The Care and Feeding of Multitudes

Feeding the multitudes
Giovanni Lanfranco, Miracle of the Bread and Fish, 1620-23

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to 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. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
– Matthew 14:13-21

This scene depicts the beginning of a people’s revolution. If, among those crowds that day, there had been anyone from the press, they would have reported it as such.

First off, notice the connection to John the Baptist. Herod did. In Luke’s version (Luke 9:7ff), the lead-up to the story shows Herod wondering how the guy he executed for gathering crowds in the wilderness could still be out there. Matthew says Jesus goes to the wilderness (“a deserted place”) after being told the John the Baptist was dead. In the wilderness following the first meeting with John, Jesus had been tempted to turn rocks into bread for his own benefit. This time, following John’s scene, Jesus is back in the wilderness and he does make bread – for the benefit of the people.

So the first question about this scene has got to be (thanks to Simon Harak): Where did all the people come from? Think about it. How can there be 5000 men, plus women and children with the kind of leisure time to take a couple days off for a wilderness trek? And the answer is that they are unemployed. They are imperial flotsam. Then and now imperial economic systems need to maintain a certain rate of unemployment. Modern economists call it the NAIRU: the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment. And they say that ideally, depending on other economic factors, this ideal unemployment figure should usually be over four percent, and as high as ten or more percent. In parts of the world under occupation, the rate is much higher: it’s easier to control people if they haven’t got an excuse to go anywhere or the means to do anything meaningful. Currently, for example, in Palestine unemployment in the West Bank is 16.5% and 40% in Gaza. In Iraq, the unemployment rate in 2009 according to the CIA’s World Fact Book  was 15.3%. In Afghanistan, it’s 35%. But unemployment isn’t just an ideal fact in an imperial war economy. Currently the US employment rate as it tries to maintain two major wars and maintain footholds throughout the known world is (as of the end of June) 9.2%. These 5000 are the ones who have been intentionally left destitute.

Second, it stands to reason that in any crowd of unemployed people, there are bound to be a lot of them sick. They can’t afford adequate nutrition. They can’t afford going to the doctor. They can’t afford medicine. And, think about it, if you’re sick or if you have a sick kid, you’re main worry is going to be about getting better. So occupations go better when there are lots of sick people. People don’t have the time or energy to resist. So the crowds gather and the first thing Jesus does is “he cured their sick.” Remember what they were saying about Obama when he was talking about the possibility of free universal health care? What do you think the establishment was saying about Jesus?

Third, notice that the disciples want Jesus to “send the crowds away.” It’s not hard to see the disciples as a representation of the church. And, even in the first generation of Matthew’s community, there is a tension between Jesus and the church. Then and now, the first response of the church in dealing with marginalized, unemployed, sick, hungry people is to send them away, Jesus’ constant response is let them come, and you take care of them.

So Jesus instructs the disciples to have the people sit down on the grass – wait, what grass? This was supposed to be the desert. So now, the scene is not just a people’s revolution: it has now become a living instance of Psalm 23 – “He leadeth me in green pastures, and feedeth me beside the still waters” (how else is there grass-in desert, the wilderness, the valley of the shadow of death?).

All ate and were filled – not just ate, were filled. So, says Harak, “He’s healed all the people the empire wants sick, and he’s fed all the people the empire wants hungry. How long do you think they’re going to let him live?” In fact, where there were once a crowd of sick hungry no-accounts, there are now 5000 healthy, well-fed men here. It’s a number big enough to be of imperial significance, since a Roman legion was a group of between 5000 and 6000 healthy well-fed Roman citizens. Jesus is leading five thousand healthy, well-fed men who he’s symbolically named citizens of God’s kingdom: he has legion now. How long do you think they’re going to let him live?

Finally, about the twelve baskets left over. Twelve tribes of Israel: the leftovers, the broken pieces. Jesus collects the broken pieces to be the new Israel. Think about it. The care and feeding of multitudes is just that revolutionary.

Predestination: a Theological Train Wreck

I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
Romans 9:1-5

People love to quote Romans 8. It’s glorious, after all. It feels good in the face of adversity and epic failure to claim Paul’s defiant, “I will survive” manifesto as one’s own. I’ve heard all manner of misappropriation of 8:28 to claim that “all things work together for good,” without paying much attention to the second part of the verse (“… for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose”). And yet, it is this second part of 8:28, that sets Paul up for the rhetorical and theological disaster that follows in Chapter 9.

Romans 9 is not so often quoted. And with good reason: Paul’s construction of a theology of predestination is a theological train wreck. Having described how nothing (death, life, angels, rulers, etc.) can separate God’s people from God, Paul now has to explain how the Israelites, who have been called and promised God’s redemption don’t seem to be coming along with the Jesus-salvation program.

I’m sure Paul does have great sorrow and anguish for them. Many commentators go on about how beautiful it is that he is offering to be separated from Christ himself if only it would get the Israelites to come along. And it is a great use of rhetoric: “I’d gladly give an arm and a leg if only my kid would eat his vegetables.” It’s not meant to be taken literally.

What’s at stake here is the problem of why some folk who have all the advantages life has to offer still “just don’t get it.” Why don’t the Israelites, who have received adoption as God’s own people, glory, covenants, the law, special instructions for worship, promises, and ancestral wisdom – why don’t they get the whole “Jesus as fulfillment” thing?

Paul can only figure up two explanations, and neither of them are really good:

  1. Not everybody who claims to be an Israelite really is one. Here Paul recalls the story of Abraham’s divided household. The only people who really count as children of Abraham (and therefore as children of God) are those who can claim Isaac’s branch of the family tree. In the same way there are spiritual Israelites and there are all the others, and you can tell the spiritual ones because they’re the ones who receive Jesus.
  2. God predestines some people to get it and others not to. Paul recalls two stories in support of this. First, the story of Jacob and Esau, in which one is blessed and the other cursed before they were even born. A second story comes from the Exodus, where Paul recalls that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” In both cases, those God predetermines to be “destined for destruction” are made examples against which the “glorified” can shine all the more brightly by comparison.

The problem, of course, and the reason why the Israelites (not to mention many modern folk) aren’t accepting Paul’s gospel is that that there aren’t many people who are really interested in a God who cuts off half the family tree for no reason other than “the conception didn’t happen according to plan.” We have enough of that vindictive pettiness in our families already without bringing that kind of God into it.

Nor do many people want to have anything to do with a God who sets some people up just to make other people look good. You can get that kind of politics at the office; nobody really needs it in church, except people who need to look down at someone else to feel better about themselves.

In the end, Paul’s theological train goes off the track because it reduces the God Jesus spoke of, the God who simply says, “Come unto me, all who are heavy-laden, and I shall give you rest” – reduces that God to a fickle cosmic celebrity: all that glorious bling without any depth, character, or even any real power.

Jacob’s Fight Night: It’s a Koan

Jacob wrestles with an angel
Jacob and the Angel, by Jacob Kainan, 1977, Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
-Genesis 32:22-32

Too many things about this passage just don’t add up:

  • It says “a man” wrestled with Jacob. So why do we insist on saying it was an angel?
  • Or, alternatively, if you assume that “striven with God” implies that this man is really God, why do we insist on saying it was (merely) an angel?
  • Since “the man” had put Jacob’s hip out of joint, it seems that he could have just run away have to leave as day was breaking. So why does he need to ask Jacob to let him go?
  • Why would Jacob think that someone he’d been fighting with all night would be inclined to bless him?
  • Why does the man want to know Jacob’s name?
  • It seems odd that a complete stranger would have the audacity, let alone the authority to change your name.
  • Was the man really referring to himself as God (“For you have striven with God…”) or does he just know something about Jacob’s past? And if he knows something about Jacob’s past, how?
  • Who is this man? Why is he offended that Jacob should ask. After all he had asked the same question? (And, if he was God in disguise, it doesn’t make any sense that he would need to ask Jacob’s name.)
  • Jacob seems to think that he has seen God face to face. In the person of a man. How can a man be God? Or can God be a man? (Hint: this is an intentionally leading question for people who believe that a certain other man was God, but the Christian implications of this are completely foreign to its original context, so applying Christology to this text is out of bounds.)

You can probably come up with a few more. But the main paradox to consider is:

  • Why is a story about Jacob’s finally growing up couched in a children’s fable that’s stated moral is merely to explain how the town of Peniel got its name and why Israelites don’t eat the thigh muscle?

We must remember: before the Bible and Judaism and Christianity were ever known in the west, they were Eastern religions. Even the Romans considered them as such before Constantine. These proto-historical narratives from Genesis are set in the near east, and are told of people who have within a generation of their own time-horizon just arrived from the far east. They are not identical to the other religions we think of as eastern religions today, but they do share an eastern mindset and worldview.

The story of Jacob’s growing up is like unto a koan: a story in which enlightenment is found in the contradictions, not by resolving them, but by coming to a deeper understanding of them.

I’m not going to tell you how to interpret any of these contradictions (at least, not in this post). But I will say that if you sit with them long enough, you can find enlightenment. And, preachers, if you can crack any one of these nuts before Sunday, I guarantee you any one of them will preach.

Mustard Sunday

mustard plant
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This Sunday is Mustard Sunday, when many churches will hear the gospel passage from Matthew 13:31-32 wherein Jesus says:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

I’ve known people to get all sentimental about the mustard seed. I’ve seen people wearing necklaces with mustard seeds encased in amber or set in silver filigree. And it does make an easy object lesson for the “children’s sermon,” because you can get mustard seeds in the spice aisle at the grocery store just about anywhere. And, that this passage tends to get conflated with another saying about how “if your faith is but the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains” (the armchair Christian’s equivalent of wielding an H-bomb) also makes it popular.

But this Mustard Sunday, let us remember that mustard, then and now, is a weed, notwithstanding when someone intentionally plants it. And as anyone who actually uses it in the kitchen can tell you, a little of it goes a long way. In Jesus’ parable, the plant is clearly out of control. It has grown to the point that birds are making nests in it. The weed has taken over the field. Jesus is implying that the kingdom of heaven is like a weed growing out of control. It’s a total pain in the ass. It’s attracting birds. You don’t want birds in your field. They’ll eat what’s left of your crop after the weeds get done with it. That’s why farmers invented scarecrows.

This is the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-9) in reverse. The birds pluck up the seed, the weeds choke out the plants. But now, instead of the devil and worries, Jesus says, these are manifestations of the kingdom of heaven.

Together, the two parables are opposite sides of the same coin. On the first side, the barriers to really following Jesus (as opposed to paying lip service one hour a week) are pretty tough. On the other side, once the kingdom of heaven gets planted in your life, it tends to take over everything else, whether you like it or not.