Wide-eyed wonder

File:World Fair New Orleans Rain Child.jpg

Sunday Evening

Matthew 14:13-21

19Taking 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. 20And all ate and were filled.

The children’s sermon was very sweet this morning. We had just one little girl and as she came forward I went down to meet her, took her hand and we walked to the back of the sanctuary where the bread donated for communion this morning waited to be brought forward with the offering. Together we peeked under the purificator (the napkin, church life is still shaped by the thousand years of Latin) and I invited her to count the number of small flat loaves.

One, two, three, four, five. I asked her if she knew why there were five and then told her about the story we would read today when Jesus took five loaves like these and fed five-thousand families. The wide-eyed amazement in her eyes was truly priceless. That I got to see it was one of the precious privileges of being a pastor. Would that we could all come to the table wide-eyed at the wonder and mercy of God.

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From Sunday’s Sermon

Matthew is brilliant in the way he constructs his narrative, because the story right before this is the story of Herod’s banquet, where there is no mention of food shared with the women and children, where Herod does the unthinkable and disgraceful thing of allowing his daughter to dance before men who are not part of his immediate family, and where Herod shows himself without honor by allowing himself to be aroused by the dancing of a woman – let alone his daughter – and loses self-control, promising to giver her anything she wants. Then, rather than losing face before his courtiers, he grants the request to have the prophet, John, beheaded.

Herod’s banquet is a banquet of greed and lust that ends in death. Jesus’ banquet is a banquet of compassion that gives life. Herod’s banquet is a banquet for a few; Jesus’ banquet is a banquet for all. Herod’s banquet is a banquet for the rich and mighty; Jesus’ banquet is a banquet for the poor and powerless. The one leads to death and the other leads to life.

If you would like to read the whole sermon, it is posted here entitled: Five Loaves. An audio version should show up here on the church website.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWorld_Fair_New_Orleans_Rain_Child.jpg By Christopher Porché West (originally posted to Flickr as Rain Child) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Choose your kingdom; choose your king

File:Tomato vender at the Covington Farmer's Market in Covington, LA.jpg

“You that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55)

Watching for the Morning of August 6, 2017

Year A

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

I live in a place and time where there has always been food in the grocery store. I understand that privilege. And even in the years I lived in a place that is now referred to as an urban “food desert”, I had a car with which to reach the suburban stores where milk and meat were fresh, and bread and fruit plentiful. I understand the privilege.

I have seen parts of the world where privilege is lacking. I have sat in a board meeting discussing whether we should help a companion church body in a region of the world where, after multiple years of drought, they had no seed corn. It disturbs me still, as it disturbed me then, that there was any hesitation. (We did commit to send the funds immediately, prior to the effort to raise them.)

The scripture is full of stories about famine. Famine takes Jacob (Israel) and his family to Egypt. Drought and famine had Elijah hiding in the wilderness and taking refuge with the widow of Zarephath. Famine takes Naomi to Moab where Ruth becomes her daughter-in-law (and David’s great-grandmother). Locusts (and the subsequent famine) are the occasion for the prophet Joel’s message. Subsistence farmers lead a precarious life, especially in the years of Jesus when the burden of taxes took nearly half the crop, and the necessity of keeping seed and feed left landowners with maybe 20% for food – far less for tenant farmers.

Hunger is a constant companion for too much of the world through too much of human history. And it is those who have known the anxiety and uncertainty of daily bread who recognize the full drama and grace of that day when five loaves feed five thousand.

It is food for today. And it is the bread of tomorrow. It is bread for those who hunger and a taste of a world without hunger. It is manna in the wilderness and a foretaste of the feast to come. It is the prophetic promise made present. It is a world reordered, a world set right, a world born from above. As Mary sang, “the hungry are filled with good things.

In contrast to Herod’s banquet, where Salome will dance for strangers, where the king’s daughter is used to inflame the king’s consorts, where plots conspire and the king’s vanity and shamelessness ends with the head of John on a platter – in contrast to Herod’s banquet is the banquet of Jesus where the people are healed and fed, with an abundance left over.

Choose your kingdom. Choose your king.

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Sunday we hear of the feeding of the five thousand. And the backdrop assigned for this narrative is the prophet of Isaiah 55 giving voice to God’s offer for all who are hungry to come and eat: bread freely given, wine and milk overflowing, the voice of God that is true life. And the psalm will speak of God’s gracious providing, “The LORD” who “upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down”:

15The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
16You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.

Sunday we will also hear Paul willing to be cursed for the sake of God’s people. And in that sentiment we recognize the spirit of the one who took the curse for our sake. The one who opened the grave. The one who poured out the Spirit. The one who brings the feast without end.

Choose your kingdom. Choose your king.

The Prayer for August 6, 2017

Almighty God,
through your Son Jesus you set a table
for all the world to come and feast.
Grant us hearts that are eager to hear your word,
share in your banquet,
and live your reign of mercy and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 6, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-5
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” – After the return from exile, the prophet calls to the community like a vendor in the marketplace, inviting them to “feast” on God’s promise that the eternal covenant once established with David is now transferred to the whole nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
“The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.” – A psalm of praise and thanksgiving for God’s grace and bounty.

Second Reading: Romans 9:1-5
“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.”
– Having laid out his message of God’s reconciling grace apart from the law, Paul now takes up the problem that God’s people have largely ignored the message of Christ Jesus. He begins with an expression of his great grief that Israel has not received this fruit of all their promises.

Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21
“All ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” – Following the parables of chapter 13, Matthew tells of Herod’s banquet where all act corruptly and John is beheaded, and of Jesus’ banquet on the mountain where he has compassion for all.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATomato_vender_at_the_Covington_Farmer’s_Market_in_Covington%2C_LA.jpg By Saint Tammany [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Life-giving bread

Watching for the Morning of August 2, 2015

Year B

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

File:340 MS 65 F168 V.jpgThe people come looking for Jesus, but Jesus rebuffs them. It is always uncomfortable when Jesus is rude to people. But they are on the wrong path and he needs to jolt them out of it. And he’s only just beginning.

We are talking about the meaning of the sign of the loaves and fishes. It will occupy us for the rest of chapter 6 in John, which we will read over the next four weeks. And the first part of this conversation is about the manna that sustained Israel during the forty years in the wilderness.

So we will read from Exodus of the people’s complaint and the bread they received each morning. We will hear the psalmist sing how God gave them “the food of angels.” And we will listen as Jesus challenges the people that the true bread from heaven, the true life-giving bread, was not the manna in the wilderness but Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

The reading from Ephesians speaks to those who have received Jesus as the bread of life:

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

In contrast to the unbelieving crowds hunting for Jesus the author of Ephesians takes up the image of the victory parade of the conquering hero entering the city and lavishing gifts upon the people. But our conquering hero is not Caesar returning from war with plunder, but Christ ascending to the father and lavishing gifts for ministry – gifts to bring the Christian community to full maturity in Christ, gifts to bring this life-giving bread to the world.

The Prayer August 2, 2015

Heavenly Father,
you sustained your people through the wilderness with manna from heaven;
sustain us through the days of our lives
by the presence him who is the true bread of life,
your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 2, 2015

First Reading: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
“Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.” – God provides manna in the wilderness and it is both a gracious providing and a test of the people’s allegiance to God.

Psalmody: Psalm 78:22-29 (appointed 23-29)
“He rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.”
– The poet sings of the faithfulness of God who provided for the people in the wilderness.

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:1-16
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
– The author begins his exhortation for the community to live in keeping with the grace of God they have experienced in Christ.

Gospel: John 6:24-35
“Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” – The crowds seek Jesus after the feeding of the five-thousand but Jesus challenges them to see that the true bread from heaven was not the manna God gave them in the wilderness. The true life-giving bread is present to them in Jesus.

 

Image: Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, ca. 1411-1416.  Limbourg brothers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not about the bread

About last Sunday – and the ones to come

John 6:1-21

File:Raffaellino del garbo, moltiplicazione dei pani e dei pesci, da s.m. maddalena de' pazzi 09.JPG15When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

This is an important piece of information that shapes what will come next in John’s Gospel: the response of the crowd moves quickly from wonder to self-gratification.

The text says that they “saw the sign.” They recognized what this pointed to, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world,” but they became preoccupied with the bread. They looked at the physical and missed the spiritual. They saw bread. They saw full bellies. They saw a release from the labor and anxiety of the fields. They attended to the obvious and missed the profound.

It’s hard to blame them. We are all like them in a way, concerned about what we need from Jesus rather than what Jesus needs from us.

The five thousand gathered on the hillside around Jesus were people who were familiar with hunger. They were what we now call “food insecure.” It is a chronic concern of subsistence farmers, those dependent upon the rains and beneficence of nature for the crops that will sustain them through the year. And it was exacerbated in Galilee by the high portion of their crop that went to landowners and the temple and the state. But now, here is one who, with a boy’s lunch, can feed 5,000. You can almost hear the rumble through the crowd: “We will never be hungry again!”   It takes no special insight to understand that they would make him king.

But the bread is a sign. It points beyond itself. It points to the God who created a bountiful world. It points to the commandment that bread be shared – that the hungry would be fed, the sick tended, the poor aided. It points to the will of God in creating the world. It points to our true humanity. It points to the beneficence of God and the promise of a world restored to its true purpose. And it points to Jesus. It points to him who is the face of God, the witness to our true humanity, and the opening of the path to our re-creation – our being born from above.

Joel Osteen is coming to town and tickets are $15.00 a head. The capacity of AT&T Park is listed at 41,503 – so he starts with a gate well past half a million. He will tell everyone how God wants them to prosper. And it’s not untrue. It’s just that he has everyone looking at the bread and not at the sign.

Christian faith is not a technique for peace and prosperity. Nor is it a denial of death through a promise we will be with loved ones again. It is a witness to the truth of God, the truth of existence, and the truth of our humanity. It is a witness that this ultimate truth has dwelt among us. And it is a call to follow where he leads: to live now the life that is eternal.

God knows we all need bread. But the bread we truly need is the bread of life, the living bread, the living Word who breathes upon us his Spirit. We need our humanity – not our frail, broken, “everyone makes mistakes”, “we all have our dark side” humanity, but the humanity that is born of God.

 

Feeding the multitude by Raffaellino del Garbo.  Photo: By Sailko (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
For more of this artwork, see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Feeding_the_multitude_by_Raffaellino_del_Garbo

One bountiful table

Watching for the Morning of July 26, 2015

Year B

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 12 / Lectionary 17

File:Pan asturiano.JPGSunday we begin a five-week excursion through the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John that relates the feeding of the five thousand and the subsequent conversations about the meaning of that sign. As we have been reading through Mark’s Gospel, the next portion would have been the feeding of the crowds (who were like sheep without a shepherd). But the lectionary pauses in order to hear the rich development of this event in the Gospel of John.

So Sunday is about God’s wondrous providing. During a time of famine, a poor man brings to Elisha his offering of first fruits (barley is the food of the poor, since it grows on poorer soil). Though these twenty small loaves would not normally feed even twenty, it is more than enough to satisfy a hundred. The psalm sings of God’s faithfulness in his care for those in need and his gracious providing for all. And Jesus takes up the five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand with twelve baskets left over.

Providing a kind of soaring descant to these wonderful texts is the majestic prayer by the writer of Ephesians that we may “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,” and “be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Each of the gospel writers pick and choose which stories to tell in order to reveal the meaning of God’s work in and through Jesus. In a rare unity, all four of them include this story of the five loaves and two fish. It is not a story about Jesus’ wonder-working power; it is a witness to the dawning reign of God when our wounded earth is healed, all war and divisions overcome, and all people gathered to one bountiful table.

This is why this story is paired with the account of Jesus walking on water. For the God who spoke over the primal sea and brought forth his good and bountiful creation has spoken again in Christ to restore the life of the world. As we will hear in John these next Sundays, God has provided not just our daily bread, but the bread of life for the world.

The Prayer July 26, 2015

Merciful Father,
you stretch forth your hand to feed those who hunger,
grant us a share in the banquet that is to come,
and the faith to live according to your promise;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 26, 2015

First Reading: 2 Kings 4:42-44
“A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to Elisha, the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack.” – Elisha feeds a hundred people with twenty small loaves with food left over.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:10-18
“The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.”
– The poet praises God for his goodness and faithfulness in providing for all.

Second Reading: Ephesians 3:14-21
“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
– The author prays for the community to be rooted in the love of Christ and the power of the Spirit.

Gospel: John 6:1-21
“’There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’” – The feeding of the five-thousand with twelve baskets left over.

 

Photo: By Tamorlan (Photo taken by Tamorlan) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The royal table

Saturday

Psalm 23

File:Cava (5303223614).jpg5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.

The wine flows freely at God’s banquet.

And it is good wine.

The poet switches metaphors in the middle of his psalm, but both are royal images: God as shepherd and God as banquet host. They are themes that weave throughout the scriptures going back to the exodus when God led the people out from slavery and provided them food in the wilderness.

The leaders of the nation are condemned through the prophets because they feed off the people rather than protect and provide for them.

2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. (Ezekiel 34:2-3)

And in the face of such worthless shepherds God promises both that God will raise up a righteous shepherd and that God himself will be our shepherd. Promises that get woven together in Christ who declares: “I am the good shepherd.”

The message of Jesus was that the reign of God was at hand, and in him we see and hear that reign. The sick are healed. The outcasts are gathered in. Sins are forgiven. Grace abounds. All are fed at God’s bounteous table. Five thousand from five small “loaves” (it’s hard to call a flat bread the size of your hand a “loaf”) and two small dried fish – with twelve baskets left over. Water is turned to overflowing wine, wine strained clear.

It is what the prophet declared:

6On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make
for all peoples
a feast of rich food,
a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow,
of well-aged wines strained clear.
7And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
8Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25:6-8)

And we hear it in the Gospel this Sunday: “He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things…”

He began to teach them, because it is not just about bread; it is about joy and deliverance and the way of being human. It is about living the compassion of God. It is about forgiving one another and loving our neighbor and having the burden of humanity’s shame lifted away. We who are all created in the image of God have lived war and greed and cruelty. We have ben Cain rising against Abel. We have been Abraham protecting himself rather than his hosts. We have been Sodom and Gomorrah, abusing others in our power. We have been Job’s self-righteous friends. We have been Jonah fleeing from our mission. We have been the man building bigger barns rather than sharing God’s bounty. We have been Peter denying. And this incomprehensible burden of shame, our dishonoring of God, has been carried away by a royal pardon, a king who bears it all.

“He began to teach them,” teach them about God’s mercy, God’s abundance, and our true path. He is indeed our shepherd. And he invites us to his table where grace abounds like wine, and all are fed, and goodness and steadfast love don’t just follow us – the Hebrew word means to pursue – God’s goodness keeps chasing us. Forever.

 

Photo: By cyclonebill from Copenhagen, Denmark (Cava  Uploaded by FAEP) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Like a bride

Sunday Evening

Sunday was my daughter’s wedding – that’s why there were a few missing reflections on the texts for last week.

The wedding was in the wine country, a “destination wedding”, since no matter where we held it, family and friends would have to fly in from all over the country. But there was something sweet and profound in the blend of accents from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, California, Colorado, New Hampshire, and I’m not sure where else. Isaiah 25 declares that God will prepare a feast for all peoples; a world whose primal unity was broken will be gathered back together for God’s great banquet. In Matthew 14 that feast is anticipated in the feeding of the 5,000. In John 2 that banquet is anticipated in the new wine at Cana. In Revelation 21 that banquet is portrayed as a new Jerusalem, adorned like a bride for her husband.

Every wedding exults in the joy of creation and declares the promise of the banquet to come. In every wedding the bride is beautiful and the groom handsome, every flaw forgotten. In every wedding there is joy and dancing. In every wedding the woes of the world are forgotten for a moment.

It’s not that the woes are not there. An empty chair with daisies stood on the aisle for Megan’s missing sister. This date was the birthday of my missing brother. There are losses and wounds among us all, but they cannot overshadow the joy of the wedding. Hope, joy, the presence of possibility and future, the mystery and delight of two who find in one another a deep and enduring bond and dare to promise it no matter what comes – here joy trumps sorrow, hope trumps despair, life trumps death. There is a reason Jesus uses the wedding feast as a metaphor for God’s reign.

We live as believers – those who know the resurrection and trust the promise that God will fulfill his purpose of bringing life to us and to the world.

So we sing and dance and break the bread of the eternal feast.

(If you would like to read the sermon from the wedding, it is posted at jacoblimping@wordpress.com)

“Besides women and children”

For Saturday

Matthew 14

File:Christ feeding the multitude.jpg21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

It grates against our ears to hear the number given as five thousand and then to be told that the women and children weren’t counted. It should, I guess. It is helpful to remember that equality of men and women – and adults and children – is not part of our human experience ever since we lost the garden. (We should be clear that scripture attributes this to our fall from communion with God, and not to God’s eternal design.) But it wouldn’t have sounded strange to Matthew’s congregation; it would have said something much different to them.

First of all, it would have clued them in that we are hearing about a banquet. Banquets at the time were public rituals not private parties. As public events they were the affairs of men. The fact that this is a banquet is important for Matthew, because he has set this banquet of Jesus alongside the banquet of Herod Antipas.

This is a banquet, a public occasion, not a spontaneous picnic in the park (at the time of Jesus, people didn’t picnic out in nature). At such occasions, the food was set before the men, what remained would then be taken away to be shared with the women and children. (It was a man’s obligation not to eat to excess, to remember that others would need to eat from this table.) After the women and children ate, what remained would be shared with the poor. (So it was also the obligation of the women and children not to over indulge. Whatever they ate beyond what was needed was stolen from the mouth of the poor.) So this simple reference “those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children” clues the reader in that what happened out there in the wilderness was not as a quick lunch but the banquet of God.

At this banquet of God everyone ate and was satisfied – and there were still twelve baskets left over, twelve baskets for the poor, twelve for the twelve tribes of Israel.

All are fed at the table of God.

All are fed. Not those in power. Not those with privilege. Not those with abundant lands. Not those with houses and fields and people to come tend their gardens and clean their houses and prepare their meals. All. The men, the women and children, and the poor.

5,000 was bigger than all but a few cities in Israel. 5,000 households may be hyperbole – but it proclaims the bounty of God. The banquet of God has come to us in this Jesus of Nazareth. Israel is fed again in the wilderness. The nations are gathered to feast at Zion. The reign of God is present to us in this blessed and broken bread.

And all are fed.

Feeding the crowds

For Friday

Matthew 14

File:US Navy 051104-N-3455P-001 U.S. Navy Sailors, assigned to the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4), take time to give back to the community.jpg

Volunteers packing food boxes for the San Diego Food Bank. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Paul Polach

19Taking 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.

Do you think the disciples ate first, before passing the food on to the crowds?

I wrote this simple question for Friday’s reflection. After writing the question, I couldn’t find the next words. I tried. I tried several times. And every time, it seemed like they were just words, that all the power was in the question. But I was unwilling to post just the question. I wanted people to probe the depths of the question.

Do you think the disciples ate first, before passing the food on to the crowds?

In a way everything hangs on this question: Is the church’s first obligation to feed itself or to feed the crowds?

This isn’t meant to be a stick with which to beat upon our congregations (it’s not that we don’t deserve it; it’s that beating us with sticks doesn’t make us more loving.) It’s meant to be one of those simple incisions that open us up for heart surgery. Hiding in the question is the reminder and profound truth that Jesus didn’t eat first, either.

He didn’t eat first on the night of the last supper; he got up and washed everyone’s feet. He didn’t eat first when the soldiers came to arrest him; he stepped forward so his followers could get away. He didn’t eat first – he didn’t take care of himself first – when he stood before Pilate, or when he carried his cross, or when he bore our pain. Alright, maybe he ate first on Easter evening when he appeared to his followers and asked for something to eat, but that wasn’t to serve himself, it was to show his disciples that he was not a ghost. That night he ate first for our sake, as everything else was done for our sake. Jesus gives himself to us and for us. And when we understand this, when we are truly grasped by this faithful love of God, then we start to understand that the meal doesn’t end with us: we were sent to feed the crowds.

Dilettantes and disciples

Thursday

Matthew 14

File:Christ - Google Art Project.jpg

The eyes of Jesus. Part of an early (7th-8th century) Byzantine icon found in Egypt

13Now 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 the crowds heard it.” The ‘this’ Jesus heard was the beheading of John, but what is this ‘it’ that the crowds heard? Does Matthew have in mind that the crowds have also heard about John? Or does Matthew have in mind that the crowds heard have that Jesus has gone to a deserted place?

Translating is tricky work. It would be nice to have the translator before us to ask why he or she translated the Greek word ‘and’ with a ‘but’. The ‘and’ seems to suggest that we are extending the thought – Jesus withdrew and the crowd went after him. The ‘but’ raises the possibility that Jesus’ response to John’s death was to withdraw, but the crowds’ response was to follow Jesus. ‘Follow’ is a big word in the Gospels. It is what disciples do. Is Matthew suggesting that the crowds that had looked to John now look to Jesus? That the mantle of John has fallen on Jesus? It’s not uncommon when we lose one hero to look for another.

So are the people looking for a hero, any hero, or are they looking for Jesus? Are they turning to Jesus out of desperation or have they found the one and don’t want to let him out of their sight?

Do you see the question that is homing in on us? Are we people who turn to Jesus in moments of crisis, or have we found in him the word of life and want always to be in his presence?

Are we following him or leaning on him?

Is he the plumber we call in an emergency or the master to whom we have apprenticed ourselves?

It is an important question for our self-reflection. Are we dilettantes or disciples?

The sweetness in the text is that it doesn’t matter to Jesus. When he sees the crowd, he has compassion. He does not ask if those who have come with their sick are there just for the healing or for the whole journey of faith. He heals. He nourishes. He sets before them the great banquet of heaven.

Not too far down the line, one of Jesus’ closest disciples will betray him and the rest will run away. Peter, too, will choose his own skin – thought none of us can honestly blame him considering what happens to those who would suggest there is some other rule on earth than Rome. But the question whether Jesus is a vocation or an avocation will haunt Peter until Jesus walks him back through his three-fold denial with a three-fold declaration: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” But even that morning, on the shore of Galilee, began with a meal.

Jesus will indeed talk to us about the necessity of discipleship. But first there is compassion. First he heals. First he sets before us the great banquet of heaven.