Archive for the ‘Feeding of the five thousand’ Category

Besides women and children

August 1, 2020

Pentecost 9 – 2020

Matthew 14:13-21

Marian Free

“And those who ate were about 5,000 men, besides women and children.” Matt 14:21

In the name of God who by becoming one of us affirms the dignity of all humanity. Amen.

Some time ago I watched a rather harrowing movie – The Whistle-blower – starring Rachel Weisz. The movie is based on the real story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a police officer in Nebraska, who was recruited by an American company, DynCorp International. DynCorp had a contract with the United Nations to hire and train police officers for duty in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Kathryn had not been in Bosnia long when she came across Raya, a young Ukrainian woman, who had managed to escape from a brothel where she was being sexually exploited and abused. Raya had been trafficked across the border by the uncle of a friend who had persuaded both girls that he had found them a job in a hotel. It was a sophisticated operation. He had brochures of the hotel and job descriptions but in reality, he was preying on their financial vulnerability and their trust in him. When the girls arrived in Bosnia, they discovered that they had been sold into prostitution. If the movie was accurate, the conditions in which the women were kept was appalling and the brutality they experienced at the hands of their “keepers” was horrendous. 

Bolkovac endeavoured to find a place of safety for Raya only to discover that her employer, DynCorp was facilitating the sex trafficking and worse, that the international peacekeepers knew of the operation but chose to turn a blind eye. As a consequence, Raya’s whereabouts was leaked, she was recaptured, violently punished. Within a few weeks was shot dead as an example to others. Kathryn tried to bring the situation to the attention of the United Nations and as a result she received death threats and was fired. She took her employers to court for unfair dismissal and won, but while she reported that the company was involved in prostitution, rape and sex-trafficking, only local employees were prosecuted as UN contractors had immunity from prosecution.

The deliberate, calculating trafficking of people for profit is endemic. Despite the efforts of William Wilberforce and others in the late 18th, early 19th century, slavery is far from dead. At any one time in 2016 there were an estimated 40.3 million people held in slavery. Over 40 million people – that is 5.4 people for every thousand person on the planet! The statistics are horrendous:  

  • 51% of identified victims of trafficking are women, 28% children and 21% men
  • 72% people exploited in the sex industry are women
  • 63% of identified traffickers were men and 37% women
  • 99%  percent of all women and girls who are trafficked are trafficked into the commercial sex industry.[1]

Australia is not immune to this trade in human beings. In 2018, Anti-Slavery Australia helped over 123 people who had been trafficked to or from Australia.[2]  A study by the Australian Institute of Criminology published in February last year estimated that in 2015-16, 2016-7 the number of people trafficked or forced into slavery in Australia was between 1,300 and 1,900 meaning that for every person who is identified as being trafficked or enslaved, there are another four who are not identified.[3]

Trafficking is only the beginning of a lifetime of exploitation, torture and abuse.

There are millions of stories of trafficking, exploitation and abuse – slavery in the 21st century.

The human capacity to denigrate, dehumanise or ignore others is almost beyond comprehension. The ability to be blind to the talents, hopes and dreams of those who are different from ourselves almost defies belief. And yet, as is evidenced by modern day slavery, both are very real human characteristics. 

Whenever we view another person or group of people as lesser than ourselves, we are in danger of dehumanising them – as if there were gradations of being human. When we consider that another person is of less value than ourselves, we free ourselves to disregard their needs, their feelings and their ambitions which in turn frees us to treat them in ways that are cruel, degrading and exploitative. When we take the view that a person or group of people exists primarily as a source of our own comfort or our own enrichment, we become blind to their needs for comfort and security. Whenever people are put to use to improve the lifestyles of others, they are vulnerable to financial exploitation or to physical or sexual abuse. 

Failing to take notice of the gifts, talents and capacities of people whose race, background or economic status are different from our own, impoverishes all of us. We not only lose the contribution they could make to our society; we also allow our own selfishness free rein. At the same time, we also excuse ourselves from taking responsibility for their well-being, and fail to advocate on their behalf. 

In today’s gospel it is the women and children who are unnoticed. Jesus fed 5,000 men we are told by Mark and Luke to which Matthew adds as something of an afterthought: “besides woman and children”. Only John includes everyone in the story.

Throughout history many people have been left out of our story – women and children, the poor, the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged, the prisoner, people of colour, people whose faith is different from our own, people whose sexual orientation or gender identification does not conform – on and on it goes. 

If slavery and exploitation are to end, it has to begin here, with us – with our own attitudes, beliefs and values. 

Who are the people whom we leave out of the story and whom are we abandoning to potential abuse and exploitation by our ignorance, our blindness, our selfishness and our desire to pay less than a product is truly worth?

In other words, who are the “besides” in our story and what will it take from us to ensure that they are included?




Love unearned

January 19, 2019

Epiphany 2 – 2019

John 2:1-11

Marian Free

In the name of God whose generosity is poured out freely and abundantly on the deserving and the undeserving. Amen.

Tony Campolo a psychologist, pastor, public speaker and author travelled a lot in the course of his work. Changes in time zones would mean that there were times when he was wide awake when the rest of the world was asleep. On one such occasion he was looking for somewhere to have breakfast at 3:30am. After wandering around he found a rather seedy diner and ordered a coffee and something to eat. While he was eating, the door opened and in came several noisy and provocative prostitutes who made Campolo feel very uncomfortable and out of place. When the women had sat down one announced to the others: “Tomorrow’s my birthday!” To which the response was something to the effect of: “ Bully for you. What do you expect us to do about it?” After a while the first woman responded: “I don’t expect anything but, you know, I have never had a birthday party.”

After they had left, Campolo asked the man behind the counter whether the women came there every night – particularly whether the one whose birthday it was came every night. “That’s Agnes,” the man responded. “Why do you want to know.” Campolo explained that he wanted to throw a party. The man was so impressed with the idea that he insisted that he, not Campolo, provide the cake and his wife offered to do the cooking for the party. Somehow word got around the streets and at 3:15am the next day the diner was crowded with prostitutes. When Agnes walked in everyone shouted: “Happy Birthday!” Agnes, whose life had never been celebrated, burst into tears .”

Compare that story with a true story from my own experience. “Sarah”, also a prostitute, came to faith at a Billy Graham crusade in 1994. The counselors at the crusade put Sarah in touch with her local church which is where I met her. Sarah was open both with the Rector and myself about her profession. She was also honest about the fact that she felt that she couldn’t give up the work until she had paid off a drug debt of $5,000. Interestingly, her conversion experience had enabled her to give up drinking, smoking and drug-taking, but $5,000 does not come from thin air. Such was Sarah’s integrity that she would not be baptized until she had given up the work.

One afternoon Sarah rang me in deep distress. Her psychologist – himself a Christian and a pastor – had accused Sarah of not being committed to Christ because she had not stopped working. I was completely floored. This beautiful, honest person whose personal background had been one of neglect and abuse, was being told that she hadn’t really turned her life around, that she was not sincere in her faith because she was still working. Her psychologist hadn’t offered to pay her drug debt or promised to protect her when the enforcers turned up for payment nor had he validated what she had already given up or affirmed her integrity in delaying baptism.

Sarah was in a state of utter despair and it took the best part of an hour for me to begin to undo the damage this man had done and for her to feel reassured that she was on the right path and that God had not rejected her.

Two Christian psychologists, who were also pastors, responded to the prostitutes in two completely different ways revealing two completely different understandings of the gospel. Campolo saw past Agnes’ profession and recognized her loneliness and alienation. He responded to her with generosity and love. The second man could not see beyond Sarah’s profession and so responded with meanness and condemnation.

These two men represent the different attitudes and responses of the church to those who do not fit the mould of a ‘good’ Christian. Both may feel that they have the love of God in their hearts but one doles out that love sparingly and only to people whom he considers deserving of that love. He believes that compassion and forgiveness must be earned and that a person must achieve a particular standard in order to be acceptable to God. His view of God’s kingdom is that it only includes the worthy and that he is in a position to determine who is and who is not worthy to belong. The other, who is from what is perhaps a more conservative Christian tradition obviously reads the Bible in such a way as to understand that God’s love is expansive and inclusive, that it cannot be earned but is poured out in equal measure on the deserving and the undeserving alike. The first demanded that Sarah change in order to earn God’s love, the latter showed God’s love to Agnes without condition.

Over and over again, in his teaching and in his actions, Jesus demonstrates that God’s love is poured out on those who do nothing to deserve it and that God delights in showing that love. The lost sheep is not reprimanded, the lost son is not castigated. When the lost are found they are not made to do penance. God doesn’t wait until they have redeemed themselves, instead from the moment they are found there is a celebration, a party – not only on earth, but also in heaven.

When Jesus calls Matthew the tax collector, he doesn’t say, “Go and make reparation, then come follow me.” He doesn’t demand that Zacchaeus stop collecting taxes. He simply says: “Come down. I’m going to have dinner with you.” The thief on the cross was not asked to repent but assured of his place in paradise.

God’s love is not doled out sparingly or meanly in response to what we (and others) do or do not do. God’s love is lavishly bestowed on those who have not done, or cannot do, anything to deserve it including ourselves. God does not wait till we are good enough and God holds nothing back – there is more than enough bread for those who need to be fed and more than enough wine to ensure that the wedding party does not come to an abrupt end.

Like the bread on the mountainside or the wine at the wedding, God’s love is not measured and limited but vast and abundant. It is withheld from no one, ourselves included.

A cause for offense?

August 25, 2018

Pentecost 14 – 2018

John 6:58-69

(Notes while on leave).

Marian Free

In the name of God who is disconcerting, challenging and confronting. Amen.

Speaking to a journalist from The Huffington Post about his work ‘Piss Christ’ the artist Andres Serrano stated: “The only message is that I’m a Christian artist making a religious work of art based on my relationship with Christ and The Church. The crucifix is a symbol that has lost its true meaning; the horror of what occurred. It represents the crucifixion of a man who was tortured, humiliated and left to die on a cross for several hours. In that time, Christ not only bled to dead, he probably saw all his bodily functions and fluids come out of him. So if “Piss Christ” upsets people, maybe this is so because it is bringing the symbol closer to its original meaning. There was a time prior to the 17th century when the only important art, the only art that mattered, was religious art. After that, there were very few contemporary art pieces that were considered both art and religious, and “Piss Christ” is one of them.”

When the photograph ‘Piss Christ’ was displayed in Melbourne it was greeted with horror by members of conservative Christian groups who demanded that it be removed from the exhibit because it was disrespectful and offensive to the Christian faith. Even though Serrano is a Christian and even though the work was intended to make a powerful statement about the Christian faith, the protesters could not be appeased.

It is not the first time (and will not be the last) that theatre, literature or art has offended the sensibilities of good Christian folks. For example the musical Jesus Christ Superstar drew crowds of protesters when it was first performed in Brisbane for example.

Of course, the protesters believe that they are defending the Christian faith against attack, protecting it’s purity and it’s innocence. From their vantage point any story except their own is misleading and heretical and any presentation of Christ that dares to critique the domestication of the Gospel is seen as disrespectful and offensive. Those who are sensitive to the ‘offense’ believe that it is their task to defend the faith, to protect the image/the reputation of God.

From my vantage point there are two problems inherent in this way of thinking and behaving. The first is the presumption that God needs human beings to protect God’s reputation and the second is that this who are so offended seem to have forgotten how offensive and scandalous Jesus was. The Greek word ‘σκανδάλων’ (to scandalize, to cause offense) is used of Jesus on more than one occasion. Far from trying to maintain or conform to the status, Jesus appears to be constantly causing offense to the good religious people of the time. Jesus offends the Pharisees by breaking the Sabbath, eating with tax-collectors and, most seriously, by claiming to be one with God. His behavior is so scandalous that those who associate with him are threatened with expulsion from the synagogue and those who are so offended plot to kill him.

Scandal is at the heart of today’s gospel. Crowds, including the Pharisees and disciples, have been captivated by the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. They have been happy to have been caught up in the enthusiasm of the crowds that follow Jesus. However, as Jesus expounds on the meaning of the bread, as he reinterprets traditional views and challenges the crowds to have faith, their enthusiasm wanes. Following Jesus, they realise, will take effort on their part. It will require a depth of understanding and a willingness to change and grow. Many are not ready for this kind of commitment. They are not willing to challenge their cherished belief systems or to expose them to the scrutiny of a new teaching, a new day. Even the disciples complain that the teaching is difficult and many of them abandon Jesus.

The photograph ‘Piss Christ’ challenges all of us to consider how we have domesticated Jesus, to recognize the ways in which we have removed the scandal and the offense of the cross.

We follow a crucified Christ, a man who was condemned to death and executed as a common criminal, who scandalized the religious authorities and even his own followers, who was anything but a comfortable conformist.

The question we should be asking is not whether something offends us, but – whether by our godliness, our lifestyle, our passion for justice, our concern for the marginalized our tolerance and compassion – we are a source of offense to those around us.

Some things are beyond words

August 18, 2018

Pentecost 13 – 2018

John 6:51-58

Marian Free

In the name of God who who desires relationship not understanding. Amen

Many years ago I had the wonderful experience of preparing three young girls for their first communion. It is the tradition of the Anglican Church in Australia to admit the children (over the age of 7) of church going families to Holy Communion after a period of preparation. The theory is that receiving the Eucharist is a serious matter and that children should understand what is happening.

The process involves families working through a book that explains the Eucharist – including the names for the liturgical garments and the Eucharistic vessels. The workbook requires a reasonable level of literacy and a knowledge of the Eucharist that many adults do not have. In this particular instance the children came from a disadvantaged family who lived in an impoverished part of the city. Their mother had recently abandoned them to live with someone else and their father was doing a valiant job of looking after them. Like many of the children in the area, the literacy skills of these three were poor to non-existent.

I was caught between fulfilling the requirements of the church and responding to the desire of these children to be fully included in the life of the Christian community. It was clear to me that their writing skills were not going to allow them to fill in the exercises in the book. It was equally obvious that the use of language like ‘chasuble’, ‘ciborium’ or even ‘font’ were so far beyond their capacity to comprehend or remember that we were not going to progress very far.

One Sunday as I was pondering the way forward I noticed, as the priest was saying the Prayer of Thanksgiving, that the three young girls had made their way to the front of the altar. There they were, standing in rapt attention to all that was going on before them. It was clear to me then, that they had intuited the significance of what was going on (perhaps more than any adult in the church). No amount of book learning would give them what their hearts already knew – that what was happening at the altar had a deep and profound meaning and that they wanted to share in that experience.

The whole of John Chapter 6 is a reflection on the meaning of the feeding of the five thousand. The arguments are circular, heavily dependent on an understanding of the Old Testament and an interpretation of the story of Israel in the wilderness. At times, as we have seen, Jesus is obscure and he does not always give direct answers. But Jesus’ teaching does not occur in a vacuum. The teaching is based on what the listeners have already experienced. They have eaten their fill of bread. Their their physical needs has been met. Jesus goes on to explain that being in relationship with him will satisfy their spiritual needs. Experience precedes understanding, the material precedes the metaphorical.

As Craig Satterlee points out: ‘Jesus is less concerned with getting people’s to understand than he is in getting them to eat.’ ‘He promises rather than instructs or explains.’ Jesus’ focus is on relationship first and foremost. Those who do not challenge Jesus are those who instinctively know and trust him. They are not worried so much about the intellectual details they simply see in and through Jesus a means to deepen their relationship with God and a way to enrich their life in the present that will at the same time ensure life for eternity. Jesus’ challengers will not understand no matter how he tries to explain himself.

As those children reminded me (and continue to remind me) some things are simply beyond words.

What we don’t know is so much greater than what we do know

August 10, 2018

Pentecost 12 – 2018

John 6:35,41-51

Marian Free

In the name of God who stretches our minds and expands our imaginations. Amen.

Having been in Italy and finding myself in Geneva, I am conscious of the schisms created by the Reformation and the sometimes vast differences between the different arms of the Christian Church and of the passion with which members of different denominations hold (or held) to their truths. Arguments raged in my own tradition about whether to kneel for communion or to use the sign of the cross. There were some who died rather than renounce their position on particular issues and bishops who only two centuries ago went to jail for using candles as a part of the liturgy. Today, most of the animosity between traditions has disappeared. The ecumenical movement has led us to understand that the heart of our faith is the same even if some of the externals differ.

That is not to say that the churches have achieved unity – externally or internally. New issues have emerged that are at least as divisive as those of the past – the ordination of women and the marriage of same sex couples to mention two. Again, those on either side of the debate present their arguments with equal intensity and with equal conviction that it is they who are most faithfully interpreting the scriptures and the will of God.

Where we stand on these and other issues depends on many factors including our personal experience and the tradition in which we have been born and raised. Sometimes our opinion is formed or altered by our education or our exposure to those who differ from us – though it must be said that education and personal experience do not always challenge pre-existing views.

Our particular experience of church and of faith also impacts on the way in which we approach change. There is so much at stake that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to change direction. To give a personal example, even though my sense of vocation was powerful and strong, there were moments when a verse from scripture made me waver, made me wonder if the opponents to the ordination of women did in fact have it right. My life’s experience and the teaching I had absorbed as a child were so deeply ingrained and so much a part of my understanding of salvation that it was hard to isolate the voice of the spirit from the accretions of practice and tradition.

So – perhaps we should not be so hard on the hapless ‘Jews’ who are Jesus’ opponents in John’s gospel. As we saw last week, Jesus’ communication could be confusing at best and obtuse at worst. Furthermore, he was taking traditions that had been held for generations and turning them upside down. In today’s gospel we hear Jesus claiming that he is to the Jews what the manna was to their ancestors. In fact he is asserting that he is much more. Using the language that God used to identify himself to Moses, Jesus claims: ‘I AM’. ‘I am the bread of life.’ ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

Jesus, whom everyone in his audience knows to be the son of Joseph, is now insinuating that he is God. As God he is able to guarantee life eternal to those who believe. It is an extraordinary claim for which Jesus’ listeners are completely unprepared. Nothing in their past experience, nothing in their religious practice, nothing in their tradition or teaching could have led them to expect the outrageous claims that Jesus is making. It really is not surprising that they found what he had to say difficult and incomprehensible.

Perhaps the question that we should ask ourselves is not why Jesus’ opponents did not believe, but ‘what was it that enabled at least some to believe?’

Complacency and self-satisfaction can be the enemies of a deep and authentic engagement with the divine. They can give us a false sense of what should be and make us blind and deaf to what really is. We cannot, and will not, ever know a fraction of what there is to know about God.

Instead of arguing over trivial and superficial issues perhaps we as believers should unite in a concerted effort to suspend all our certainties and be caught up in the great adventure that is a relationship with God – Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver – who is ultimately beyond all our efforts to comprehend and who will always be beyond our grasp.

Enough and more to spare

July 28, 2018

Pentecost 10-2018

John 6:1-21

(Notes while on leave)

Marian Free

In the name of God whose giving is never measured or constrained, but lavish and extravagant. Amen.

We are told that there is enough food in the world to feed all the people in it yet each day hundreds of thousands of people go to bed hungry and thousands more die because the world’s resources are not evenly distributed. Just this month I heard that one third of the catch of fish from the Mediterranean is wasted. That’s an enormous amount. Think of the people who could be fed with the two thirds that is simply discarded . It is equally distressing to realise that a majority of people in the Western world throw out around a third of the fresh food that they purchase every week and that that figure doesn’t take into account the food that restaurants and supermarkets are forced to throw out every day – good food that cannot even be given to the homeless or the hungry.

There must be dozens if not hundreds of ways to reduce waste and to ensure that the food that is produced is more equitably distributed. In France, for example, supermarkets are now prevented by law from throwing out food that someone would be grateful to eat. Elsewhere individuals and organizations are doing what they can to source ‘unsaleable’ fresh food and to give it to those in need. It is a great tragedy that we live in a world in which one person dies of hunger or of a hunger related cause every ten seconds and in which first world countries are facing an obesity epidemic. Something is just not right.

There was a time when scholars and others tried to make sense of Jesus’ miracles. In the face of a rational, scientific world they came up with explanations as to what really happened when Jesus healed the lame, cast out demons and fed the 5,000. It was suggested that the feeding of the 5,000 could be explained in this way – even though the boy had only five barley loaves and two small fish his act of generosity meant that every one present was shamed into producing food that they had kept hidden. In the end there was plenty to go around. The problem with this approach is twofold, in a world in which food was scarce it does not account for what was left over and further it says more about humanity than it does about divinity. It turns a miracle story into a morality story making it a reflection on human selfishness.

I don’t know what happened on that day nor do I really care to know. What I do know is that the feeding of the 5,000 is a reminder once again of God’s unlimited, unbounded and unearned generosity. God withholds nothing and always (as the collect says) gives us more than we need or deserve. God never gives barely enough or just enough. God always gives more than enough. God gives in abundance such that there is plenty to go around and more to spare. What is more, God is not diminished but enlarged by every act of generosity.

The more we hold things to ourselves the poorer and meaner we become. In my experience generosity always leads to abundance and that we ourselves are richer, not poorer for what we give away. In fact generosity works both ways – the other ends us with more than enough and we ourselves are not impoverished by the giving.

If we, like God, gave in abundance and held nothing back, we might discover that there is plenty to go around and more besides.

Food for the soul

August 1, 2015

Pentecost 10 – 2015

John 6:26-35 (Some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who feeds our hearts, minds and souls with words of life. Amen.

Bread comes in many forms

Bread comes in many forms

In our Western society in which we have access to supermarkets twenty four hours a day it is difficult to imagine being totally dependent on what we are able to grow for ourselves and, except for the inconvenience of increased prices, we have no real idea how vulnerable food producers are to changes in the weather patterns, to drought and flood. Except in times of natural disaster – when people strip the supermarket shelves of bread, milk and other staples – we have no shortage of bread. Even then, most Australian suburbs boast more than one bakery that even in times of crisis can usually produce fresh bread each morning.

Today, in the West, we have a huge range of foods available to us and we know far more about nutrition than any generation before us, yet we still speak of bread as the “staff of life”. When we stock up on basics we still include quantities of bread because bread is filling and can be used in a variety of ways. Sandwiches can be built on simple spreads or extravagant fillings. Bread comes in a huge variety of forms, shapes and sizes. It fills lunch boxes, accompanies hearty soups, it is eaten on its own or as a accompaniment to a meal, it can be dipped in oil or smeared with honey, it can be toasted or fresh and used to make deserts as well as savoury dishes. The possibilities that a simple loaf of bread provides are seemingly endless.

The ability to grow rather than gather one’s food changed society from one that was always on the move to one that could settle down. Settling down in turn meant not only a need for more social controls but also to the stratification of society. Generally speaking, the vast majority of people existed at a subsistence level in order to feed the rich and powerful who made up a very small percentage of the population. Land was appropriated to feed the growing populations of the cities. This in turn, created a group of people who lacked the means to grow food for themselves and who were forced to hire themselves out as day-labourers, entirely dependent on others for their “daily bread”.

In the Palestine of Jesus’ day most people, including those with a trade, barely earned enough to keep starvation from the door. Their diet would have been limited to what they could grow, the animals they could afford to keep and the fish they were able to catch. Those whom Jesus has just fed with five barley loaves and two small fish, know only too well how dependent they are on the vagaries of the weather and how vulnerable they are should the harvest fail. Full stomachs and food for which they have not had to struggle is a miracle in itself, let alone the fact that Jesus has fed so many with so little.

It is no wonder that they seek Jesus. But Jesus is not impressed. He understands that they see only the superficial and that in seeking him, they are after physical, not spiritual sustenance. In other words, they have not understood the deeper meaning of the miracle that reveals who Jesus is and what he represents. No matter how much bread they have to eat today, they will still need to find bread to eat tomorrow and the following day. Jesus urges them to see beyond the external sign of the multiplication of the loaves to what the miracle is trying to tell them. He is trying to open their eyes to the presence of God in their midst. He wants to direct them away from their physical needs and encourage them to focus not only on their spiritual needs, but also on their eternal salvation.

Jesus points out that like bread the things of this world will perish. It is only those things that are not of this world that will endure forever. The things that are required to meet physical needs constantly have to be replenished, but the food for the soul – that which is required for spiritual well being, in the present and in the future – will be so satisfying that it will never have to be refilled or restocked. Jesus claims to be that bread, that source of nourishment and life that will so completely meet their need for fulfillment and meaning that they will never again hunger or thirst for peace and contentment.

For us, as for Jesus’ listeners, the pressures and demands of our day-to-day life can crowd out our need for spiritual refreshment and rest. The expectations placed on us by family, work and even church can claim our full attention and make us forget the needs of our soul. It is so easy for us to be distracted by the world around us – the world that we can see and feel and touch – that we can forget that for all the pleasure it gives us, this material world is limited in time and space. When it comes to an end or when our time in this world is over, what will we have?

While we are in this world, we will of course be caught up in it. Our physical bodies will require nourishment; our families and other commitments will make claims on our time, as indeed they should.

Today’s gospel reminds us that however much we gain from the things of this world, however much pleasure they give us and however much they meet our needs for achievement and pleasure – there will always be something wanting, we will continue to hunger and thirst for something more.

Jesus claims to be that something more, the source of a deep and lasting sense of fullness and satisfaction that will bring an end to all our striving and discontent in the present and assure us of life forever in the world to come.

An inexhaustible God

August 2, 2014

Pentecost 8 – 2-14
Matthew 14:13:21

Marian Free

In the name of God who never tires and who abundantly provides for us. Amen.

It is probably obvious to you that I find the study of the New Testament absolutely fascinating. It is like a giant puzzle that is just waiting for me to find the key. I am delighted to discover points of difference in the gospels or to come to a new understanding of Paul’s use of rhetoric. Such discoveries deepen and enrich my faith and give me some insight into the nature of early Christianity and into the characters who formed the faith as we know it. I am intrigued to find out why Matthew and Luke altered and added to Mark’s gospel and to learn what that says about the situation of the communities for whom they wrote. When I understand the conflict that is raging in the community behind the letters of John the letters come to life and the themes of the letters are more accessible. And so I could go on!

Today’s gospel is the account of the ‘feeding of the 5,000’. This story is unusual in that it is repeated in all four gospels and three of the four agree that the event was followed by the account of Jesus’ walking on the water and preceded by the news of the death of John the Baptist. Mark and Matthew think the event so amazing that they add a second miraculous feeding (of 4,000).

A useful exercise is to place all four (six) accounts side by side in order to see which details are included and which are left out. Some of the differences between the accounts are curious. For example, Mark tells us that there was ‘green’ grass, John that ‘there was a great deal of grass’ whereas Matthew simply says that there was grass and Luke just that the people were made to sit down. John’s account is the most complex and longest of the four. The author of John sets the story in the context of the Passover and uses it as the introduction to a lengthy discourse on the bread of life. Another notable difference in John’s account is the naming of the disciples – Andrew and Phillip – the detail that the loaves were made of barley and that the loaves and fish were provided by a boy. Mark and John let us know that bread for such a large number of people would cost the equivalent of 200 days wages for a labourer – an unimaginable sum for any group of people to have at any one time!

Mark wrote his gospel first, so it is his version that Matthew and Luke have adapted. In general terms both Matthew and Luke tidy up Mark’s Greek, correct any mistakes that he made and make Jesus more in control and the disciples less foolish. When Matthew and Mark are placed side-by-side it is clear that Matthew’s version is considerably shorter. In fact, Matthew has shortened Mark by one third. Both Matthew and Luke leave out Mark’s awkward introduction and some of the discussion between the disciples and Jesus – in particular that which emphasises the disciples’ misunderstanding (the cost of bread). Matthew uses the sentence comparing the crowd to sheep in another context so he doesn’t repeat it here. Matthew also omits any reference to Jesus’ asking for the crowd to be organised into groups. Only Matthew includes the women and children – not necessarily because he thought that their presence was important, but because drawing attention to their presence increases the significance of the size of the crowd.

All these facets are interesting, and tell us something about the development of the tradition and about those things that were held to be important by the different authors of the gospel. We can wonder about the allusions to the feeding miracles of the Old Testament, the meaning of the twelve baskets or the grouping of the people into hundreds and fifties. What is more important though is discerning what the story means for us. (Here we will focus on Matthew’s account as that is the gospel set for today).

As Matthew tells the story, Jesus seeks to be alone having heard about the death of John the Baptist. It may be that he wants time to grieve or that he needs time to absorb the implications of John’s death for his own ministry. In any case he and the disciples ‘withdraw to a deserted place’. It is clear to Jesus that if he continues on the path that he has chosen, he like John will find himself in direct opposition to Israel’s leaders and his life too will be at risk. He needs to get away to reflect. It is however, impossible for him to be alone – even though he travels by boat, the crowds ‘follow on foot’ and arrive ahead of him. Then, ignoring his own needs and sending the crowds away, Jesus ‘has compassion’ and exercises his healing ministry. (Something that must have been exhausting if the crowds were as big as they say.) Even when it gets late and his disciples press him to send the crowds away so that they can find food, Jesus insists that the people do not need to go. He tells the surprised (and unprepared) disciples that they should give the people something to eat. They don’t even have enough for themselves (five loaves for twelve disciples AND Jesus will not go far) and yet, when the bread and fish are blessed and distributed, there is more than enough for all – twelve baskets more than enough.

The miracle is one thing, but it is what this story tells us about God that is important for us today. When we are exhausted, when we have used up all of our reserves and feel that we cannot go on, God keeps on working. When we have nothing left to give, we know that we are supported by the inexhaustible God, who never tires, who never rests and who always provides more than we can ever need.

When it gets too hard do you wish to go away?

August 19, 2012

Pentecost 12

John 6:51-58

Marian Free

 In the name of God – source of life, wisdom and joy. Amen.

 “Do you also wish to go away?” Jesus’ question to his disciples in verse 67 catches us by surprise. These are the people with whom he has chosen to share his mission, his most private moments. In their turn, they have chosen to follow him despite what others might think. Why would they now want to go away? Today’s gospel helps us to understand the lead up to Jesus’ question. In fact, we have to go back to the beginning of chapter 6 to see how the tension builds to the point where some disciples leave Jesus and Jesus is forced to ask the remainder if they too wish to leave. The author of John’s gospel records the account of the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’ walking on the water as do the other three gospels. According to the author of John, the crowds which have been following Jesus, discover that he is on the other side of the lake and pursue him. This provides Jesus with an opportunity to challenge their self-centredness and to elaborate on his role and his mission.

Jesus perceives that the crowds are primarily interested in what he can do for them – provide food, heal the sick and so on. These signs, while important, are not the real reason that Jesus is here. He challenges those who have followed to seek the deeper meaning of Jesus’ presence among them. Bread sustains the body for a limited time. Jesus asks his listeners to consider the sort of food that will sustain them in the present and more importantly for eternity. He asks them to look beyond their physical needs for sustenance and to seek the food that endures – the spiritual food that sustains the soul. This is the food that he provides to those who seek it.

As part of this argument, Jesus claims to be the ‘bread of life’. We are so familiar with this concept that it can be difficult for us to understand how such a discussion could create the sort of offense that would cause some of Jesus’ disciples to abandon him and Jesus to ask if others too wish to go away. Jesus as the ‘bread of life’ provides us with strength and courage, spiritual nourishment and support.  Perhaps if Jesus had left the argument there his disciples would have remained with him. However, Jesus has claimed to be the bread from heaven which endures forever – unlike the manna in the wilderness which sustained the Israelites in the present, but which was unable to give them eternal life. Among his listeners would have been those who would have heard Jesus’ suggestion that he was more important than – in fact that he had superseded Moses.

If that claim were not confronting enough, Jesus makes the even more disturbing claim: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this brad will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Not only is the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood utterly repulsive, it is impossible for Jesus’ audience to grasp such a difficult and distressing concept. Many of them know Jesus, they know his mother and his father. They know that he is a human being like themselves – how can he say that he has come down from heaven? It is impossible for them to even begin to conceive that it is possible, let alone necessary for them to consume this man’s flesh and blood if they are to have eternal life! No wonder many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him! They say: “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?”

They have failed to understand that Jesus, through this dramatic and uncomfortable language, Jesus is asking his followers not to physically eat him, but to become one with him, to allow him to become so much a part of them that it is as if they are indeed one flesh and blood. Eating and drinking are metaphors for this complete unity. In some way faith is a process of somehow absorbing Jesus into our lives and allowing our lives to be absorbed into that of Jesus.

Eating and drinking are strong images, but they are not totally unfamiliar. We say to children: “I could just eat you!” We don’t mean that literally, we just mean that we love them so much that we don’t want to be separated from them. This is the sort of relationship that Jesus is asking his disciples (and us) to have with him.

It is at this point that Jesus asks those who remain: “Do you also wish to go away?” To which Peter responds: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter, who so often fails to understand, who so often gets it wrong has cut to the core. He may not always understand what Jesus has to say, but he knows what Jesus means – to himself and to the world. Peter may not really understand Jesus’ teaching at this point, but he is sure of one thing – that there is nowhere that he would rather be, nowhere else that he would receive the sort of spiritual guidance that he has found in Jesus. He knows that in the present and in the future, it is his relationship with Jesus that has opened the doors of heaven.

I suspect that it is the same for us. There may be times when we do not understand – when scripture seems too difficult, when the events of our lives or the lives of others seem inexplicable – but we with Peter know that Jesus is the means to eternal life. We have thrown in our lot with Jesus, and nothing in this life or the next will separate us.





Knowing Jesus – being part of the story

July 28, 2012

Pentecost 9

John 6:1-21

Marian Free

In the name of God who is the end of all our stories. Amen.

 There is a wonderful movie called “When Harry met Sally”. It is about two graduates who share a ride to New York, separate, meet again, separate and finally admit that they want to spend their lives together. I watched the movie again recently and was reminded that one of Harry’s habits was that he liked to read the end of a book first. He couldn’t stand the suspense of waiting until the end to see how everything worked out, so he would read a few pages at the beginning and then turn to the end before going back to where he had left off.

When I first saw the movie I couldn’t believe that any one could spoil a good read by jumping ahead in that way. However, I have to acknowledge that there are times when I’ve been compelled to ask someone whether or not a book ends well because the suspense is too much for me. I don’t want to know the ending exactly, but I do want to prepare myself to know if, for example, the central characters are going to completely damage their relationship or whether they eventually get it together. If I know that it is all going to end well, then I can cope with the stresses along the way! I have to confess that on one occasion it took me several weeks to read the end of a book, not because I was anxious about the ending, but because I had guessed what the ending was going to be and knew that it would spoil the whole book!

For most of us, knowing the end of a story spoils our enjoyment of it. In fact, reviewers now have an expression: “here comes the spoiler”‘ which acts as a warning for us to stop listening, watching or reading because the end of the story is about to be revealed.

John’s Gospel should perhaps come with such a warning. Throughout John’s gospel we are given a glimpse of the community in the present – the risen Jesus, the Jesus known by believers in the present – makes his presence known in the gospel as much, if not more than, the Jesus of history. This is because the author of John, unlike the authors of Matthew, Mark and Luke, writes from the perspective of a community which understands the historical Jesus as a result of knowing the risen Christ. Jesus is understood and taught from the perspective of those who know the risen Jesus. That is, the end of the story determines the way in which the story is told. That is not to say that the communities of the other gospels did not know the risen Christ and that they did not read that knowledge back into the story as they told it. It just means that they wrote their gospels from a different perspective. The writers of the Synoptic Gospels knew the end of the story but they wrote, by and large, as if they did not.

The account of feeding of the five thousand occurs in all four gospels. In fact in some gospels there are two accounts of miraculous feedings – the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand. Likewise in all four gospels the account of Jesus’ walking on the water is attached to the feeding of the five thousand.

John’s account has some marked differences from the other three. His detail of where the event occurred is more specific. He tells us that the Passover was near – a symbol that is associated with Jesus’ death. In John two disciples, Philip and Andrew, are mentioned by name. The emphasis in John is on the abundant provision of bread rather than the miracle itself. After the feeding, the disciples choose to go on ahead while Jesus withdraws by himself. There is a strong wind, but the disciples are more frightened of Jesus than they are of the storm.

A number of other factors in John’s re-telling stand out. These are what lead scholars to believe that the story is being interpreted in the light of the present situation – that of a community which knows the risen Christ. For example, in John’s account Jesus is completely in control. He is not trying to escape the crowds and they don’t reach the spot before him. It is Jesus, not the disciples who notices the hunger of the crowds and he doesn’t send the disciples to buy food to feed them.

In John’s gospel, Jesus sees the crowds coming, takes the initiative and asks Philip where they can buy bread. However, he does not expect an answer, because he already knows what he is going to do. The Jesus of John doesn’t waste time. As soon as he sees the crowds coming he wonders about feeding (not teaching) them. After they are fed, the crowds declare Jesus to be the prophet who is to come into the world. All this is in contrast with the other gospel writers who emphasize Jesus’ compassion, have Jesus teach and heal before the crowds are fed, and who stress the fact that the disciple’s misunderstand the meaning of the bread.

John’s concern in re-telling the story is less with the miracle itself and more with the question of the identity of Jesus. Even though they get it wrong, the recognition of Jesus by the crowds is an important part of the story. The crowds identify Jesus not just as a miracle worker, but as the prophet who is to come into the world. Mistakenly, they seek to make him king, but he is not the sort of king that they expect.

At the same time, the multiplication of the loaves provides an opportunity for teaching  – something that is a common feature in John’s gospel.  The Jesus of John doesn’t teach and heal the crowds and then feel obliged to feed them because he has kept them so late. In John the crowds are fed first. The miracle of the feeding provides the illustration and sets the scene for the teaching that is to come. (For the remainder of this very long chapter, Jesus will explain the meaning of the bread, claim to be the bread of life and demand that people identify completely with him by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. In fact, as we will discover the teaching is so difficult that it separates the Jesus’ true followers from those who just want what Jesus can do for them.)

As in Matthew and Mark, John’s account is followed by Jesus’ walking on the water. Again there are a number of differences in John which suggest an interpretation by the post-resurrection church. Two features stand out – Jesus comes to the disciples (as he does after the resurrection) and the key to the story is the recognition of Jesus by the disciples (they don’t mistake him for a ghost). When Jesus walks towards the boat the disciples are terrified, but when they know it is Jesus, they try to get him to come into the boat with him.

Their recognition of Jesus also serves to separate the disciples from the rest of the world. The disciples recognise Jesus for who he is, whereas the crowds see him as they want to see him. The crowds judge Jesus by worldly not other-worldly categories, they can see him only in earthly terms. The disciples know the deeper, spiritual significance of Jesus, and understand that as a result of such knowing they are set apart as the community that follows in his name.

Like the gospel writers, we too know the end of the Jesus’ story. Like the community for whom John’s gospel was written, our lives and our understanding of Jesus are determined as much by the Jesus who is present with us, as they are by our knowledge of the historic Jesus. The story of the historical Jesus is essential for our understanding of our faith, but it is the risen Jesus who informs, teaches, challenges and guides all that we do in the present.

Our present is the end of the story so far, our past is already a part of the story, and our future will determine how the story is told. In fact our future may determine whether or not the story continues to be told.

May we live in such a way that the story known through us is a story which is filled with the transforming power of the risen Christ in our lives.

(I am indebted to L.Th. Witkamp “Some Specific Johannine Features in John 6:1-21.” in Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 40 (1990) 43-60. for some of the ideas above.)

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