Text Study for John 6:22-34 (Pt. 1); 10 Pentecost B 2021

We now move into the Bread of Life Discourse proper in John’s account. The discourse runs through the balance of chapter 6. Karoline Lewis suggests that the Gospel of John demonstrates a pattern of sign(s), dialogue, and discourse. In general, that’s a helpful schematic. But it’s clear that the dialogue and discourse elements alternate somewhat here in chapter six. Both the Jerusalem authorities and Jesus’ disciples raise objections to Jesus’ assertions of divinity at various points in the chapter.

Even as we move into the Bread of Life Discourse proper, we dare not lose track of the signs that precede it and which the Discourse unfolds. The Discourse reaches back to the signs for anchoring in concrete reality and forward into the main themes of John’s Gospel. Lewis notes, “the discourse that follows can be recast as not simply an explanation of the sign but an invitation to abiding in the relationship that Jesus is offering” (page 84).

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Lewis also reminds us that this grounding of the Discourse in physical bread maintains the incarnational focus of the gospel account. “To stake an entire theology and Christology on God becoming human requires that at every turn the incarnation is completely present,” she writes. “As a result, Jesus as the Bread of Life, first and foremost, before rendering its interpretation through the lens of the Old Testament or eucharistic liturgical practices, must be grounded in bread as a necessity for sustenance as a human being. Anything less,” she argues, “could very well undermine what is at stake in the contention that the Word became flesh” (page 84).

So, the task for the preacher is, perhaps, not to “move on” from the signs in the first part of John 6 but rather to continue to unfold their meanings just as Jesus does in the Dialogue and Discourse. Lewis writes, “no section of the discourse can be understood or interpreted without recognizing its complete reliance on the feeding of the five thousand. The Bread of Life discourse,” she concludes, “is first and foremost Jesus’ interpretation of this sign” (page 86).

This should relieve preachers, Lewis suggests, of the anxiety of having to say something “new” each of the five weeks of this section of the calendar. “For a preacher to approach each pericope, each section of the Bread of Life discourse as expecting a fresh perspective works against the theological nature of the Fourth Gospel,” she cautions, “that the intent of the discourse is a desire to pull the believer deeper into abiding with Jesus, not to gain some further knowledge or insight” (page 86). So, we seek to go deeper with the Discourse, not wider.

The lectionary selection omits verses 22 to 24, but I would include them in the reading. The crowd doggedly pursues Jesus until they find him. He is no longer at the place where he had “given thanks.” The verb used there is the root for our word, “eucharist,” so that is of some significance. The place is not noteworthy merely because a mass feeding happened there. It is an important spot because the Lord did something eucharistic in that place.

Karoline Lewis urges us to include these verses in the reading for several reasons. The searching and seeking show that the relationship between Jesus and the crowds is not one-sided. She reminds us that looking for Jesus has been a mark of potential disciples from the very first chapter of the Gospel account, and it will be a question of Mary Magdalene in the Easter garden.

The crowd seeks more bread. Jesus offers them abundant life. As is so often the case in John, this sort of disconnect will produce a fruitful and extended discourse. “That the crowd wants or needs a sign exposes their inability to recognize the meaning of the sign and therefore the necessity of Jesus’ discourse,” Lewis writes, “Even witnessing the sign itself will not necessarily result in belief” (page 87).

The gospel writer continues to focus on the disordering of desire. In John 6, the problem is not “too much” desire. The problem is too little desire – settling for physical bread as an end in itself. Jesus tells the crowd that they are seeking him because they want to have their bellies filled once again, and nothing more. That is the food that perishes, he tells them. It’s not worth the effort by itself and of itself.

I think this stretch of texts begs for stories of shocking, life-transforming abundance. There is Johan Bojer’s final chapter in his work, The Great Hunger. Peer Holm, the main character, has spent a lifetime pursuing his specific and concrete desires, only to discover that he remained unfulfilled. He returned home to his village, found a wife, named Merle, and together they had a daughter, Asta. The little girl, now five years old, was the light of his life.

Holm and his family had neighbors who owned a large, brutal, wolfhound named Tiger. The wolfhound was trained to attack anyone who happened into the neighbor’s yard. “A couple of days later,” Holm writes in a letter to a friend, “I was standing at the forge, when I heard a shriek from my wife. I rushed out—what could be the matter? Merle was down by the fence already, and all at once I saw what it was—there was Asta, lying on the ground under the body of a great beast” (Kindle Location 2828).

The wolfhound had torn open the little girl’s throat. The local doctor battled to save her, but there was no help. “Now it was that I began to realize,” Holm continued to write, “how every great sorrow leads us farther and farther out on the promontory of existence. I had come to the outermost point now—there was no more” (Kindle Location).

As a result of his cruel carelessness, the neighbor was shunned by the villagers. The village was suffering through a terrible drought. The neighbor’s barley planting had died from lack of water. No one in the village would sell or give him the seed for a second planting. The neighbor was the object of public scorn and ridicule. There was talk of driving him and his family out of the village.

Even as the villagers plotted their social punishment, Holm had a different experience. He discovered that his desires in life had been misplaced. “And I knew now that what I had hungered after in my best years was neither knowledge, nor honor, nor riches; nor to be a priest or a great creator in steel; no, friend,” Holm continued to write, “but to build temples; not chapels for prayers or churches for wailing penitent sinners, but a temple for the human spirit in its grandeur, where we could lift up our souls in an anthem as a gift to heaven” (Kindle Location 2851).

In the light of that realization, that he desired something deeper, Holm could not sleep as his neighbor suffered. In the middle of the night, he got up from his bed. He went to check his granary so see if he had half a bushel of barley remaining. “Barley – what do you want with barley in the middle of the night?” asked his wife.

“I want to sow the neighbor’s plot with it,” Holm replied, “and it’s best to do it now, so that nobody will know it was me.” His wife stared at Peer Holm in disbelief and then got dressed to come with him. The dog was no longer a threat – shot by the sheriff’s officer.

As he sowed the barley, a kind of light dawned on Holm. “And more and more it came home to me that it is man himself that must create the divine in heaven and on earth—that that is his triumph over the dead omnipotence of the universe. Therefore, I went out and sowed the corn in my enemy’s field, that God might exist” (Kindle Location 2875).

Bojer was not writing as an apologist for Christianity. He argues that Holm did not act for the sake of Christ or for love of enemy. Instead, Bojer asserted, Holm had hungered a lifetime for an authentic and meaningful existence. He discovered that this desire would not be satisfied simply by demanding more bread. It was, rather, a desire to be met only by deep participation in life – both joy and suffering, both gratitude and sacrifice.

A thought strikes me at this moment. We hear repeated calls for workers to return to the employment rolls. Help Wanted signs are ubiquitous. Yet, jobs go wanting while fewer people are employed than before the Pandemic. Why? Is it perhaps that some people are re-evaluating the content and focus of their desires? During the time away from work, have they discovered a longing for the Bread that does not perish? Have they explored what it means to receive that for which one cannot work?

Some thoughts worth exploring further, perhaps.

References and Resources

Bojer, Johan. The Great Hunger . Kindle Edition.

Hylen, Susan. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-18-2/commentary-on-john-624-35-3.

Lewis, Karoline M.  John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Peterson, Brian. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-18-2/commentary-on-john-624-35-2.

Text Study for John 6:1-21 (Pt. 4); 9 Pentecost B 2021

Sourdough Spirituality

No matter what we say about the spiritual and theological depth and complexity of John 6, the story begins with a large crowd of hungry people and real bread.

Like so many other people during Covid-tide, we got into the production and consumption of sourdough bread, biscuits, and muffins. My spouse set aside a jar, put in the appropriate ingredients, and waited for the yeasty magic to happen. We must have a good sourdough environment because the process took off almost immediately. The starter was so active that it seemed like another family member. We named it “Elsie” in honor of Brenda’s bread-making grandmother.

We all discovered two things. Sourdough is a committed personal relationship – not merely a mechanical transaction. The starter requires care and feeding. It can get sick and even die. We’ve had to begin again a few times for reasons that remain mysterious.

Photo by Geraud pfeiffer on Pexels.com

Yet, when the relationship is right, a second reality becomes apparent. Sourdough gives more than it takes. The terminology is fascinating to me. We use the “discard,” the excess from the growing process in order to make our lovely bread, biscuits, and muffins. In fact, our food comes from the leftovers, the excess, the leavings of the process.

If that creates reverberations with the story in John 6, then we’re thinking along the same lines.

Is John 6 the “missing” meditation on the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the Gospel of John? Or is it another kind of discourse? This is a subject of ongoing debate in the literature. I will operate on the assumption that John 6 is indeed the eucharistic meditation in this gospel account and is, therefore, one of the most extensive such meditations in the Christian scriptures. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10-13 are certainly in this league but have a different character.

The eucharistic overtones begin, of course, in the act of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Jesus takes the loaves. He gives thanks (eucharisteo) and distributes the bread to the people as they are seated. Likewise, he distributes the fish. It is impossible for me, as a person formed by eucharistic liturgy and piety, to hear this as anything other than a “Lord’s Supper.”

Of course, the question is which came first – the piety or the practice? Is it the case that we have John’s meditation on the Eucharist here? Or has John’s text been used – regardless of the author’s intention – to form eucharistic piety for so long and so well that we see what perhaps was not there? Certainly, this text forms the eucharistic practice and piety of many Christians. But the eucharistic vibrations just seem too strong in the text for me to believe that we have imposed a meaning that the author did not intend.

There is that little note at the end of verse eleven – “just as much as they wanted.” The emphasis on abundance continues at every stage of the conversation.

In his 1997 article, David Fredrickson challenges the notion that the Feeding of the Five Thousand leads to a metaphorical feeding in John’s understanding. “At stake in the eucharistic interpretation of John 6,” he writes, “are the following items: the relation between Jesus’ divinity and his ability to impart himself to others; Christ’s redemptive work as communication of divinity; and, finally, the meaning for God of the mutuality of Christ and the church” (page 41). He pursues this argument first by examining the leftovers from lunch, the twelve baskets of fragments.

Fredrickson argues that the report in verses 12-13 “is an anticipation of the true bread, Jesus, who is not diminished as he is consumed” (page 41). This is a point that is worth some reflection. Regular food decreases as it is eaten. While the laws of matter and energy conservation are not violated, the actual food doesn’t, in our regular experience, increase as we eat. Fredrickson argues that this increase is a sign of Jesus’ divinity. “Jesus can give his flesh to be eaten and yet continue to exist,” Fredrickson concludes, “because he is God” (page 41).

The problem was scarcity – not enough. It seems there was not enough bread to feed the large crowds. There was not enough money to buy more bread. There was not enough of the small boy’s lunch to even make a start at the banquet. There was not enough vision on the part of the disciples to see what Jesus might do (have they forgotten the water into wine?). In the face of such massive need, what is the use of our meager resources?

“Lack of food was a dominant concern in Jesus’ day,” Bryce Johnson writes. “Sufficient grain was raised in Jesus’ day, but people did not have access to enough grain or bread,” he continues. “Rome took 25 percent of the crop because there were more important mouths to feed elsewhere in the empire,” he notes. In an era of increasing wealth disparity and food insecurity, this stress about scarcity in John 6 is a place where we must begin our reflections.

“Jesus’s earthly ministry explicitly recognizes the potentially corrupting power of our desire to control the bread supply,” Judge and Taliaferro argue. “In calling himself the ‘bread of life,’ Jesus deliberately confronts this desire to control access to and supply of the source of human sustenance, and in doing so, he sets himself up as a target of the secular authorities whose power is in part derived from their ability to control the bread supply” (page 371).

For most of us white, affluent, North Americans, however, scarcity may not be the issue facing us. In his article entitled “Enough is Enough,” William Cavanaugh helps us see that the issue for most of us in a consumerist society is not about having too little but rather about knowing when we have enough.

“Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else. It is not buying,” he argues, “but shopping that captures the spirit of consumerism. Buying is certainly an important part of consumerism, but buying brings a temporary halt to the restlessness that typifies it. It is this restlessness,” he proposes, “the moving on to shopping for something else no matter what one has just purchased—that sets the spiritual tone for consumerism.”

The contemporary issue with stuff, Cavanaugh argues, is not that we neoliberal, individualist, consumers think we have too little. The contemporary issue with stuff is that we worship the “churn,” the turnover of stuff from what we have to what we want. He names it “the satisfying nature of dissatisfaction.” We are less in bondage to things themselves than we are to the stimulus of disordered desire.

“What has happened in consumer society is that dissatisfaction and satisfaction have ceased to be opposites,” Cavanaugh contends. “Pleasure resides not in having but in wanting. Insofar as an item obtained brings a temporary halt to desire, it becomes undesirable. This is why shopping, not buying, captures the spirit of consumerism, and why shopaholism is being treated as an addiction. Consumerism,” Cavanaugh concludes, “is a restless spirit, constantly in search of something new.”

All that being said, even though the mechanism is different in a consumer economy, Cavanaugh asserts that the issue remains scarcity. It is, however, not a scarcity of stuff in the consumer economy. Rather, it is a scarcity of new stuff, different stuff. “Consumerism is typified by detachment, not attachment, for desire must be kept on the move. Consumerism is also typified by scarcity,” Cavanaugh argues, “not abundance, for as long as desire is endless, there will never be enough stuff to go around.”

The solution to this contemporary consumerist condition is, as it was in the beginning, properly ordered desire. “True abundance is never realized by the competition of insatiable desires for scarce goods,” Cavanaugh suggests. “It is realized by emptying the small self into the larger reality,” he continues, “of God’s superabundant life.” That framework will be expanded in the balance of the Discourse.

Every Christian congregation should be engaged in a physical feeding ministry of some sort. Many, many congregations are engaged in precisely such ministries. If, however, that feeding ministry is separated from and in the absence of advocacy for the hungry and critique of the systems that make people hungry, then those feeding ministries are deficient and one-dimensional.

If physical feeding and political advocacy are cut off from a community of eucharistic piety, then the deficiency remains. Our text grounds our local serving and our systemic advocacy in the mission of God to a hungry cosmos.

I will confess to have succumbed to the temptation of drifting into the ether of dualistic eucharistic piety as the weeks of this stretch of John’s gospel wear on. The text we have this week anchors to both dimensions of the Feeding. On the one hand, Jesus feeds real people with real bread. On the other, he is the one who commands the wind and the waves to be calm. The challenge in our preaching this week and in the weeks to come is to hold those dimensions together and make them stick to our contemporary moment.

References and Resources

Cavanaugh, William T. “The Body of Christ: The Eucharist and Politics.” Word and World, Volume 22, Number 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 170-177. http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/22-2_Body_of_Christ/22-2_Cavanaugh.pdf.

Cavanaugh, William T. “When Enough is Enough.” https://biblestudy.definingterms.com/Readings/Cavanaugh_When_Enough_Is_Enough.pdf.

Fredrickson, David E., “Eucharistic Symbolism in the Gospel of John” (1997). Faculty Publications. 85. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/85

Johnson, Bryce. “The Bread of Life.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 382-388.

Judge, Rebecca, and Taliaferro, Charles. “Companionable Bread.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 367-372).

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Molina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for John 6:1-21 (Pt. 3); 9 Pentecost B 2021

Gather Up the Fragments

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ When 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” John 6:14-15, NRSV).

Did the crowd misunderstand the meaning of Jesus’ action in feeding the crowds? No. And yes.

No, they didn’t misunderstand. Feeding the poor, the powerless, and the put-upon is always a political act. It is a political act whether we intend it or not. Feeding the poor is a political act just as visiting the prisoner, comforting the sick, housing the homeless and clothing the naked are political acts.

You can’t (or at least you shouldn’t) engage in such actions without wondering how people got into such situations. Wondering leads to investigating. Investigating leads to information and insight. That information and insight reveals the systems that make people poor, powerless, and put-upon.

Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels.com

“The social structures shaped by bread,” Judge and Taliaferro argue, “are themselves directed towards the attainment of a single goal: control” (page 370). They note that agriculture itself was invented to domesticate and improve grain stocks as a way to have reliable food sources. Control of cereal stock drives construction projects and environmental destruction. Colonization, whether ancient or modern, is motivated in part by the hunger for productive land.

“Massive tax and subsidy programs have been levied and supported by governments across space and time in attempts to meet national goals of adequate control of the bread supply,” they continue. “Riots and revolutions have been instigated by a desire to control access to the supply of bread” (page 370). The fact that the crowd, in John’s account, wants to make Jesus a “bread king” may be one of the most realistic and recognizable observations in the whole text.

Did the crowd misunderstand the meaning of Jesus’ action in feeding the crowds? No. One of the main themes in the Gospel of John is the kingship of Jesus. That is the central focus of his debate with Pilate in John 18. The good king in the Hebrew Scriptures is responsible for the health and well-being of God’s people. Jesus comes to be that sort of king – the opposite of the emperor that Pilate serves.

Thus, the crowd understands and misunderstands. They know that Jesus is the prophet that was promised. They know he is the sort of king that God would send. But they don’t see beyond the bread. That is the burden of the discourse to follow – to see beyond the bread. But in the meantime, we should not lose track of the real and concrete basis for the discourse – hungry, poor, disenfranchised people are fed with abundance.

The result of the feeding is a kind of political organizing. The crowd begins as a collection of individuals and family groups who seek what they can get from Jesus, based on his reputation. After they are fed with abundance, they organize themselves sufficiently that Jesus has to flee their efforts to make him the Bread King by acclamation.

The crowd has been transformed from an atomized collection of desperate individuals into an ecclesia, a public assembly of citizens! It was Jesus the host and substance of the meal who did this. It was the presence and power of Jesus that turned this ragtag rabble into a potentially revolutionary brigade. If this is a prefiguring of how the Eucharist should work in the Church (and I think it is), then we have degraded our political expectations of the Eucharist almost beyond recognition.

William Cavanaugh has written extensively on the relationship between the Eucharist and politics within and beyond the Church. He was formed by work on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church in Chile under the brutal and authoritarian Pinochet regime. In his 2002 article, Cavanaugh notes that the primary strategy of the regime was to reduce organized collectives (including the Church) into crowds of atomized individuals who were left naked to the power of the State. By privatizing Eucharistic piety, the Roman Church locally participated at first in this atomization. We Lutherans, for example, should take note that the privatization of Eucharistic piety is precisely what authoritarian forces seek in order to take the political bite out of that piety.

“Fortunately, a significant portion of the church was able to break out of this paradigm and, drawing on the theology and practice of the eucharist, made the church a visible body in direct contradiction to the regime’s strategy of atomization,” Cavanaugh writes. “The church reappeared by excommunicating torturers, providing a space for grassroots groups to organize, and participating in street protests against the regime and its policy of torture. If the regime’s strategy was one of scattering,” he argues, “the contrary Christian strategy was one of gathering, what I describe as the eucharistic counter-politics of the body of Christ” (2002, page 172).

Cavanaugh’s observations put an interesting spin on the report that the fragments of the feast in the wilderness were gathered up “in order that none may be lost” (John 6:12, my translation). The verb for “gathered up” is synago. This is the word for calling together an assembly, for welcoming a guest or stranger to the community. It is the verb form of the Greek word that gives us “synagogue,” which really refers to a gathering of people rather than merely to a place or building.

The purpose of the gathering is in order that none may be lost. The syntax is ambiguous, although the NRSV decides that it should be translated as “nothing.” It could just as easily be translated as “no one.” I think it is better left in the multivalent mode of “none.” We can already hear vibrations of Jesus’ prayer later in the Gospel, where he gives thanks that none of his were lost, except for the “son of lostness.”

The Eucharist is given in order that none may be lost. To digress a bit, this gives us a different understanding of so-called “worthiness” as a standard for admission to Holy Communion. Some parts of the Christian family put a great deal of emphasis on standards of “worthiness” in their Eucharistic piety. We see none of that in this account. The concern is not to keep out the unworthy but rather to gather together all. The community does not define the Eucharist. The Eucharist creates the community.

To return to Cavanaugh’s reflections. He argues that the torture regime of Pinochet and the individualism of the neoliberal economic state “issue from the same dynamic of atomization on which the modern state is founded. Rights transfer power from social groups to the state in order to build a protective wall around the individual. Torture also aims at building walls around the individual,” Cavanaugh continues, “except the walls have ceased to be protective. This is not, of course, to say that rights and torture are equivalent. It is only to say that atomization is a common pathology of modern states and is a severe problem for the church wherever it is found,” he concludes, “as the church is one of the groups that is compromised in the calculus of state and individual” (2002, page 174).

This may sound like some pretty esoteric puffery. But Cavanaugh brings his argument directly to the communion rail. “As many pastors know,” he observes, “the church is hemorrhaging from the inability of Christian discipleship to out-narrate the ideology of the market” (2002, page 175). He notes that the “market” and Christian discipleship describe two very different roles for human desire. “The tragedy is that we have been trained by the market that desire is self-validating, and so we become incapable of escaping the confines of the self. The landscape of postmodern spirituality,” Cavanaugh writes, “is one of lonely and isolated individuals fabricating their own small gods” (2002, page 175).

He argues that the Church in the United States has made the same theological error regarding the Eucharist that paralyzed the Church in Chile in the face of political repression, torture, and disappearances. “The church is charged with the care of the soul,” he notes, “the body, in effect, is handed over to state and corporation” (2002, page 175). The atomization of society and the dualistic division between “spiritual” and “physical” (between “faith” and “politics”) serves authoritarian political purposes in Pinochet’s Chile and authoritarian market purposes in Reagan’s/Trump’s America.

The dynamic that is missing from Cavanaugh’s analysis in the United States is, however, the reality of racialized identity. On the one hand, there is no greater threat to the authoritarian market and the plutocratic oligarchy it represents than the gathering of “identity politics” groups. Groups are better able to defend themselves against autocracy than are individuals. So, groups – especially racialized groups – must be dispersed and destroyed.

On the other hand, only the WHAMs (white, heterosexual, affluent, males) are allowed to be “individuals” in the sense that the market will recognize. We who fit that profile don’t need a group identity. Instead, we believe we define the “normal,” mark the “center,” and police the boundaries. “We may be abandoning our brothers and sisters in Christ to their isolation,” Cavanaugh writes, “simply in the interests of getting along” (2002, page 177). In the imperium of the market “getting along” really means “getting ahead.”

Cavanaugh’s conclusion is powerful and worth reading several times. “The eucharist is not a mere symbol, a source of meaning which the individual reads and then applies to social issues ‘out there’ in the ‘real world,’” he declares. “There is nothing more real than the body of Christ. The eucharist is not to be applied to political issues; rather, the eucharist makes the church itself a political body. The church practices the politics of Jesus,” he argues, “when it becomes an alternative way of life that offers healing for the wounds that divide us” (2002, page 177, my emphasis).

References and Resources

Cavanaugh, William T. “The Body of Christ: The Eucharist and Politics.” Word and World, Volume 22, Number 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 170-177. http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/22-2_Body_of_Christ/22-2_Cavanaugh.pdf.

Fredrickson, David E., “Eucharistic Symbolism in the Gospel of John” (1997). Faculty Publications. 85. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/85

Johnson, Bryce. “The Bread of Life.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 382-388.

Judge, Rebecca, and Taliaferro, Charles. “Companionable Bread.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 367-372).

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Molina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for John 6:1-21 (Pt. 2); 9 Pentecost B 2021

We’re Hungry

“In the biblical story of creation,” Alexander Schmemann observes in For the Life of the World, “man [sic] is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food” (Kindle Location 83). Alongside the command to be fruitful and multiply, Schmemann suggests, the command to eat (fruits and grains) is given at the dawn of Creation. The human being “is indeed that which eats,” Schmemann argues, “and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table” for human beings (Kindle Location 87). This image of the cosmic banquet continues throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, he suggests, and is both the origin and fulfillment of life as God has intended.

In a gospel launched with the words, “In the beginning,” attention to the dynamics of the Creation stories is always a necessary element of interpretation. Schmemann’s meditation on the Eucharist is an excellent way to be grounded in this dimension of the Bread of Life discourse.

Photo by Jimmy Chan on Pexels.com

“In the Bible the food that man [sic] eats,” Schmemann continues, “the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God” (Kindle Location 132). This dimension of the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John is amplified throughout the Bread of Life discourse. However, it is made clearest in the Walking on Water text, where Jesus declares “I am!”. Thus, the texts must be held together.

All of life is intended to be communion with God. That is the “natural” state of things, the way God created the cosmos to be. Abundance, therefore, is the default condition of Creation according to God’s intention, not the exception to a hard and hungry rule. Schmemann puts it this way (apologies for the non-inclusive language):

“All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation…” (Kindle Location 135).

In a cosmos in bondage to sin, death, and evil, scarcity is the order of the day, not abundance. But we should be clear that this is not how the Creator intends things. The feeding miracles in the gospels are not exceptional one-offs or mere magic tricks. Instead, these feeding miracles are signs of the way in which the Creator intends for us to live. They are not the exceptions. They are the rule – God’s rule.

The same can be said for the miracles of healing and the exorcisms. The absence of illness, enslavement, and death is what God intended from the beginning. The miracles in the gospels, therefore, are signs of the fulfillment of Creation as it was intended to be. There’s a sense in which the crowds get it right with Jesus. He is “The Bread King.” But that’s not all he is. And bread is more than something to hold peanut butter and jelly.

Scarcity is a management tool for the powerful. The golden rule in this world, as Mr. T. observed, is that the one with the gold rules. The one(s) who controls access to resources controls the levers of power. If One comes bringing abundance, then the power of scarcity is threatened. Those who control access to resources, access to life, will do anything to maintain a monopoly on money and meals.

Hunger is a physical symptom of the need and desire for food. This text is an opportunity to examine and celebrate our desires. “Behind all the hunger of our life is God,” Schmemann writes. “All desire is finally a desire for Him [sic]” (Kindle Location 138). This may sound odd to ears to tuned by our Puritan history to regard all human desire as sinful.

In fact, it is not desire that is the problem. It is, rather (to quote St. Augustine), disordered desire. The problem is desiring the means as ends in themselves. Desiring bread is a good thing, not a bad thing. But desiring bread as an end in itself rather than as a sign of God’s grace and love – that is the problem. Desiring God is the purpose for which we were made. When our subsidiary desires lead us to that Real Desire, they are doing their proper work. When our subsidiary desires become “dead ends,” then Creation itself goes off the track.

Sarah Coakley, in her excellent book entitled God, Sexuality, and the Self, seeks to reposition human desire as an appropriate and positive subject for theological reflection. She suggests that our desires are rooted in the Desire which is fundamental to the Trinity – the interpenetrating and infinitely loving Desire of Father for Son, Son for Spirit, Spirit for Father, and all the combinations and permutations thereof.

Coakley notes that Sigmund Freud did much to get our theology backwards, inside out, and upside down when it comes to desire – especially, but not exclusively, sexual desire. “First, Freud must be – as it were – turned on his head,” she writes. “It is not that physical ‘sex’ is basic and ‘God’ ephemeral; rather, it is God who is basic, and ‘desire’ the precious clue that ever tugs at the heart, reminding the human soul – however dimly – of its created source” (p. 10). The same argument could be made, I would argue, about physical hunger.

The difference between Divine desire and our (now broken) human desire is that our desire arises from a sense of scarcity. There is, however, no scarcity in the Trinity, only abundance. She argues, “in God, ‘desire’ of course signifies no lack – as it manifestly does in humans. Rather, it connotes that plenitude of longing love that God has for God’s own creation and for its full and ecstatic participation in the divine, trinitarian, life” (p. 10).

We can see how John’s account works with these differing desires. Jesus himself, in John’s account, knows what he’s going to do. He knows that Abundance is ontologically basic, not scarcity. The disciples live in a world, they think, where scarcity is the prior reality, the default setting. There’s not enough money, not enough bread, not enough fish, not enough disciples.

Jesus restores abundance to its proper place. There’s lots of green grass. There’s plenty of room for seating. He can get the food distributed all by himself, thank you very much. The people could eat as much as they wanted. The fragments fill twelve backets, the leftovers of all who had eaten their fill. This is what Creation is supposed to look like – filled to overflowing with the loving presence and power of God, offered to people without price or limit.

I can’t help but think about the oracle in Isaiah 55 at this moment. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1, NRSV). It’s no accident that the section title in the NRSV is “An Invitation to Abundant Life.” The editors got that one right.

The conversation in Isaiah 55:2 moves immediately from the proper object of desire to the temptation to make bad investments in subsidiary ends. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” The rich food to which the oracle points is clearly something more than free wine and milk. It is rather the proclamation of God’s word of abundant life – the gift to which all other gifts point. This is the proper object of our desires.

The oracle concludes with the promise that the Word will produce. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11, NRSV).

Coakley argues that this is the only way to judge and therefore order human desires in the way that gives abundant life. God is the final point of reference for desires properly ordered. The question to be addressed is how to put the desire for God above all other desires and to judge human desires only in that light (p. 10).

“The world is a fallen world,” Schmemann argues, “because it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. The accumulation of this disregard for God is the original sin that blights the world” (Kindle Location 168). This argument can allow us to connect our text with the ongoing discussion in Ephesians on the role of Creation in expressing Divine love, grace, and mercy for a tragically disordered and de-centered cosmos.

“When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value,” Schmemann continues, “because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the “sacrament” of God’s presence” (Kindle Location 178). The commodification of everything and everyone as the basis of neoliberal late-stage capitalism is perhaps the parade example of human desire disordered almost beyond repair.

Abundance is the default, not scarcity. We are created hungry – but hungry first and foremost for relationship with God. We reach out for other objects to satisfy that desire, but those other things have no life in themselves. “[T]he ‘original’ sin is not primarily that man has ‘disobeyed’ God,” Schmemann argues, “the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God” (Kindle Location 194).

Jesus comes to restore the cosmos to the path of Abundant Life — to the sacrament of communion with God.

References and Resources

Fredrickson, David E., “Eucharistic Symbolism in the Gospel of John” (1997). Faculty Publications. 85. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/85

Johnson, Bryce. “The Bread of Life.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 382-388.

Judge, Rebecca, and Taliaferro, Charles. “Companionable Bread.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 367-372).

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Molina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for John 6:1-21 (Pt. 1); 9 Pentecost B 2021

Text Study for John 6:1-21

Five weeks of the Bread of Life – here we go again! “There are perhaps few texts that strike trepidation and exasperation in the hearts of preachers,” Karoline Lewis writes, “more than the five consecutive Sundays in the season of Pentecost, Year B. How much can you preach on Jesus as the Bread of Life?” (page 83).

The appointed text for this week is John 6:1-15, but that won’t do. Both the Synoptics and John put the Feeding of the 5000 and Jesus Walking on Water back-to-back. I don’t find it helpful to ignore that obvious connection. So I would recommend, as do most commentators, that we would read verses 1 through 21 in our worship services.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Karoline Lewis sees the “Healing of the Man Ill for Thirty-Eight Years” in John 5 and “Jesus as the Bread of Life” in John 6 as linked by the reference to Moses in John 5:45-46. In addition, she notes that these discourses make clear once again the pattern in this gospel of sign, dialogue, and discourse. She writes that “the structure underscores the main theological point of all of the signs in the Fourth Gospel. Each of the miracles—or signs, as John names them—is miraculous not only on its own terms but also for what it reveals or shows about what it means that Jesus is the Word made flesh” (page 75).

I wonder if the community hearing John’s account has the same question I’ve often heard in parish ministry. Why, Pastor, doesn’t Jesus do signs and miracles among us now on a regular basis? Why were such events largely limited to the earthly life of Jesus and a few decades in the life of the early church? I’m not sure that such signs and miracles are absent from the lives of disciples and congregations. But they seem to come rarely and in their own time, for sure.

“The signs are a questionable source for assessing Jesus’ true self, his true identity,” Lewis argues. “It is worth exploring,” she continues, “the reason for the relative downplaying of the signs and the significance placed on Jesus’ interpretation of the signs” (page 76). The temptation, when we focus on the signs, is to be mesmerized by the miracles, fascinated by the fireworks. In that moment, we tend to take our eyes off of Jesus. Such a focus, I would suggest, leads quickly to aberrations such as the Prosperity Gospel and the Word of Faith movement.

“To know that the full meaning of the sign lies not in the sign itself,” Lewis suggests, “but in Jesus’ interpretation of the sign implies that listening to Jesus, hearing Jesus, is vital” (page 76). She notes that seeing the sign by itself is incomplete, “is not a fully embodied, incarnational experience without listening for the interpretation and its meaning.” Therefore, the dialogues and the discourses are necessary parts of John’s proclamation, and the sign-dialogue-discourse structure reinforces this element of John’s theology.

The mention of Moses in chapter 5 is reinforced by additional allusions in the early verses of chapter 6. This is a priority for John’s account, according to O’Day and Hylen. The double mention of going up the mountain reminds of the Sinai sojourn. They note that Jesus’ question addressed to Philip in verse 5 may remind us of Moses in Numbers 11:13 (NRSV) – “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?” Moses whines to the Lord. “For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’”

Malina and Rohrbaugh comment on the mountain location of the feeding. “The mountain in Mediterranean culture was a height outside inhabited and cultivated space,” they suggest, “that is, outside the city, the village of the town. A mountaintop was a well-attested place for community with God (like Sinai in the Exodus,” they continue (page 126).

Having a meal in such a space, however, would have been unusual, Malina and Rohrbaugh argue. Wilderness places were the haunts of wild animals, demons, and other chaotic and threatening spirits. They note that people didn’t picnic in wilderness places in the first-century Mediterranean world. Such locations made it hard to guarantee ritual purity, and food stores weren’t readily available (page 126).

It could only be safe and sane to have such an outdoor feast if God, or God’s representative was the host and provider. That seems to me to be an important point to keep in mind as we go along in the early part of chapter 6. “The compassionate God who cared for people with good in the wilderness wanderings,” Paul Berge writes in his Word and World article, “is present in Jesus’ ministry with provision enough for all people.”

“Verses 14–15 indicate that the crowd recognizes Jesus as a prophet like Moses on account of the signs he performs,” O’Day and Hylen write. “Jesus’ withdrawal from them is not a rejection of these associations, but indicates that the crowd does not fully understand what Jesus’ kingship means” (Kindle Location 1517). Jesus is not merely a “bread king.” Rather Jesus brings both abundance and liberation, as is prefigured by Moses in the escape from Egypt and the wilderness sojourn.

“Kings are not simply a political equivalent of a ‘president’ with rights of hereditary succession,” Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest. “Rather, kings have total control of and responsibility for their subjects,” they continue, “they are expected to provide them with fertility, peace, and abundance” (page 126). They note that the nature of Jesus’ kingship is one of the significant themes in John’s account. We should pay attention to that theme in our text.

Malina and Rohrbaugh spend some time on the social and cultural significance of bread in this account and in the first-century Mediterranean world. “Bread constituted one-half of the caloric intake in much of the ancient Mediterranean region,” they write. “Wheat was considered much superior to barley; hence barley (and sorghum) bread was the staple for the poor and slaves,” they observe (page 127).

Barley is more drought-tolerant than wheat and can be grown in a wider range of soil types. Barley flour, however, is not as easy to knead as wheat flower. The bread isn’t as tasty or nutritious and is harder to digest. Barley bread was the food of the poor. That is a fact emphasized in John’s account by the identification of the specific type of bread Jesus used in the feeding. (page 127).

O’Day and Hylen connect Jesus’ walking on the water with the Exodus story as well. This is another reason to read through verse 21. Jesus’ identity in John’s account is never really up for debate in the way it is in Mark’s gospel. The water-walking is more of a confirmation of that identity rather than a demonstration of divine power.

Malina and Rohrbaugh emphasize that Jesus walks on the “sea” rather than merely on “water.” The difference, they argue, matters a great deal. “To walk on the sea,” they suggest, “is to trample on a being that can engulf people with its waves, swallow them in its deep, and support all sorts of living beings” (page 128). The boats used at the time were open to all the threats of the environment. “Jesus’ ability to walk on the sea,” they conclude, “is evidence of his place in the hierarchy of cosmic powers” (page 128).

“When Jesus walks on the sea, it becomes apparent that he, like God, can calm the chaos of the sea. Jesus’ words in verse 20 confirm what his actions demonstrate” (Kindle Location 1538), O’Day and Hylen write. He uses the Divine identifier so common in John’s gospel – “I am.” Translations that render this identification as “It is I,” miss that connection to the assertion of Jesus’ divinity in John’s account.

O’Day and Hylen note that “the combination of the sea crossing…and reference to the divine name suggests God’s power over the waters, a familiar part of the retelling of the Exodus story” in the Psalms and the Prophets (Kindle Location 1544). “Following a miraculous meal set at the time of Passover,” they conclude, “the sea crossing appears as a parallel to the crossing of the Red Sea. Jesus appears to the disciples as the One who led Israel through the waters” (Kindle Location 1546).

The feeding takes place, according to Malina and Rohrbaugh, at the time of the second Passover during Jesus’ ministry. It is clearly spring, we should observe, since there is an abundance of green grass in the wilderness place. “The setting has a specific detail unique to John: that of much grass (6:10),” Lewis notes. “This description alludes to and foreshadows the presentation of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in chapter 10. The pasture for the sheep signals provision and abundance of life,” she suggests, “and this abundance is clearly present in the feeding of the five thousand” (page 83).

Thus, one early take on this text may be to reflect on all the signs of abundance in the story. Jesus has an abundance of time. There is an abundance of grass. There is an abundance of people. There is an abundance of food. There is an abundance of divine power. “Abundant life is predicated on the human necessity of dependence and reliance,” Lewis notes, “Above the minimal needs comes abundance and the ability to thrive” (page 83).

More than enough – that’s probably a good place to launch our five-week sojourn with John.

References and Resources

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Molina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Gut Feeling — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Mark 6:30-34

I want to look at one verse from today’s gospel reading. “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…

I think of Muradif Music. Several years ago, we welcomed Muradif, Nezira, Maida and Admir to Lincoln from Bosnia. They had been displaced by the Balkan civil wars and genocidal policies of all the warring parties. It was our honor to welcome them as friends and to help them settle in their adopted country.

Muradif is about my height. When he arrived with us, he weighed one hundred fifty pounds. You need to know that he was up twenty-five pounds from the days when his family was hiding in fear for their lives. In those days, they often had very little food. Muradif would not eat until his family had been fed. In fact, Muradif could not eat until his family had been fed. He told me that if he ate first, he felt sick afterward. So on many days he did not eat all.

Photo by Mat Brown on Pexels.com

For me, Muradif is a picture of the compassion we hear described in the gospels. The Greek word for compassion is “splagknizomai.” That word is related to the noun that we would translate as “guts” or intestines.” So compassion is the original “gut feeling.”

“Guts” in the ancient Mediterranean are the location of the emotions, or more properly, emotion-fused thought. That’s why the NRSV and other modern translations often render the noun as “heart.” I’m not all that excited with that choice, although I get the connection. I’d rather stick with the actual location that the word intends and let it jerk our heads around a bit with its strangeness.

The ancients were not ignorant of emotional experience as it is expressed in our bodies. We talk about going with our gut or feeling it in our gut. That is more than a metaphor. In fact, our intestines are a significant location for neural fibers. There is a sort of neural superhighway between our guts and our brains. Often, neuroscientists have found, we know things in our guts before we know them in our brains.

That’s not to say that our understanding of the heart as a “location” of emotions is mistaken. My heart can hurt – not metaphorically – in the midst of grief and loss. My heart can feel happy – not metaphorically – in the midst of joy. My heart races in experiences of fear and anticipation. Emotions are suffused throughout our bodies, and the data is fed constantly to our brains for interpretation.

Let’s listen again to Mark six, verse thirty-four. “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…Compassion gets us to the guts of God. That’s my main thought for today, so I want to say it again. Compassion gets us to the guts of God.

I will use the gospels themselves to build that case. In the first chapter of Mark, a leper kneels at Jesus’ feet. “If you choose,” he begs, “you can make me clean.” Mark tells us that Jesus responds with compassion. It’s too bad that the New Revised Standard Version translates the noun as “pity.” Jesus is moved in his guts to respond to the man’s tragedy. And he heals him. Compassion gets us to the guts of God.

In Luke, chapter seven, we read about a widow from the village of Nain. Her only son had died and was being carried to the tomb. Again, Jesus had “compassion” on her and raised her son back to life. The word for “compassion” is used in the New Testament only for God and for people who act like God. So in Luke 10, the Good Samaritan has compassion on the man who was beaten, robbed, and left for dead. In Luke 15, the forgiving father has compassion on the Prodigal Son and welcomes him home. It would make God sick to the Divine stomach to abandon us to the powers of sin, death and evil.

Compassion gets us to the guts of God.

Compassion is always up close and personal. That’s why God chooses to take up residence among us. God will not settle for being a tourist! I love the words from the second chapter of Hebrews, verses seventeen and eighteen. “Therefore [Jesus] had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect…Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” The Incarnation—the Word made flesh and living among us—is how God’s compassion looks.

So think about your deepest difficulties. Meditate on your greatest pain. Face your foolishness and failings. Take a few moments to meditate on the broken places in your life.

Now take a deep breath. I am here to tell you that Jesus is there ahead of you and with you. You can’t surprise him. You can’t horrify him. You can’t exhaust or exceed his compassion for you. So we can own our stories rather than being owned by them. That’s what we call “Good News”!

This is contrary to what the world thinks of God. I grew up with Bette Middler singing “From a Distance.” Pretty melody, but terrible theology—“God is watching us from a distance…” Nothing could be further from the truth. Revelation twenty-one, verse three, says it best. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them…

Compassion gets us to the guts of God.

“Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile,” wrote Albert Einstein (a reasonably intelligent fellow, as I recall). We are made for compassion. When we act on that gut feeling we most resemble God. Our call as the church is to embody Jesus’ compassion in the lives of others. We exist only to go out and never to turn in.

This is how Paul puts it in Colossians three, verse twelve: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” he writes, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Research psychologists are showing that we are hard-wired for compassion. People who are unable to feel compassion for others are regarded as damaged and dangerous.

The opposite of compassion is neither hatred nor indifference. The opposite of compassion is fear. These words from First John, chapter four, verse eighteen, say it best: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

The existence of human cruelty is an argument that human empathy is real but can be used for good or evil. As the writer of Mark’s gospel portrays “The Tale of the Two Tables” (please see previous posts for a description of this), we can see the use of empathy in the cruelty of Herodias at the Royal Birthday Banquet as well as we can see it here in our text.

We are made for empathy that results in “pro-social behavior” – fancy way that scientists use to describe doing good things with and for others. “Human beings evolved to reverberate with the emotional states of others, to the point that we internalize, mostly via our bodies, what is going on with them,” de Waal argues. “This is social connectivity at its best, the glue of all animal and human societies, which guarantees supportive and comforting company” (page 120).

The place we most readily internalize that compassion is in our guts. When we act on that internal prompting to do good for others, we are at our most human (and our most divine).

Compassion means letting others into our hearts. Compassion means taking the energy to imagine what life is really like for another person. Compassion means suffering with another person. Compassion is always a risk. So our fears are natural. That’s why we must pray for God’s Holy Spirit to fill us with courage and to move us to action. Take some time today to reflect on where the Holy Spirit is calling you to exercise compassion for another.

As we move from the Royal Birthday Banquet, where cruelty is the point, to the Messianic Banquet in the wilderness, where compassion is abundant, we move from human degradation to human flourishing. Jesus is not only the true King but also the truly human one.

In his book, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community, John Pavlovitz discusses the feeding miracles. He notes, first of all, that the feeding is not limited to a guest list. “There’s no altar call, no spiritual gifts assessment, no membership class, no moral screening, no litmus test to verify everyone’s theology and to identify those worthy enough to earn a seat at the table,” Pavlovitz writes. “Their hunger and Jesus’ love for them alone, nothing else, make them worthy. This is a serious gut check for us” (page 62).

There is abundant space and abundant provision in the “kingdom of God” which draws near in Jesus. But my experience of the Church is that it is far too much like me – far too worried about whether there will be enough for all. But relying on Jesus means there will be enough for all. “The Church will thrive,” Pavlovitz writes, “only to the degree it is willing to be about making space for a greater swath of humanity and by recognizing the redemptive power of real relationships” (page 63).

The role of the disciples is not to make sure there’s enough food. The role of the disciples is to make a bigger table. That’s the role we resist so often. “Expanding the table isn’t about digging in our heels around religious rules, doctrine, or dogma.” Pavlovitz argues. “Those things will always provide us reason to disconnect from others. They will always become obstacles. No,” he concludes, “this is about the mind-set with which we gather with people, about creating a space where the differences can be both openly acknowledged and fully welcomed” (page 63).

When you get God’s gut feeling, don’t be afraid to respond. Compassion gets us to the guts of God.

Pastor Lowell R. Hennigs

Text Study for Mark 6:30-56 (Pt. 4); 8 Pentecost B 2021

4. You Feed Them!

When I served in parish ministry, I strongly disliked fielding requests for financial assistance from people in and/or traveling through the community. I didn’t regard those in need as undeserving or at fault in some way. No, the issues were entirely with me. I rarely felt like I had succeeded in being helpful in any meaningful way.

Of course, the likelihood that I would believe I had failed at something was often quite high, so that’s not a surprise. For me, that’s a psychological cost of doing business. But in these situations, I was almost always short of available time, available money, and/or available resources to be of much use to the people in need. The chief irritant for me was almost always that I was on the way to doing something else I considered important.

Photo by Marius Mann on Pexels.com

“It’s getting late, and we’re out in the middle of nowhere,” the disciples complained to Jesus. “Get rid of these people so they can scatter into the surrounding countryside and villages to buy themselves something to eat.” In the mind of the writer of Mark’s gospel, the disciples are focused on the lateness of the hour – the scarcity of time. It’s such a concern that the writer mentions it both as narrator and through the mouths of the disciples.

I resemble that remark. The first roadblock to my concrete acts of discipleship almost always seems to be my perception that time is a scarce commodity. I don’t want to be bothered at the moment. I have other pressing things to do. It’s been a long day and I just want to go home and put my feet up. I haven’t seen my spouse for hours, and I long for the casual comfort of her company. It’s getting late, and I want to tend to my own priorities.

One of the marks of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Mark is that when it comes to serving, he seems to have all the time in the world. Mark’s gospel is filled with immediacy – literally, since the word “immediately” appears in the text of the gospel forty-one times. That’s seventy percent of the times it appears in the whole of the Christian scriptures. On the one hand, the writer of Mark’s gospel is in a hurry to move the action along.

On the other hand, when it comes to serving those who are “like sheep without a shepherd,” time slows to a crawl in the gospel account. Here in the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the writer lavishes attention on the minute details of the story, pausing to peruse each piece of the plot. In the presence of real human need, Jesus has an abundance of time to spend.

It makes me ashamed to even say that in writing. When I think of how many times I just wanted to get a resolution to the problem in order to get on to the “important stuff,” I know that I had my pastoral priorities backwards far too often. I am, it would seem, a typical disciple.

If I got the abundance of time right, once in a while, I had equally as much trouble with what I perceived to be a lack of resources. In my experience, the need for help always exceeds the help made available through congregations. I was frequently having to calculate how much I could get my hands on, how long I would have to stretch what was available, and how many more requests I might field in the coming weeks and months. I never got that part right.

You give them something to eat,” Jesus commands the disciples. They respond as I would have. “What, are you nuts! It would take eight months-worth of wages to feed this crowd, even if we had that on us. There’s no way we can have enough to feed them all!” I’m just the administrator. Someone else is in charge of inventory and distribution. Not my area!

I get that. I come with a scarcity mindset hardwired from a childhood of relative poverty (even though I always had enough to eat, enough to wear, and even enjoyed all sorts of privileges and perks as a teen). I’m always sure that I am about fifteen seconds from financial calamity, regardless of the reality of my situation. I have no trouble generating reasons why there won’t be enough stuff to get through the day.

The disciples had just come back from a successful missionary adventure. They have taken next to nothing with them to sustain themselves. Yet, apparently, they had not starved. God had provided enough. With that experience fresh in their minds, they still could not connect that experience of provision with Jesus’ power to provide abundantly to them and through them.

That’s what the writer of Mark’s gospel means when the writer notes that their hearts were hardened. In the face of Jesus’ presence and with an abundance of personal experience as evidence, they were still sure that the good stuff would be gone before everyone was fed. That’s what I would have thought as well. I just can’t unclench my heart long enough to experience a little joy. Who knows when we’ll run out?

Whenever things get a little tight in the budget area, I’m sure that we are two steps from bankruptcy. Never mind that we have received more than adequate provision at every step of our faith journey. Never mind that my experience is not of impending financial disaster but rather of yet another just in the nick of time experience of God’s abundance. Mindset trumps evidence, and I have to talk myself through another restless night of anxiety.

I wonder if Jesus is as compassionately frustrated with the disciples as he is with me. “Fine!” he says to them. “Do an inventory. How many loaves do you have?” They go and count. It couldn’t have taken long. In the crowd of thousands, they find five loaves and two fish. They must have experienced a perverse bit of pleasure in being able to say to Jesus, “We told you so!”

The self-satisfaction didn’t last long. Jesus organized the banquet as a good king and compassionate shepherd should. He prayed for the Divine blessing and the food began to flow. There was, of course, more than enough. Why should we be surprised? That was the whole point.

In his book, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community, John Pavlovitz discusses the feeding miracles. He notes, first of all, that the feeding is not limited to a guest list. “There’s no altar call, no spiritual gifts assessment, no membership class, no moral screening, no litmus test to verify everyone’s theology and to identify those worthy enough to earn a seat at the table,” Pavlovitz writes. “Their hunger and Jesus’ love for them alone, nothing else, make them worthy. This is a serious gut check for us” (page 62).

There is abundant space and abundant provision in the “kingdom of God” which draws near in Jesus. But my experience of the Church is that it is far too much like me – far too worried about whether there will be enough for all (well, for us, if we’re honest). But relying on Jesus means there will be enough for all. “The Church will thrive,” Pavlovitz writes, “only to the degree it is willing to be about making space for a greater swath of humanity and by recognizing the redemptive power of real relationships” (page 63).

The role of the disciples is not to make sure there’s enough food. The role of the disciples is to make a bigger table. That’s the role we resist so often. “Expanding the table isn’t about digging in our heels around religious rules, doctrine, or dogma.” Pavlovitz argues. “Those things will always provide us reason to disconnect from others. They will always become obstacles. No,” he concludes, “this is about the mind-set with which we gather with people, about creating a space where the differences can be both openly acknowledged and fully welcomed” (page 63).

Pavlovitz gets right the real problem the disciples and I have. We don’t want to share. We want to keep the good stuff to and for ourselves. We want to be the privileged, the powerful, the propertied, and the pious. Jesus gives the disciples a chance here to serve rather than to be served, and they blow it. Yup – been there, done that. Hard-hearted and of little faith — that’s me!

“It’s one thing to personally accept Christ’s boundless grace, and another to avoid hoarding it for ourselves,” Pavlovitz notes. “It’s always so much easier to live with a closed fist than an open hand. And yet, the latter is the way of Christ. This is the heart of his hospitality. This should be our daily bread— and it will cause us to move” (page 71).

It’s easy to miss part of the subtext of Pavlovitz’s argument. It’s not our hospitality that’s at stake here. Jesus is the host, not us. I tend to forget that. I’m as much a guest at the table as anybody else. I’m not welcoming anyone to my space. Instead, we are, as is often said, beggars showing one another where the bread is. As soon as I lose track of that reality, my church becomes a colonizing tool of dominant culture.

I don’t bring anything to the table. Jesus does, and I get to invite people to experience that welcome table together. The minute I lose touch with that, I can feel my heart solidify a bit more…

References and Resources

https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/mud-sill-speech/.

De Waal, Frans. Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Keltner, Dacher. Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Ortlund, D. (2012). THE OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND AND ESCHATOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF JESUS WALKING ON THE SEA (MARK 6:45-52). Neotestamentica, 46(2), 319-337. Retrieved July 7, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43049201

Pavlovitz, John. A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.

Text Study for Mark 6:30-56 (Pt. 3); 8 Pentecost B 2021

3. I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghost!

The accounts of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Jesus Walking on Water from Mark’s gospel do not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary. This is an argument, in my book, for reading or at least referring to these texts in the message this week. Mark’s account has emphases that are not addressed in the same way in the extensive discourse in John’s gospel. In Mark’s account, we go from the Compassionate and Truly Human One to the Master of Wind and Wave. And we find them to be the same person!

Most important, it is clear that the writer of Mark intends to connect completely the two accounts. “And he came up into the boat with them, and the wind abated. And they were exceedingly astounded in themselves, for they did not understand (based upon the loaves), but rather their hearts were being hardened” (Mark 6:51-52, my translation).

Photo by Pedro Figueras on Pexels.com

As Jesus is revealed in his compassionate response to the confused and chaotic crowd, so he is now revealed in his authority over wind and wave. “Since Mark thus ties together these two incidents, it is likely that he wants his reader to see them both as complementary revelations of Jesus,” Hurtado writes. “This means that this sea miracle is another manifestation of the divine significance of Jesus’ person and not just a miracle story” (page 103).

Swanson translates “hardened” as “calloused” – an interesting choice that sparks deeper reflection on what the writer means. The Greek verb has to be with hardening or petrifying. As the crowds continue to pursue Jesus in order to benefit from his presence, the disciples seem to be drifting further and further away from him.

“[T]he world swirls to Jesus,” Swanson notes, “even more than it did to John the Baptist. Jesus is instantly recognized, and the benefits he offers are instantly perceived,” he continues. “But those people who follow Jesus most closely are given scene after scene in which they act out their incomprehension” (page 198).

What’s the deal here, Swanson wonders. Perhaps these texts reflect the struggles of the Markan community to come to terms with their own suffering even after hearing and embracing “the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Swanson wonders if there is a problem of “insider incomprehension” in the community that is mirrored in the calloused hearts of the disciples. He’s worth quoting at length here.

“Outsiders and immature insiders may believe that Christian faith immediately smooths all roads and raises all deeply shadowed valleys. Insiders who have seen a little more know that this is not true. It may be that the theme of insider incomprehension is a storytelling strategy through which Mark’s story works out what it means to tell stories about resurrection in a world where everyone dies. And that may go a long way toward explaining the odd way that Mark tells the story of Jesus’ resurrection” (pages 198-199).

Always for the writer of Mark’s gospel, the question is about the identity of Jesus. “This sea miracle Mark enlists as further evidence that Jesus is not just human but has a supernatural quality and divine significance,” Hurtado suggests. “Even the way Jesus addresses the disciples, ‘It is I,’ implies this” (page 103). The Greek in verse 50 is, in literal translation, “I am.” As Hurtado notes, this is the formula of divine disclosure in the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus calls himself by God’s proper name.

It may have occurred to the reader that these stories in Mark 6 have a number of allusions and echoes that take us to the Hebrew Scriptures. An exploration of these allusions and echoes will help us to understand several obscure references in the text. I would commend Ortlund’s article in that regard, but I will offer a bit of summary to move the conversation forward.

Ortlund describes the connection between this text and the account in Exodus 14, which precedes the story of feeding the people with manna in the wilderness in Exodus 16. The writer of Mark’s gospel connects his stories in just the way they are linked in Exodus. In addition, both Exodus 14 and Mark 6 happen at night. The wind and wave buffet the faithful all during the night in each case. The calm comes with the morning. The people cry out in fear and are told to have courage (the same verb occurs in Mark 6 and the LXX).

“Mark seems, then,” Ortlund writes, “to be presenting the sea-walking of Mark 6 as a recapitulation of the exodus” (page 322).

A second narrative from the Hebrew scriptures related to our text is, according to Ortlund, in Exodus 33-34. In particular, both texts have the verb translated as “passing by” the disciples. Every time I read this text, I wonder what in the world that means. Ortlund notes that in Exodus 33-34, as well as in other Hebrew scriptures, the verb doesn’t mean to ignore or avoid. It is rather the verb used to describe theophanies – when God passes by in order to be seen.

Ortlund notes that the “passing by” in Mark’s account has numerous parallels with the “passing by” in Exodus. Both accounts follow a miraculous feeding and discussion of the sabbath. Both have God’s representative hobnobbing with God on a “mountain.” In both cases, God’s people are terrified and then calmed down by God’s representative. They are astonished at what they hear, and don’t respond all that well to it. The time between the leader’s leaving and reappearing is most of a night in each case (page 324).

Ortlund points to other significant texts, but the upshot is fairly straightforward. Jesus is not ignoring or avoiding the disciples in the wallowing boat. Instead, the writer uses a term that clearly indicates the divine nature of the encounter on the sea. The same verb is reflected in Job 9 and Amos 7-8.

The theological significance of this text, Ortlund argues, is that it demonstrates the inauguration of the eschatological age – Mark’s primary focus. He quotes Jurgen Moltmann in this regard. Moltmann argues that such miracles are not suspensions of the natural order but rather restorations of that order. Just as compassion is a mark of the truly human one, so this effortless control of the natural world (see C. S. Lewis on this) is also a mark of humanity as the Creator intended it.

“The miracles return life to the way it was meant to be,” Ortlund asserts. “They are glimpses of the restoration that will one day be fully and finally consummated,” he concludes, “the miracles, in other words, are eschatological” (page 330). If that’s the case in Mark’s account as a whole, it is therefore the case in the Water-walking text as well.

In what ways is that true? Jesus passes by as God passes by. This is a Divine theophany, but the Divine One doesn’t leave again. When God stops passing by but rather remains, that’s a sign of the New Age, according to the Amos text. When God passes by in the Hebrew scriptures, humans must hide their faces in order to be safe. But when Jesus passes by, all can see him just as he is. That’s a sign of the New Age. And, of course, there is Jesus’ use of the “I am” name for himself. When God is personally present and remains, the New Age has certainly been launched.

I want to focus for a moment or two on the verb that describes how the disciples experience their boat ride. The verb that describes their experience can be and often is translated as “tormented” or even “tortured.” The wind was torturing them as they rowed in the opposite direction in vain. I have to wonder if the writer of Mark’s gospel chose this word with great intention – to touch the ears of listeners who had been or knew people who had suffered torture for the sake of the gospel.

The verb used to describe the rowing can also mean to drive or drive out. It is a word used to describe how demonic forces can drive and compel possessed people. The emphasis in Mark’s account on demonic possession and the binding of the Strong Man should cause us to sharpen our hearing at this point. Pulling hard in the effort to drive out the demons is what disciples do and should expect to do.

In Christian scripture and in our creed, we note that the Gospel has happened “according to the scriptures.” Of course, that means the Hebrew Scriptures, since the Christian scriptures were still in the process of composition. It does not merely mean that the Hebrew scriptures were a ready repository of proof texts for beavering Christian scribes. Rather, a deep familiarity with those scriptures made it nearly impossible for early Christians to read the Hebrew scriptures and not find manifold allusions to and echoes of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

If nothing else, Mark 6 should motivate us to know the Hebrew scriptures much better if we want the Christian word to work on us fully.

References and Resources

https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/mud-sill-speech/.

De Waal, Frans. Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Keltner, Dacher. Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Ortlund, D. (2012). THE OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND AND ESCHATOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF JESUS WALKING ON THE SEA (MARK 6:45-52). Neotestamentica, 46(2), 319-337. Retrieved July 7, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43049201

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.

Text Study for Mark 6:30-56 (Pt. 2); 8 Pentecost B 2021

Compassion is Not for Suckers Anymore (It Never Was)

“And [Jesus] had compassion upon them because they were as sheep who did not have a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34b, my translation).

Is human compassion normal or exceptional? Are we humans wired for selfishness or altruism? These questions have fascinated and frustrated philosophers for as long as there have been philosophers – and before. The generally accepted answer during the Enlightenment was that human compassion is exceptional and that compassion in the so-called “natural” world is non-existent.

Alfred Lord Tennyson popularized the phrase that nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Brutal competition was thought to produce the “survival of the fittest” (a concept that was not really part of Darwin’s evolutionary theory). In human affairs, the state of nature was the “war of all against all” according to Thomas Hobbes. The chief function of civilized society was to restrict and regulate these bloody impulses, so we all didn’t just kill each other daily.

Photo by Meruyert Gonullu on Pexels.com

For Hobbes, the solution to this issue was the creation of the Leviathan, the all-powerful, autocratic state that would provide a measure of protection in exchange for total control. It should come as no surprise that this view of human nature was part of a political argument. Hobbes used it to support the institution of absolute monarchy in the face of nascent democratic sentiments in the European monarchies.

The assertion that compassion is for suckers was (and is) used as well to support and argue for the highly individualistic and rapacious neoliberalism which has driven our economic life in the West since the late 1970’s. Credit is usually given to Adam Smith for “inventing” such capitalism in his The Wealth of Nations.

Few people have actually read Smith’s far more important work (at least in his own estimation), entitled A Theory of Moral Sentiments. In that book, Smith argues that human morality is rooted and grounded in what we would now call “empathy” (although Smith, following the usage of the time, called it “sympathy”). Here’s a quote from Smith’s work that says it well.

Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did and never can carry us beyond our own persons, and it is by the imagination only that we form any conception of what are his sensations…His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have this adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.”

In fact, Smith was certain that his brand of capitalism was sustainable only under the influence of such empathetic imagination and the actions that imagination would produce in people. Without the operation of compassion, Smith believed, capitalism would create the very war of all against all that Hobbes predicted and would lead to social chaos rather than social progress. Smith may not have believed that such compassion was “natural,” but he certainly believed it was necessary.

It is in the twentieth century that compassion is most clearly regarded as a political and economic liability. The works of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek provided much of the theoretical foundation for this view of human nature and human flourishing. In The Fountainhead, Rand writes this monologue.

Compassion is a wonderful thing. It’s what one feels when one looks at a squashed caterpillar. An elevating experience. One can let oneself go and spread–you know, like taking a girdle off. You don’t have to hold your stomach, your heart, or your spirit up–when you feel compassion. All you have to do is look down. It’s much easier. When you look up, you get a pain in the neck. Compassion is the greatest virtue. It justifies suffering. There’s got to be suffering in the world, else how would we be virtuous and feel compassion?”

Hayek was certain that libertarian, individualistic freedom was the most reliable path to overall human flourishing. He was also certain that efforts to organize human beings into caring collectives (by governments) was the most reliable path to human misery. “I am certain, however, that nothing has done so much to destroy the juridical safeguards of individual freedom,” he wrote, “as the striving after this mirage of social justice.”

We live in a time when large numbers of people in the Western world believe that compassion is for suckers. If they don’t admit that, they are certainly ready to believe that compassion is, while admirable, exceptional – the realm of saints and martyrs, not of real people who need to get their hands dirty on a regular basis. That perspective is part of the larger framework that elected a man to the American presidency who clearly believes that self-giving love is for losers.

The field of Positive Psychology paints a far different and evidence-based picture of human nature and human flourishing. I could refer you to a number of authors and scholars in this regard. However, I want to talk about the work and writing of Dacher Keltner, particularly in his book, Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. In this work, Keltner tries to show “how survival of the kindest may be just as fitting a description of our origins as survival of the fittest” (Kindle Locations 67-68).

Keltner notes that neuroscientific studies suggest we are wired for the “complex mixture of kindness, humanity, and respect that transpires between people” (Kindle Location 153). Giving, cooperation, and other compassionate actions light up the reward centers in our brains. “People around the world will sacrifice the enhancement of self-interest in the service of other principles: equality, a more favorable reputation, or even, God forbid, the advancement of others’ welfare” (Kindle Locations 298-299).

Neuroscience continues to show that we are more “wired” for compassion than for selfishness (for good evolutionary reasons). More than that – and more to the point for our conversation – the emotions that wire us in that way are grounded in our guts. Studies of the human autonomic nervous system reveal, Keltner reports, “that our emotions, even those higher sentiments like sympathy and awe, are embodied in our viscera. As this line of inquiry shifted to the ethical emotions,” he continues, “emotions like embarrassment and compassion, a more radical inference waited on the horizon—that our very capacity for goodness is wired into our body” (Kindle Locations 917-919).

We humans are made with what Keltner calls “the moral gut.”

Human moral judgments are not, Keltner argues, primarily rooted and grounded in our conscious brains. “Our moral judgments of blame are guided by sensations arising in the viscera and facial musculature” (Kindle Locations 949-950). It’s not that our brains are trumped by our guts, however. “Reason and passion are collaborators in the meaningful life” (Kindle Location 975-976).

My point is that compassion is not an exceptional human characteristic. It is, rather, key to fully human flourishing. Suppressing compassion renders us less than human. When Jesus feels compassion for the crowds because they are lost, he is demonstrating what fully flourishing humanity looks like. Disciples need to watch and learn.

But often we don’t.

In fact, “survival of the kindest” is a far better explanation of evolutionary processes than is “survival of the fittest.” Survival of the fittest is an excellent theoretical framework is your goal is to show that human beings exist to produce a few powerful, privileged, propertied, and positioned people at the top of the heap. Survival of the fittest is the theoretical foundation for policies such as “trickle-down economics” and practices such as chattel slavery.

An egregious example of this sort of thinking is the infamous “Mud Sill” speech delivered in the U. S. House of Representatives by James Henry Hammond in 1858. Hammond, an ardent pro-enslavement apologist, was debating the admission of Kansas to the Union as an enslavement state. The paragraph below captures all we need to know about the speech.

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves.”

Survival of the kindest is a more accurate reflection of authentic human flourishing. Based on numerous physiological, psychological, and sociological measures, “our survival depends on healthy, stable bonds with others” (Kindle Location 1228). Life that is rich, meaningful, happy, and joyful is based on kindness, gratitude, service, altruism – compassion.

As we move from the Royal Birthday Banquet, where cruelty is the point, to the Messianic Banquet in the wilderness, where compassion is abundant, we move from human degradation to human flourishing. Jesus is not only the true King but also the truly human one.

References and Resources

https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/mud-sill-speech/.

De Waal, Frans. Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Keltner, Dacher. Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 6:30-56 (Pt. 1); 8 Pentecost B 2021

Last Hugs and Lost Sheep

Mark 6: 30-56

This will be our last adventure with the Gospel of Mark until August 29, which is 15 Pentecost B. We are soon entering our triennial sojourn with the week-after-week examination of the Bread of Life Discourse and related texts in John 6.

While I find the Discourse engaging and compelling, I always find it to be just too much. I learned after the first go-round to schedule vacation and/or continuing education during this time in order to create a break from the monotony. Alternatively, one can engage in a series on Ephesians, the second lessons during this stretch. I have enjoyed that strategy as well.

Once I thought I might use the same message for six weeks straight to see who noticed. I chickened out on the whole strategy. But I did use the same half of the message to prepare the various points I was making in each of the six weeks. My spouse noticed. The organist noticed. I received no other comments in that regard.

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

I find that the biggest drawback to this part of the lectionary schedule is that we miss out on some very central passages in Mark’s gospel. We have Mark’s own account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the story of Jesus Walking on Water. This approach creates the impression that the account in Mark can be consumed in bite-sized chunks which have little connection with or impact on the other chunks.

Perhaps it is already clear that I don’t care for this treatment of Mark’s account. I would be quite happy with a major overhaul of the Revised Common Lectionary – a four-year approach that allows the gospel of John its own year.

That might, unfortunately, put many of us out of sync with the Roman Catholic schedule of readings, but perhaps that could be negotiated. While we’re at it, let’s also negotiate fixing Easter on the third Sunday of April each year, since we cannot be sure of the exact date in any event.

Now that I have repaired the major deficiencies in the lectionary and liturgical schedules, let’s actually look at the text. While I don’t think I would advocate reading all of Mark 6:30-56 in liturgical worship, the preacher dealing with this text needs to take that whole stretch into account.

If one were to read the whole text, however, I would suggest breaking it into pieces. Perhaps one could connect verses 30-34 with a Call to Worship. One might use verses 53-56 as a Call to Prayer. Then one could break up the Feeding Story and the Walking story with the appointed psalm or a hymn or both. I have found this to be a useful way to deal with the text and tie it to worship.

We move from the Royal Birthday Banquet, where cruelty is the point, to the Messianic Banquet in the wilderness, where compassion is abundant. “And as he was exiting [the boat], he saw a numerous crowd,” the gospel writer tells us, “And he had compassion upon them because they were as sheep who did not have a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things” (my translation).

It is one of my favorite verses, containing one of my favorite Greek words: splagchnizomai. It means to have pity or feel sympathy, usually for or toward someone. The verb has a noun form, splagchnon, which means inward parts, or entrails (see BAGD, 762-763). I like to translate it as “guts.”

“Guts” in the ancient Mediterranean are the location of the emotions, or more properly, emotion-fused thought. That’s why the NRSV and other modern translations often render the noun as “heart.” I’m not all that excited with that choice, although I get the connection. I’d rather stick with the actual location that the word intends and let it jerk our heads around a bit with its strangeness.

The ancients were not ignorant of emotional experience as it is expressed in our bodies. We talk about going with our gut or feeling it in our gut. That is more than a metaphor. In fact, our intestines are a significant location for neural fibers. There is a sort of neural superhighway between our guts and our brains. Often, neuroscientists have found, we know things in our guts before we know them in our brains.

That’s not to say that our understanding of the heart as a “location” of emotions is mistaken. My heart can hurt – not metaphorically – in the midst of grief and loss. My heart can feel happy – not metaphorically – in the midst of joy. My heart races in experiences of fear and anticipation. Emotions are suffused throughout our bodies, and the data is fed constantly to our brains for interpretation.

It’s worth re-reading Koester’s article on the word group in Volume VII of the TDNT (pages 548-559). He notes that the noun originally refers to the “inward parts” offered in sacrifices to the Greek gods. It was not a word that described mercy or compassion in those settings. That usage comes about in Jewish and early Christian writings.

In the Christian scriptures, only the verb appears (with a few exceptions), and it is always applied to Jesus, either directly or in parabolic reference. It appears in the Parables of the Wicked Servant, the Prodigal Son, and the Good Samaritan. The primary usage in Mark’s account is here, connected with the Feeding of the 5000. “Jesus is theologically characterized here as the Messiah,” Koester writes, “in whom the divine mercy is present” (page 554). Thus, more than an emotion, this word describes the character of God as revealed in Jesus.

Does this make “compassion” an unusual or exceptional characteristic? I would argue that Jesus is portrayed in Mark’s account and elsewhere as the depiction and definition of what it means to be truly and fully human as well as truly and fully divine. Therefore, compassion is an expression of true and full humanity, not only in Jesus, but also in each and all of us.

In an age when cruelty is often the point in human relationships and political realities, it’s worth spending time on the notion of and reality of compassion. Is this experience limited to just a few exceptional humans, or is it our default condition? Is compassion limited to homo sapiens, or do other species experience and express this and other emotions? These questions have been the concentrations of study in a number of disciplines in the last few decades.

I think of Frans de Waal’s book, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves. The book is anchored by an account of the relationship between the scientist, Jan van Hooff, and Mama, at the time the world’s oldest chimpanzee, under van Hooff’s care and study. The two had a relationship that spanned more than forty years.

After an extended time apart, with Mama near death, van Hooff makes a final visit. That encounter is recorded in a moving YouTube video, which you can see here. The scientists observe behavior that Mama expressed in comforting her young at times of fright. “This was typically Mama,” de Waal writes, “she must have sensed Jan’s trepidation about invading her domain, and she was letting him know not to worry. She was happy to see him” (page 14).

Western thought has held for millennia that humans are somehow separate from and superior to (other) animals. Contemporary research shows much more continuity between species. In theological terms, I would suggest that compassion is stitched into the fabric of Creation and is expressed in myriad ways by multiple species. “Buried by a mass of fresh data,” de Waal writes, “the idea that behavior is invariably self-serving has died an inglorious death. Science has confirmed that cooperation is our species’ first and foremost inclination” (page 99).

In fact, de Waal observes, it is our capacity for compassion that makes cruelty even possible. Our sensitivity to one another’s emotions makes it possible for us to exploit those emotions to harm another. “Being an effective torturer, for example,” he writes, “requires knowing what hurts the most” (page 103).  

The existence of human cruelty is an argument that human empathy is real but can be used for good or evil. As the writer of Mark’s gospel portrays “The Tale of the Two Tables” (please see previous posts for a description of this), we can see the use of empathy in the cruelty of Herodias at the Royal Birthday Banquet as well as we can see it here in our text.

We are made for empathy that results in “pro-social behavior” – the fancy way that scientists use to describe doing good things with and for others. “Human beings evolved to reverberate with the emotional states of others, to the point that we internalize, mostly via our bodies, what is going on with them,” de Waal argues. “This is social connectivity at its best, the glue of all animal and human societies, which guarantees supportive and comforting company” (page 120).

The place we most readily internalize that compassion is in our guts. When we act on that internal prompting to do good for others, we are at our most human (and our most divine). We will continue this conversation in the next post.

References and Resources

De Waal, Frans. Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.