A tip top sermon

Regular visitors will remember that a week or so ago, in reference to Mark 8, I mentioned that the “feeding miracles” were the textual fodder for some of the best sermons I have ever heard. So, a few days later, I walked into church, heard John’s account of a feeding miracle, and sure enough, it was followed by one of the best sermons I have ever heard.

And here it is, courtesy of the preacher, the Rev. Martin L. Smith of St. Columba’s in northwest DC:

I taught myself to read during daycare at my grandmother’s using the only reading matter available—her weekly women’s magazines. My grandfather used to read aloud in a satirical tone extracts from the personal advice columns, the equivalent of Dear Abby. He called them “the dirty bits” because they contained veiled allusions to sexual problems. This greatly intrigued me at age four, so I turned to the back of the magazines and laboriously spelled word by word what “Evelyn Home” or “Angela Gray” had to say to help the women who had written to them deal with their painful issues, conflicts, dreams, aspirations, and fears—and above all how to deal with men, the biggest problem of all, it seemed. Most of it was veiled in an adult code I couldn’t crack, but that didn’t deter me in the least.

So for me, reading and writing were for ever after indissolubly linked with the possibility of reaching out to people struggling with their unhappiness and seeking ways to negotiate their relationships. And I was precociously alerted to undercurrents of gender conflict that are constantly pulling all of us this way and that. That’s why many passages from scripture only really come alive for me when I can uncover the gender tensions that are just below the surface. Let me demonstrate. The story of the feeding of the five thousand is electrically charged with high voltage tension about ‘gender agendas.’ What do women really want? What do men really want?

First of all, I must warn you there is a deliberate mistranslation in today’s gospel reading which arises from our present-day nervousness about gender inclusiveness. “So they sat down, about five thousand in all.” But the Greek text says, “So the males sat down, about five thousand in all.” That sounded “exclusive”, so the translators cheated and changed it to the generic “they”—defying the hard fact that all four gospels insist that this story concerns five thousand men. Mark says so directly. Matthew underscores it with an expression that means women and children were off the scene. This is a gender-divided occasion.

Why did five thousand able-bodied males converge on Jesus when he had sailed over the Sea of Tiberias with the twelve into the uninhabited hill country? Well, let’s see what this would look like to Roman intelligence officers, if they could have done an aerial reconnaissance. First, they would have been very aware that the feast of the Passover was near in which Jews celebrated their liberation from Egyptian oppressors. Jewish insurgents often launched their rebellions just before Passover when feelings were running especially high about the shame and misery of being under pagan occupation. Secondly, the gathering was in the wilderness, which, as we know from the Jewish historian Josephus, was the traditional mustering place for rebels, out of range of military surveillance.

Click for more. And think about printing it out. You deserve the chance to read it at your leisure.

So flying over the hillside, we would look down and see five thousand men, not just milling around but, according to Mark, drawn up in strict formation, in groups of fifty and hundreds. By the time the stories were written down, the reason for this rigid disciplinary arrangement had been lost. Matthew, Mark and Luke assumed it was Jesus who made these formal arrangements to make the distribution of food efficient.

Our Roman security officers flying overhead would have recognized instantly what these formations signified. This was a militia of five thousand able bodied males assembling in platoons. That’s why there were no women and children. As soon as we have grasped this, we get the full force of John’s concluding verse. “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.” This was an attempt to muster an insurgent rebel force and to compel Jesus to assume military leadership. Even Mark includes a reference to Jesus’ recognition of their motivation. “He saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Shepherd is Old Testament code for Messiah. People were desperate for a leader who would be a godsend, an anointed shepherd king like David.

The story of the feeding of the five thousand men is in fact, a temptation story. It continues the theme of Jesus’ being tested by the Satan in the wilderness. Just as the Satan had tried to lure Jesus into using time-tested methods of force for political gains, so now Jesus was put to the test to see whether he would join the ranks of those war-lords and revolutionaries who believe in slaughter and mayhem as the just and practical means to bring about God’s peace and justice. Would Jesus fail this second test and give up his futile dream of a non-violent “kingdom of God”? The story ends with Jesus’ escaping out from under the temptation. He refused, as he had refused before in his desert fast. He refused when commanded Peter to “get behind [him], Satan”, and as he would refuse again and order Peter to sheathe his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus utters from the depths of his communion with God, a profound “No” to violence, the testosterone-driven solution offered again and again by the patriarchy to our human predicaments.

Jesus’ no takes the form of escape, but that wasn’t all. He didn’t flee. He confronted. And that confrontation took the form of changing the agenda of the occasion. The men formed up as a militia were asking the question, “Are you man enough to lead us to victory?” The form Jesus’ utter rejection of that question took was to take command of the question and change it into something completely different. Now according to Jesus—and this was the core of his message—God’s hidden ways are found where people aren’t looking for them, in the hopes of the poor and the powerless and the excluded. So he replaces the men’s agenda about the way to win into the question that comes out of the core commitment of women who give birth and feed children.

The feminism of this story is that Jesus asks the question on behalf of the silenced and the marginalized, the woman and children who are missing, voiceless and irrelevant. “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He focuses on the feelings that everyone is sharing—we are all hungry, aren’t we? And he is entirely pragmatic. How much food do we need and how will we get it? This is the primary question of women, the nurturers and feeders. Apparently, in this case, it is our Creator’s question.

Now by the time the evangelists wrote the story down the focus of the story was on the awe-inspiring power of Jesus to provide bread in the wilderness like Moses had done with the manna. But even so the dialogue they record rings strangely rings true. The disciples respond to Jesus in the same patronizing way that conventional men traditionally talk down to women. “Feed this lot? Honey, you don’t know what you are talking about when it comes to money. Leave that kind of thing to us. We calculate that it would take six month’s wages to buy food for this gathering. It’s just not feasible, technically and economically.”

From the male perspective of the twelve, we shouldn’t even be asking this question, since it is clear, we can’t all be fed. It’s not the way the world works. Some are going to be fed, others will have to go hungry. Jesus is not deterred by arguments based on practicality. He calmly insists that they carry through the agenda of feeding, in spite of its technical impossibility. Just do it. You start with what you have, and you start giving out.

The storytellers who passed down the story show no interest in how it came about that people’s hunger were satisfied. No hint of magic—loaves and little fish popping into existence out of thin air as Jesus waves his hands. No ‘wink-wink’ implication that most people had sandwiches hidden in their pockets and began to share them under the inspiration of the master’s beautiful example of generosity. The story is not a simplistic moral fable about sharing. We are left in the dark. It simply tells the story that all ate and were satisfied, and then surprises us. Acting in trust creates an amazing quantity of left-overs. The story begins with laughable scarcity—five loaves and two fish. It ends with laughable abundance—a huge clean up operation to deal with the surplus. End of story. No magic, no explanations, no rationalizations.

Through Jesus God changes the subject from fighting to feeding. God challenges us to ask the question “How shall we feed everyone?” Then God gets us to start, facing down our rationalizations, our protests about practicality. If this story is a mysterious sign, it tells us that it is within our grasp to feed everyone. Furthermore, our world, God’s world, has more than enough, it has thrilling superabundance. On condition that we cooperate by changing the agenda from killing and overpowering, to feeding and serving.

In Mark’s gospel, we overhear Jesus some time later insisting on the importance of getting the meaning. “ ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, who many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said, ‘Twelve.’ Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” (8:17-21)

The story of the feeding of the five thousand men ends with the loneliness of Jesus. He goes into the hills and sends everyone away. No one gets it. They didn’t get it. His loneliness foreshadows his loneliness on the cross. He went to death before anyone got who he was or what he was saying. No one got it. And unless God had acted in the resurrection, Jesus would have been buried under the rubble of history with thousands of other nameless victims of state brutality. Now the living Jesus is present in a hidden way to us in the Eucharist. His final desperate act at the last supper—his final attempt to reveal the meaning of his life and mission—was to feed people, just before violence would make him the latest victim of its endless cycle of preemptive strikes and reactive rebellion. He feeds us now with his very self. As we go up to stretch out our hands to be fed, we ask ourselves. “Have we got it? Have we understood?”

Past Posts