Thursday, August 04, 2011

Cynically Idealistic

Acts 2:38-47
Matthew 14:13-21

Our esteemed Congress is still playing fiscal "chicken" not only with the White House but also with one another. They claim it's all about leadership and taking responsibility for doing the "right" thing, but the truth is it is about who will blink first. Each side is blaming the other for the mess we're in, and each side is accusing the other of "trying to destroy the country". To them it is not about who is responsible; it is entirely about who is to blame and how to make us afraid of the future if the "other side" has its own way. This is the ONLY way you and I even factor into this debacle. It is little wonder that for years and to this day, public approval of the Congress is running at less than 20% polled. This means 80% of the voting public has little or no confidence in the Congress as a whole.

Some say we need more government control as a means of protecting the lower caste from the upper crust. I agree because it is easy to see commercial preference not for the "right" thing but rather the "profitable" thing regardless of who gets hurt. Others insist the government has too big a piece of American life as it is and is only sustaining generations of "need" and "dependence". I agree. But for all that any government CAN do, there is still only so much any human institution can do. We would all do well to embrace that reality; however big or small a government is, human government IS NOT the answer to the human dilemma.

In the miracle of the loaves and the fishes (Matthew 14:13-21) and in the idealistic community of faith as portrayed in Acts 2:38-47, the government has no role. People who were not getting enough of their "daily bread" were able to go to "the church" (the body of believers, not the lifeless institution) where they found grateful hearts not only willing to share however much or little they had - but eager to share all they had. It was not about "taking" from the rich and giving to the poor. My guess is those who chose to share what they had were probably not among the "upper" levels of society. Yet there seemed to be plenty because grateful hearts were gladdened by far more than an extra loaf of bread - because much more than mere hunger was at stake. Still is.

To gain a better understanding of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes and how it may speak to us today, it is important to be aware of events leading into the story. Herodias had demanded from Herod the head of John the Baptist "on a platter" (Mt 14:8). Because Herod had sworn an oath to give Herodias whatever she might ask because her dancing had so pleased him, he was honor-bound to oblige her demand not simply because he had said it but because he was heard by others who had gathered to celebrate his birthday.

Herod had painted himself into a corner. Worse that the potential outcome for executing an innocent man, however, Herod was more concerned with how he would be immediately perceived by the others; weak, not good for his word, not "in charge", and thus "vulnerable". It was not a matter of what was right; it was a matter of what was expeditious and what might make him look good. In other words, Herod - even at the expense of John's life - refused to "blink".

So when word reached Jesus about what had happened to John, He "withdrew" in a boat to be alone. By how the account is written in Matthew the crowd had also heard about "it" (assuming "it" was Herod's execution of John the Baptist), so they followed Jesus. It is very likely John the Baptist had a lot of followers among this crowd, many of whom had reason to believe they were next, so they also had every reason to flee. If Herod could do what he did to John the Baptist, popular as John likely was, then Herod could do it to anyone he chose when the mood struck him. And if history is any indication, Herod did exactly that.

We could imagine the uncertainty and anguish this mass of people must have been feeling; unsure about tomorrow, uncertain about what "the state" may choose to do next, and they feeling substantially powerless to do anything about it. If there was ever a moment when salvation would mean the most, it was then - and perhaps even now. There is no greater "shackle" than to live in fear and uncertainty. There is no greater sense of bondage than when one would realize that one's life is in the hands of another, particularly one to whom human lives are little more than pawns to be played for political purposes; to appear "strong" in the face of potential adversaries.

So because these people are fleeing and perhaps afraid, standing on the shore and feeling substantially "pinned" with nowhere to go and with no comfort to be found and not knowing which way to turn, Jesus returned to the shore. Having "compassion" as only Jesus can, He came ashore and healed the sick among them. It is fair to say they probably had nowhere else to go. Though they may not have been literally homeless, they surely felt substantially helpless. Hopeless. Trapped. Sick with worry about their future, perhaps, and getting hungry besides. And perhaps as well - fearful of going home under the political circumstances.

So we start with five loaves of bread and two fish. In John's account (6:1-14) there was a boy nearby who had the loaves and the fish, but Matthew does not offer this detail. Whether or not there was specifically a boy with this bread and fish, however, is not nearly as important as realizing someone had the bread and fish. Matthew insinuates this bread and fish were among the disciples themselves when they said "we only have ...", but even this is not as important as acknowledging our starting point: five loaves of bread and two fish. So we can easily imagine the disciples' response when Jesus instructed them to feed the masses rather than send them away! It is likely the same response you or I would each give under similar circumstances.

There are a couple of ways we can navigate this story. One, we can attribute to Jesus' divine power making the bread and fish multiply sufficiently so that there is enough for over 5000 hungry people, each "individual" taking his or her fill with no regard for the person sitting next to them. And as they take one, two "magically" reappear. OR we can look upon a community that has formed out of necessity and a shared sense of commonality. I choose the latter because I think there is a colossal miracle, given my level of practical cynicism, in each person taking only enough to get by and not choosing to gorge themselves instead. After all, it is very hard to tell when and where the next meal will come from. It would be a miracle if no one "horded" for themselves for fear of tomorrow.

In practical terms, then, because "someone" had 5 loaves of bread and two fish it is not unreasonable to assume there must have been others who also had some bread and some fish. It is not unreasonable to believe that from what each had, they took only what they needed and then perhaps shared what they had with the "common pot" so there would be enough for everyone, as in Acts. A community, specifically a community of faith, was being formed with the Son of God as the nucleus; and each man, woman, and child had something in common. The "state" was making them afraid and giving them no reason to hope or to trust, and the Lord was proving to them there was nothing to be afraid of ... and every reason to have hope!

In that moment of community, salvation was as abundant as the bread and the fish as evidenced by the remarkable collection of leftovers. Even if only for a moment, each man, woman, and child was released from the incredible bondage that had only moments before completely engulfed, enslaved, and perhaps incapacitated them. They were free, and they were filled. Within the community of faith and by the mighty hand and heart of the Lord our God ... and no other.

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