This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Jesus or the Market?

Matthew 14.13-21 
            Upon hearing of the death of John the Baptizer, Jesus goes off by himself in a boat, intending to land in a deserted place.  John was Jesus’ mentor and cousin, and Jesus wants some time to grieve and reflect on where his ministry should go, now that John is gone.
            Somehow word gets out where he is going (perhaps he was visible from the shore), and people start coming out to him, so that when he lands a big crowd is there to meet him.  Instead of trying to escape, Jesus has compassion on them, and heals the sick people among them.
            He spends the whole day doing this, and it starts to get late.  So the disciples, ever responsible, make a suggestion.  “This is a deserted place,” they say, “and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”  In other words, faced with a few thousand hungry people, the disciples advise Jesus to tell them to go to the nearby villages and purchase food.
            The disciples’ recommendation should not surprise us.  Their solution to this crisis is the one we would choose, without thinking.  For them, the answer is the market.  The people should spend money.  They should individually provide for themselves and their own families.  It is the market economy that will feed them.
            Of course, to go off to the market, they would have to leave Jesus.  They would have to separate in different directions.  So to rely upon the market to feed them means actually abandoning Jesus.  They cannot be both with Jesus and depend on the market.  And they would have to break their own fellowship, scattering in different directions.  They would no longer be a unified gathering in Jesus’ presence; they would become separate individuals, fending for themselves, even in competition with each other for limited resources.
            And they would each have to come up with some cash.  So the choice really becomes, Jesus or money?  What is going to feed you?  Upon what are you going to rely?  Jesus or the market?  You can’t rely on both.  You have to choose.
            What are we expecting Jesus to do here?  Do we really think he would agree with the disciples’ advice and admit that he is just a spiritual teacher and healer, but if you want to be fed real food, you have to go to the market?  Do we really expect him to say, “There are some things I will give you for free, but when it comes to food, you just have to shell out the bucks to a vendor.  I don’t do food”?
            More even than Jesus’ clueless disciples, we of all people tend to worship the market.  Our whole economy is based on people going to the market -- to shops and stores -- and using money to buy stuff for themselves.  It does not even occur to us that there is any other way to live.  If you even suggest any other way of acting you are at best considered an idealistic idiot or at worst some kind of dangerous socialist.  The market is our god.  Around here you dis’ the market at your peril.
            We think the market will save us, heal us, make us rich, redeem us, and actually create the Kingdom of God!  I know people who say this explicitly. 
            In actual fact, beyond the fantasies of economic theory, what reliance upon the market really does is create the kind of society in which Jesus lived: a handful of wealthy people owned almost everything, who had their wealth protected by the finest and most ruthless military in the world, and the rest of the people had to scrounge in the dirt just to get by.  We are rapidly becoming this kind of society ourselves, and in most of the rest of the world it is already far worse.
            Jesus, the Son of the Living God, the Creator of the Universe, the holy Wisdom from on high, the Messiah, he deliberately chooses to come down and live with the scrounging-in-the-dirt group.  And he comes with the good news of God’s Kingdom.  And the message of God’s Kingdom is that it doesn’t have to be this way.  This is not the world God intended.  I will show you a better way, says Jesus.
            He turns to his disciples and says, “The people don’t have to go away; you give them something to eat.” Participating in the economy does not mean going away from Jesus.  Jesus points to his disciples and tells them to be the source of food.  In some sense, feeding people is the church’s job.
            But the disciples did not bring enough food for thousands of people, nor could they have.  Jesus is not criticizing them because all they can come up with is five loaves of bread and two measly fish.  He knows the disciples don’t have the resources to provide this amount of food.  He is about to make a different point.    
            Jesus has them bring the bread and the fish to him.  He has the crowds sit down on the grass.  “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.”
            We do not know what happens between verses 19 and 20, between when the disciples give the five loaves of bread and two fish to a crowd of over five-thousand people, and the simple announcement that “all ate and were filled.”  Nothing is said.  It’s almost as if there should be another few verses here explaining how this happened.  But there aren’t. 
            The traditional interpretation is that Jesus miraculously materialized food from thin air and fed the people.  We remember the way God was able to do a similar thing through the prophet Elijah, with the bottle of oil and the jar of meal that a widow and her son used every day but which never got empty. 
            Another more “demythologizing” view is that Jesus inspired all the people to share what they had with each other, and when they pooled their resources, they had more than they needed. 
            But the text doesn’t say either of these things.  None of the gospel writers say how this event happened.  Maybe they don’t know.  Certainly it doesn’t matter to them.
            All we know is that: scarcity plus people plus Jesus equals abundance.  Jesus is saying, “If you gather in my name and trust me; if you banish your fear and do as I say; if you receive with joy and thanksgiving what I give, then you will never be hungry or thirsty or friendless or sick.”
            Logically, the extra food came from somewhere.  The story implies that it came from God.  It was a spectacular miracle, perhaps Jesus’ greatest.  And even if you believe that the people brought food with them and shared, that too is a miracle.  That would be a breaking of the laws of society if not the laws of physics.  For we are not taught, we were not raised, to give up what little we have provided for ourselves, to others.
            Jesus creates abundance.  However that happens is immaterial.  Jesus by his living presence creates abundance.  He creates abundance for a lot of theological reasons, like the fact that he created the whole universe in the first place, including the planet Earth and all its beauty and richness. 
            And he creates abundance among us as well because he takes away that which generates scarcity, which is our fear.  He creates this community of mutual support, centered on and focused on him.  He creates a place where abundance happens. 
            Also note that the people stay there.  They do not need the disciples to tell them how to feed themselves.  They know what their options are, that they can walk away from Jesus and each other, and go buy food for themselves in a village market somewhere.  But they don’t. 
            Somehow they trust Jesus to provide for them.  This throng of people on a remote hillside by the sea, faced with a setting sun and having no food, were not afraid.  They did not fear hunger or loneliness, or poverty, or even the cold night or the possibility of bad weather, or wild animals, or any of the other things they could conceivably have been afraid of.
            Not being afraid, they do not engage in the usual behavior of fearful people, which might include fighting, fleeing, hoarding, hiding, or stealing.  They just sit there on the grass, patiently waiting for something to happen.
            One of the people who was there that day later wrote: “There is no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear.”  Scarcity is a myth we invent out of our own fear, and then that myth becomes real in the institutions we proceed to construct because of it, institutions like the market.
            In the presence of his perfect love, the people lose their fear.  They depend on him.  And through him they depend on each other.     
            The words Jesus uses when he distributes the bread and the fish should sound familiar.  There are several other times when Jesus “took,” “blessed,” “broke,” and “gave” bread to others.  The most important of these is at his last supper with his disciples, the night before he dies.  We say these very words now every time we share in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
            These are the words that define Jesus’ new economy of the Kingdom of God.  By these words and actions he creates abundance and banishes fear.  And that as his people and by these words we too, in his name, are supposed to do the same thing: create abundance and banish fear, and to do this by means of his Word and his Spirit, working in the gathering of people who trust in him.
            I imagine that, as those two fish and five loaves are passed around, each person follows Jesus’ example.  They receive, bless, break, and give the bread and fish to the next person.  No one insists on having a whole loaf; they break it so it may be shared.  They do not hoard or grab, they break and give.  
            The power, the miracle, the abundance is discovered first in the word and presence of Jesus, second in the people themselves, gathered in a community of mutual support, and finally in the action of receiving, blessing, breaking, and giving to each other.
            Jesus says: “Stick together, follow my word and example, and realize the miracle of sharing with each other.” 

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