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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

by Kristin Berkey-Abbott

The readings for July 31, 2011

Isaiah 55:1-5
Psalm 145:8-9, 15-22 (Psalm 145: 8-9, 14-21 NRSV)
You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature. (Ps. 145:17)
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

The story in the Gospel lesson is familiar; indeed, a version appears in each Gospel (which may mean it’s more likely to be a factual reporting, or it may mean that each Gospel writer realized the significance and implications of the story and couldn’t bear to leave it out). Jesus preaches to the multitudes, who grow hungry. Jesus commands the disciples to feed them, and they protest that they only have five loaves and two fish. But miraculously, not only are the thousands of people fed, but the disciples gather basket after basket of leftovers.

Christian approaches to this story are varied. One of the most common uses this story as a way to teach the importance of sharing—share the scarce resources and magically, everyone has enough (probably the emphasis of many a stewardship campaign). Some theologians reflect on the nature of hunger, which seems particularly relevant when coupled with the verse from Isaiah: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 56: 2). Should we hunger for bread? From the springboard of this story, we could ponder the mystery of the Eucharist, remind ourselves that “without Jesus, we go hungry, and with Jesus, there is more than enough” (Marcus Borg develops a much more intense discussion of the differences of each version of the loaves and fishes story in his book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, but he starts from this simple metaphorical place).

I find the approach of the disciples one of the more interesting angles of this story. Jesus commands them to feed everyone, and they protest that they can’t, that they don’t have enough food. They’ve followed Jesus for some time and they’ve seen him perform many miracles, including making dead people come back to life. But their first response is that they can’t possibly do what Jesus expects (and what all of us, as followers, are commanded to do—to care for each other).

I think this story tells us an important lesson about the human resistance to the miraculous. We limit God, and our fellow humans, by our inability to dream big visions. We assume that we’ll always have hungry people, oppressed nations, and what can we do—we only have so much and it will only stretch so far. But we forget how much is possible—how much we have already seen with our own eyes.

For example, imagine we could time travel back to the year 1985 (only 20 years ago). Imagine that we told the people of that time that in a few short years, the Berlin Wall would come down. Not only that, but Nelson Mandela would be released from prison (and free elections would follow five years later). Not only that, the Soviet Union would soon be no more.

The people we encountered would not believe us. The people of 1985 would have been convinced that Nelson Mandela would die in his South African prison and that his nation would disintegrate into civil war. The people of 1985 would have been convinced that the Soviet Union would always be a part of the geopolitical landscape, and that there would always be a literal wall that separated east from west.

To talk about how these miracles happened would take a much larger space than I have here, but it’s important to remember that one reason is that ordinary people dreamed of something different. For example, in numerous interviews that I’ve heard, Desmond Tutu, gives credit for the fall of apartheid to the governments, institutions, and individuals who fought for divestment from a corrupt regime. And even when the call for divestment was not successful, those calls started an important conversation.

Desmond Tutu also always gives credit to the Christians (and other believers) throughout the world who prayed for a peaceful way out of an insolvable situation. Even if you didn’t own a Kruggerand (a popular way for people to invest in gold—gold that came from South Africa), you could participate in the process of mercy and justice.

And don’t let my emphasis on political miracles keep us from remembering the other miracles that surround us: health restored, friendships (and other relationships) repaired, the student who suddenly understands an impossible subject, the hungry fed, the homeless who find shelter.

I know that for every miracle, someone has suffered the pain of loss (the cancer that didn’t go into remission, the job loss that leads to other losses or a weather catastrophe—for every South Africa, there are a dozen Darfurs).

But we are called to keep our eyes towards a different reality. The Kingdom of Heaven is not just after death, Jesus declares. It is among us, here and now. And we can be a part of that glorious creation.

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