Posts Tagged ‘more than enough’

Our “nothing” will be more than enough

August 5, 2017

Pentecost 8 – 2017

Matthew 14:13-21

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who believes in us and pushes to believe that we can share in God’s work. Amen.

We are so familiar with the story of the feeding of the five thousand that we may not have noticed that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each tell the story somewhat differently. There are many differences, but today I want to focus on the conversation between Jesus and the disciples. Matthew, Mark and Luke agree that the disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds away to find food (and lodging) and all three are agreed that Jesus turns the situation around and says to the disciples: “You give them something to eat.” If there are five thousand men, there may well have been ten or twenty thousand people if they had all brought one wife and two children. Five thousand mouths to feed would have been overwhelming, ten or twenty thousand would have presented and absolutely unimaginable feat. (The disciples must have wondered what Jesus was thinking!)

According to Mark the disciples respond to this extraordinary instruction by saying: “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread?” In Luke also the disciples suggest shopping for bread: “We have no more than five loaves and two fish – unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” According to Matthew the disciples make no mention of buying bread. They say: “We have nothing, except five loaves and two fish”.

This is one instance in which John includes material that is found in the other three gospels, but in John’s account the conversation is quite different. According to John, Jesus takes the initiative. Before the crowds have even reached Jesus and the disciples, Jesus turns and asks Philip: “How are we to buy bread for all these people?” Philip, like the disciples in Mark, considers buying bread and like those disciples recognises that six months wages would not buy enough bread to give each person even a small amount.

John’s gospel gives a clue that may help us to understand what is happening here. He suggests that Jesus is testing the disciples. Now perhaps “test” is too strong a word for what is happening in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but it does seem possible that Jesus is putting the disciples on the spot, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own ministry and stretching them to see what they can do. The disciples are so used to Jesus taking the initiative that instead of doing something themselves they come to Jesus with their problem and expect him to do something about the impending dark and the need to manage such a large crowd. They have seen a need; they should use their own resources to try to meet it. So, instead of responding to their concern, Jesus put the responsibility back on them. “You do it,” he says. Was Jesus just worn out or did he, as John suggests, have another purpose in mind when he refused to act on the disciples’ request?

Let’s try to imagine the scenario as Matthew presents it. Jesus has just heard of the grisly death of John the Baptist. He needs time to grieve – and to process what this means for himself. Jesus tries to escape the crowds and takes a boat to a “lonely place”. However, by now the crowds know what he can do for them, and having seen the direction in which Jesus was heading, make their way there by foot. Jesus’ compassion overrides his need for time alone and he heals those who are sick. Evening arrives and the disciples begin to think about practical matters. Unless the crowd is dispersed now, it will soon be dark. The disciples seek Jesus out and tell him that he should send the crowds away to buy food before it gets too late.

Maybe Jesus has reached the limits of his endurance, maybe he is tired of the burden of responsibility or, more likely, Jesus wants the disciples to begin to take ownership of their ideas instead of expecting him to do everything. Either way, Jesus turns the situation around saying to the disciples: “You give them something to eat”.

The response of the disciples is contradictory: “We have nothing, but five loaves and two small fish.” Five loaves and two small fish is not nothing – it is something and, as we shall see it is something from which Jesus can make something much, much more.

How often do we depend on God to do or to fix something instead of doing what we can to help? How often do we think that we have nothing to offer instead of trusting God to use what we have? How often do we underestimate our own abilities instead of recognising the gifts God has given us? How often are we frozen in indecision instead of believing that God will guide and direct us if only we start moving?

In other words we have no excuse for sitting back and thinking that we are not worthy, or that we are not talented, or that we have nothing to offer, or that we do not have what God wants or needs. Our “nothing” is always something and, as so long as we have the confidence to offer it for God to use, God will ensure that it is always more than enough.

 

 

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Moving the boundaries

August 16, 2014

Pentecost 10. 2014

Matthew 15:21-28

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who is constantly breaking down barriers and opening new possibilities for existence. Amen.

The account of the Canaanite woman is perhaps the most confronting story in the New Testament. Our familiarity with the Gospels means that we are not at all shocked by the way that Jesus befriends sinners and eats with them. Nor are we surprised that he allows a woman of the street to wash his feet. It seems perfectly reasonable to us that Jesus should heal on a Sabbath. But this story is shocking Jesus is rude and unsympathetic. He refuses to respond to a mother’s agonised cry for help. Worse still, not only does Jesus ignore the woman’s pleas, he adds insult to injury when he justifies his refusal by likening the woman to a household pet that does not deserve the same food as the children.

This hard, uncompromising Jesus is almost unrecognisable. Is this, we might ask, the same Jesus who only a short while ago had such compassion for the crowd that even though he needed to be alone he healed the sick and fed more than 5,000 people?

What is going on here? Such an unflattering and unexpected description of Jesus demands further explanation. Why would the Gospel writers include an account in which Jesus is so uncompromising, so rude? What is it that causes Jesus to withhold healing in this situation? Did he think that he would find the peace he was seeking outside Israel’s borders and did the woman interrupt that peace? We may not be able to find a satisfactory answer to those questions, but we can draw the conclusion that the purpose of this story in Matthew’s gospel is to explain how it is that the Gentiles have come to faith in a Jewish Messiah. – why it is that the faith community consists of both Jew and Gentile.

There are two versions of Jesus’ encounter with a Gentile woman in Mark and Matthew. A comparison between the two accounts shows that Mark’s record of the meeting is much less confrontational. Matthew has heightened the contest in a number of ways, which makes the outcome even more surprising. He elevates the position of the woman and he emphasises Jesus’ refusal to help. The woman recognises Jesus as the Son of David and falls down and worships him. This makes her a more formidable combatant than the woman in Mark’s account as she knows who Jesus is at a time when Jesus’ disciples have not yet made up their minds. The battle lines are more clearly drawn In Matthew, Jesus ignores the woman’s request not once but twice and his refusal to acknowledge her is supported by the disciples who urge him to send her away. Jesus’ response to the woman is strengthened by the assertion that his responsibility is only to the lost sheep of Israel. Matthew makes the woman stronger, Jesus harsher.

The basic elements of the story are the same in both gospels. Tyre and Sidon are on the Mediterranean Sea – a long way from Galilee and in territory that is primarily Gentile. It is Jesus, not the woman, who is out of place. The woman who seems to appear out of nowhere is desperate. An evil spirit oppresses her daughter. When Jesus rejects her plea for a second time she is not deterred. So confident is she in his authority and in his ability that she informs him that the crumbs will be enough. In her wisdom (or humility) she has understood that there is more than enough to go around and that even the left-overs will be more than sufficient to meet her need[1]. By helping her daughter, she suggested Jesus’ ministry to Israel would in no way be diminished.

Jesus is outside his territory on the woman’s home ground and she demands that he take her faith seriously. Consciously or unconsciously, the woman foreshadows the future. After Jesus’ death, the gospel will be preached in the regions beyond Israel. There the Gentiles will recognise Jesus and will demand their place in the community of faith.

In the final analysis, this account is much more than a story about one woman’s faith. It is in fact a reflection about boundaries, boundaries that turn out not to be rigid and immovable but fluid and ever-changing. The world into which Jesus was born was very clear about who was in and who was out and the lines between the two were fiercely guarded. Belonging was more than a birthright it also required adherence to strict purity laws. One could be born a Jew but still be an outsider. Anyone with a disability or skin disease was considered unclean, tax collectors and prostitutes were excluded. Temporary exclusion could result from contact with a corpse, a flow of blood or a failure to observe the purity laws. It was close to impossible for anyone from outside to be given admission to God’s chosen people. The woman’s insight and her refusal to be denied made it clear that the boundaries were moving and that Jesus’ message was intended not just for a few, but for the whole world.

Our readings today remind us that God doesn’t observe conventions or maintain strict boundaries. Genesis tells us that by default Joseph, the Hebrew slave of Pharaoh, becomes the ruler of all Egypt. In Romans Paul reminds us that, contrary to expectation, wIld olive shoots (the Gentiles) are grafted on to the rich root of the olive tree (the Jews).

The faith that grew in Jesus’ name shattered all previous boundaries and admitted as full members those who were previously on the outside or who were languishing in the shadows.

The Canaanite woman demanded and received recognition for her faith. She challenged Jesus’ narrow mind-set and forced him to think differently. In a world in which boundaries are becoming drawn ever tighter or being raised against perceived threats or new fears, perhaps it is time for us to consider where we stand and to ask ourselves whether our fences represent the mind of God or whether they are simply there to separate ourselves from others and to protect the ways of the past.

[1] An interesting insight in view of the quantity of leftovers from the feeding of the 5,000.


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