Monday, July 28, 2008
Blessing, Breaking, and Giving
It is appropriate, I think, that our text for this week falls on the third day of August, a time of year when the garden is practically bursting at the seams with vegetables. I spent the week husking and freezing sweet corn, pulling carrots and onions, picking cucumbers and tomatoes, digging potatoes, harvesting chokecherries from a secret roadside bush, and trying to keep the entire bounty from going south on me until I could get it into Ball jars or freezer bags. It occurred to me on Wednesday that I had not had the need, nor the desire, to make a trip to the grocery store. I was getting by nicely on what the earth and a little faith and sweat were now beginning to provide.
This summer marks the fifteenth consecutive year that I have participated in the harvest ritual of freezing or canning my own produce. People always ask if I do it to save money. I tell them that the practice is less economic in its intent than spiritual. When February comes along, there is nothing better than pulling a quart of green beans off the cupboard shelves and relishing the taste of a season gone by. More than this, it is a palpable reminder that in a global economy where one's sustenance and well-being have become dependent on a very impersonal exchange of currency, I can still participate in my own livelihood by growing food in my own back yard. So when August rolls around I have no trouble finding something to do. Though winter's cold may seem like some distant and unlikely reality, I am well aware that a journey of sorts lies ahead of me. Be prepared, as the old saying goes. There is nothing worse than finding yourself empty-handed and in need in some lonely, inhospitable place.
Nevertheless, there are times when we come up short. I can empathize with Jesus on the Sea of Galilee as he seeks refuge from the crowds to reflect on John's recent death at the hands of Herod Antipas (Matt. 14:1-12). Solitude and reflection at this crucial juncture in his ministry are what he craves; hungry crowds seeking yet another messianic miracle are what he gets. He has compassion on them, of course, and heals their sick, but coming on the heels of the news about John we get the sense that his heart and mind may have been just a little preoccupied. A darker journey now lay ahead of him.
We can imagine the sense of urgency he must have felt upon realizing that things now needed to change, and quickly. The disciples, who had up to this point spent much of their time knitting their brows over his confusing parables, were now going to be required to put their thoughts into action. The word now needed to become flesh in the hands of those to whom the Kingdom of God would soon be entrusted. In this lonely place by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus' command to his disciples becomes a harbinger of his post-resurrection charge to Peter on these very shores: "You feed my lambs." The Greek in Matthew's text is even more emphatic: "You yourselves give them something to eat" (14:16b).
In other words, "the show is over boys – now you need to do some work." Unwelcome news, especially for those who felt inadequate for the task, as evidenced by their response: "We have only fives loaves here and two fishes." Sure, things were grand when Jesus was the center of attention, when he was confounding the religious leaders with his parables, offering hope like some new Moses preaching from a mountain top, casting out demons, healing lepers. And there must have also been some small measure of glamour involved with being one of his inner circle, those to whom he offered the insights of his bewildering teachings. But now, as Jesus began to contemplate the inevitability of his destiny in Jerusalem and the need to perpetuate his vision, he was asking for something new. It was time for the disciples to become apostles, for the passive listeners of the Word to become doers of the Word, and this by following Jesus' principal example: "…taking the five loaves and two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds" (Matt. 14:19b). Blessing, breaking, and giving: the three watchwords of the Kingdom.
Of course, we have to stumble over the obvious question posed by so many in our scientific age who feel the need to chase mystery out of every corner: "How did he do it? How did Jesus take a limited quantity of food and compound it to such an extent that twelve baskets were needed to collect the leftovers?" Commentators throughout the ages have settled on three possible answers. First, the literal approach: Jesus was God and could therefore create whatever he desired, ex nihilo. Case closed. Second, the mystical interpretation: the sustenance that was received must be understood as spiritual nourishment. Though each person could enjoy only the slightest morsel, it was nevertheless enough to satisfy every soul present, coming as it did from the hands of Jesus himself. Once the soul is satisfied, the body is also sated. Though one or both of these explanations seem plausible to many Christians, they tend to rely on the supernatural in a way that only leaves me with more unanswered questions. Therefore, this week I have been given to reflect on a third possibility, which has led me also to consider the importance of blessing, breaking, and giving as three essential acts of faith that mark the presence of the Kingdom of God.
In his commentary on Matthew, Douglas R.A. Hare summarizes succinctly what may have happened in this lonely place: as Jesus offered his modest portions of bread and fish to the crowd, "people were so moved by [his] generosity… that they brought forth the food they had hidden in their clothing or travel pouches, and it was discovered that, by sharing, there was sufficient for all" (Interpretation: Matthew [Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993] 165). Hare goes on to say, however, that because it is impossible to know exactly what experience underlies this story we are best advised to stick to the theological intent of the text. But given what we know about Jesus' mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God as good news for both body and soul, this latter explanation seems to hold the most theological promise, for the real miracle that takes place here is not the multiplication of a few loaves and fishes, but the elimination of the barriers of selfishness that keep so many, then as now, wanting and in fear of the other. Sin tells us to hold on to our own and guard it as "mine"; grace, on the other hand, tells us to acknowledge God's blessing in our lives and adopt a new mantra: "what is mine is thine." In other words, what I have – little though it may be – can be broken and shared, all in acknowledgement of God's gracious presence in our lives. Blessing, breaking, and giving, then, become the three essential watchwords of the Kingdom, as well as an effective means for meeting the bodily needs of thousands.
As I reflected on this pericope over the last several days, I could not help but read it in light of an impending global crisis whose cause seems to be little else than the selfish desire of many of us First Worlders to hold on tightly to what we have, to safeguard what is "mine" at the expense of what should rightly be "thine." For several months now we have heard a series of half-baked explanations as to why food prices across the globe are on the rise, leaving over a billion people in the world's developing nations in a position of alarming food insecurity. Though drought in some of the rice-producing countries like Australia is a factor in a declining food supply, the main reason that many parents in the Two-Thirds World cannot afford to feed their children, according to a recent report released by the World Bank, is that there is less grain on the open market due to the increasing demand for bio-fuels. That's right – our need to drive what essentially amount to suburban assault vehicles has, in effect, trumped the rights of people in many parts of the world to meet their most basic food needs.
So to the reality of the mother in Chad who at this very moment is desperately trying to find the means to feed her children I offer – and primarily to those of us in the church who continue to believe that our First-World lifestyle needs no amending – the image of Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee calling his disciples finally to stand up and become apostles, to stop listening passively and start living the good news actively. And the call is no different for those of us today who have been blessed with both the abundance of God's grace and the means to nourish our bodies without fear of want or contamination. But blessing is all but empty, as Jesus so clearly demonstrated in that lonely place, without the subsequent acts of breaking and giving, dividing and sharing. Grace must follow upon grace.
For us, feeding five thousand requires little in the way of divine intervention; a few lifestyle changes could easily free up the resources that could make scores of hungry families secure in their food needs. The real miracle lies in first eliminating the barriers of selfishness that keep us from seeing and affirming that, in the Kingdom of God that we presumably proclaim as our own, "what is mine is thine."