvation.

While this approach is a problem I have with conservative Christianity, particularly cultural conservatism, this kind of sermon and this kind of thinking — God sets out an ethics that empowers us to act to (effectively) finish God’s salvation for the world — is not merely a conservative problem. It’s why I don’t like much of Liberal or Progressive Christianity as well. (Walter Wink wrote about redeeming “the powers” in a book I found annoyingly self-righteous and just plain deluded.) It privileges human action over anything God has done. It takes the ethics of the Book of Esther and places them front and center, and not what God speaks through Moses to the Israelites at sea as they witnessed Pharaoh’s army advancing upon them:

And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” (Exodus 14:13-14)

 וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־הָעָם אַל־תִּירָאוּ הִֽתְיַצְבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת־יְשׁוּעַת יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם כִּי אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת־מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם לֹא תֹסִיפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃  יְהוָה יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישֽׁוּן׃ פ

This theme, “watch what God will do for you today, God will fight for you” is echoed throughout scripture — water from the rock, manna from heaven, Joshua defeating Jericho merely by tooting of a trumpet, Gideon’s 300 to conquer the Midianites, David’s defeating Goliath with a rock (read what David says right before he tosses the stone), Elisha’s increasing the widow’s oil or battling the prophets of Baal, gathering the exiles from Babylon, other examples I’m certain I have forgotten. It is central to Israel’s experience of its relationship with God. It’s even, I believe, the unstated words of Calvary, to those of us who gaze upon our awful work on Good Friday — Fear not, Stand firm, behold the saving grace God is working for you today.

This is not an ethical system. It is… well, I’m not sure what it is. Shared mystical experience, maybe. But it isn’t an ethical system. We who God calls aren’t given an ethical system, not really. The Torah is not an ethics, but an attempt by God to show us — God’s people, not humanity — what it means to live in relationship with God and with each other given that God has called us together as a people. If pressed, I would admit this IS an ethical system (given that ethics is inescapable), but my problem here is that ethics as we do them don’t need or require the relationship with God. They make man the focus, and human action the focus. And as in the Book of Esther, God is not necessary. You don’t need God when you have ethics. You don’t need God when you have culture. You don’t need to stop, to wait, to watch, to be silent. You need to act. Now. Or all is lost.

(If I am sensitive to this, it is because this approach to the human calling is the Islamist approach. God has called humanity, particularly Muslims, to finish saving the world, organizing the world, in the way God wants it organized, so that virtue may be maximized and the opportunities to sin reduced or eliminated.)

To be salt is to trust that we are preserving the world even if we aren’t sure how. That we are light, shining brightly, even if we have no idea what that means. To trust, as Abram trusted, that God will make us a blessing to the world, even if we have no idea what that means or how it will happen.

Human action is not the point of the Bible story. God’s love for Israel, for God’s people, for the world, is the point of the Bible story. We can live into that love, or not, and some form of it may conquer the empire (Thomasite Christians did not conquer India, and Nestorians did not conquer China), but whatever ends up ruling — whatever ends up “redeeming” the powers or the culture — is only a shadow of that saving grace. As long as we live in that moment between Eden and Eschaton, we will only experience that grace sideways, in scattered brilliant moments where God’s grace meets us and overwhelms us and includes us in God’s already completed salvation for the world.