Monday, August 01, 2011

The Perfect Pitch

Isaiah 55.1-5, Matthew 14.13-21, Romans 9.1-5

The opening verses of Isaiah chapter 55 are set in a market place. The Revised English Bible softens the market trader’s pitch in the opening verse and makes it sound far less arresting than the Prophet intended. The passage should really begin with something like, ‘Hey, gather round everyone!’ or ‘Listen up!’


To picture what the Prophet has in mind you need to think yourself back to Wakefield Market a good few years ago. Here is someone selling dinner services, or tea services. ‘Ladies, I’m not offering you one tureen,’ the pitcher says, perhaps twirling a tureen around his head. or throwing it up into the air and catching it expertly on the way down, ‘I’m not even going to offer you two tureens. Because you - the good ladies of Wakefield have such an excellent eye for a bargain - I’m going to throw in a third one as well and, also, because it’s your lucky day today, you’re not just going away with three tureens, I’m going to give you a full set of dinner plates, and I’m going to give you the side plates, and I’m even going to throw in the soup bowls as well, and all made in this lovely hand-glazed Staffordshire pottery that you see before you. And no doubt you’ll be wondering what I’m asking for this amazing twenty-one piece dinner service. Well I’m not going to ask for thirty shillings, I’m not even going to ask for twenty-five bob, or twenty-four. In fact I’m going to rob myself today, because I’m not even asking for twenty-three shillings, or twenty-two shillings and six pence. This handsome dinner set - one, two, three tureens, six dinner plates, six side plates, six soup bowls, and even the lovely box they come in - is yours today, Ladies, for the bargain price of just one guinea. So come on Ladies, put up your hands quickly before I come to my senses and change my mind.’


Or what about the fruit and veg man, holding open a big carrier bag? ‘Look! I’m going to give you one, two, three, four, five, six juicy jaffas, and - look! - a handful of satsumas, and two handfuls of monkey nuts ‘shell-on’, and a pound o’ plumbs, and a cabbage, and a cauliflower, and a whole bunch of celery sticks and I’m not going to ask for one-and-six, I’m only going to ask you one shilling the lot. Snap my hand off before I think better of it!


With that picture in mind we can go back to Isaiah and get the full flavour of this passage. ‘Look! Ladies and gentlemen, are you thirsty today? Come and get some beautiful, refreshing spring water! And not just this lovely spring water, how about I throw in some milk, and look, just because it’s you, I’ll throw in a skinful of wine for good measure. Are you hungry? Well I’ll throw in a bagful of grain as well. And what am I asking, ladies and gentlemen, for this amazing bargain? I’m not asking three shekels, I’m not asking two, I’m not even asking one.’


The first shock for the reader in this passage is that the pitcher or spieler is offering the goods for free. ‘Today, ladies and gentlemen, I’m giving it all away! Snatch my hand off before it’s all gone!’


Why would the pitcher do this? It’s not as if the buyers haven’t any money! The problem is that they’ve been spending their hard earned cash on the wrong things - on junk food that fails to satisfy - when all the time the genuine article was available for nothing.


The second shock for the reader is that the pitcher or spieler seems to be God. Now that’s not very God-like is it? Descending to the market place to shout out an offer for his wares, making his pitch against the cacophony of all the other faiths and lifestyles on offer, surely that’s beneath God’s dignity?


In fact, the image of God competing in the hurly-burly of the market place is so unusual that some commentators think the pitcher or spieler is not God as such, but God’s servant Wisdom. In Israelite tradition Wisdom is pictured as feminine, so if this interpretation is correct, the reader gets a different shock. Although plenty of market traders are female, the pitchers and spielers tend to be male, simply because you need a very loud voice to make yourself heard. Women can shout out their offer to the customer, and you often hear them doing it, and that’s where the expression to shout like a fish wife comes from, but pitching or spieling takes a concentrated or prolonged effort which would be a struggle for most women and also for many men. Here, however, Wisdom would seem to be making her pitch to the people; and if not Wisdom, then God himself.


Having hooked the passer-by’s attention, God or Wisdom then unpacks the offer a little more. It transpires that the goods he, or she, is giving away are not actual meat and drink but words - very special words, though; life-giving words which spell out a new covenant or bond between God and his people.


If the people choose to buy into the covenant, then God will make them even greater than David. He offered a covenant to David and made David the leader of an entire nation, but David and his successors proved unworthy of God’s trust. So now, instead, God makes his offer direct to the people. If they follow him obediently they will be able to repeat his offer to all the nations and the nations will hasten to respond. What was once just a national movement, under King David, will become international instead.


I hope you can see at once the link to our Gospel story. Jesus’ heart goes out to the crowd just as God’s heart went out to the Jewish exiles in the market places of Babylon. But there is a problem. Unlike the people in the market place, the crowd gathered around Jesus is far away from shops and restaurants, or the comforts of home. The disciples urge him to send them away to buy something to eat. Jesus, however, can’t see the problem. Like the pitcher in Isaiah Chapter 55, he thinks it shouldn’t be necessary to pay for nourishing food and drink. ‘Feed them yourselves!’ he says.


Matthew juxtaposes this feast with another one, the feast given by King Herod to celebrate his birthday, when there was lots to eat and drink. But the spirit in which that party was conducted contrasts sharply with the calm and purposeful devotion with which Jesus and his disciples set about feeding the crowd. Herod’s party marred by anger, scheming and self-centredness, culminated in the violent and untimely death of John the Baptist.


Matthew compares that tragic occasion with the way that Jesus, the true successor to King David, feeds the people who have come to him. With his blessing, the five loaves and two fish which the disciples have found become more than sufficient to feed everyone and magic numbers of leftovers are collected up afterwards before the crowd disperses in peace.


Is this a simple feeding miracle? If so, it begs the question why similar miracles cannot be wrought to feed the hungry children in the Horn of Africa today. Or is the real miracle of the Horn of Africa that ordinary people around the world - and governments too - are willing to donate food to help strangers thousands of miles away from them? Did something like this happen in the crowd around Jesus as well? Did strangers share their picnics with those who had come without anything to eat, as the disciples began to distribute their meagre supplies of bread and fish?


Last week a Baptist minister from Gildersome near Leeds published a new website, called ‘The £100 Wedding’, after he heard on the radio that a wedding now costs at least £5,000 and many people who live together would prefer to marry but are put off by the cost. He argued not only that it could be done for no more than £100, but that, in fact, it needn’t cost more than £67 - the price of getting two marriage certificates from the registrar.


His thinking was based on something like the naturalistic interpretation of the feeding miracle - the idea that people were encouraged by Jesus’ example to share their food. He suggested that if couples were able to prove that they really couldn’t afford a posh wedding, and weren’t buying things like a wedding dress, gold rings, a fancy reception and a honeymoon, then many Free Churches would be prepared to perform the ceremony - and perhaps even cater for a simple buffet style reception - free of charge. Anglican churches can’t do this. They must by law make a charge, and a Church of England wedding typically costs at least £400 - just a bit more than a top of the range wedding here.


However, if going without a wedding dress, rings and even a reception all sounds a bit extreme, the minister from Gildersome still has lots of ideas for keeping the cost to a minimum, and most of them are based on sharing. For example, he suggests asking your family if they have any gold rings bequeathed by relatives that you could reuse as your own wedding ring, and getting your friends to upload all their photos of your wedding onto a special website where you can select the best ones to make up your own wedding album. Instead of a reception, he suggests booking a restaurant and asking the guests to pay for their own meal in lieu of buying you a wedding present. That way they don’t have to worry about what to get you, and you don’t have to pay for the wedding breakfast either. And he suggests asking all your friends on Facebook if they’re old wedding dress would fit you co that you can borrow it from them.


I have to say that if any of her friends had wanted to borrow Jenny’s wedding dress they would have to pay for it to be dry cleaned, to get off the gravel marks left by the church path even before her wedding began, and that would cost more than £70 just by itself. But I’m sure you get the idea. A wedding need not cost £5,000. If we followed all of these tips it would probably set us back less than £1,000 - perhaps even much less. And the whole concept is based on people sharing with one another and making a little go a long way as a result. Perhaps that’s what happened when Jesus fed the crowd.


But, of course, any discussion of the feeding of the five thousand men, plus women and children, wouldn’t be complete without a mention of another very special kind of sharing - the eucharistic sharing of bread and wine. Granted, the miracle is about bread and fish, but otherwise it has all the elements of a holy communion. The bread is offered to Jesus, who blesses it, breaks it and shares it with the people. The parallels are so obvious that Matthew must have intended us to see how Jesus is the Wisdom or Word of God, come among us to offer us food that will truly satisfy us, life-giving sustenance, an everlasting covenant, and all at no cost except our own faithfulness to him. Why go chasing after an invitation to Herod’s poisonous banquet when we can have all this for free?


And so, finally, to Paul’s comment about the Jewish nation in Romans chapter 5. Helen and I watched a programme on TV the other day about an excavation in Norwich, on the site where a new shopping centre had been built. The excavation uncovered a disused well shaft, abandoned in early medieval times, where seventeen Jewish men, women and children were either thrown to their deaths, or disposed of after their death, before the sheriff and his men could find out what had happened to them. Apparently there was a riot, and the sheriff briefly lost control of the city - where there were probably about 17,000 people living at the time, 200 of them Jewish moneylenders and merchants together with their families. An angry mob attacked the home of at least one Jewish family and the occupants either took their own lives before they could be captured, or else were murdered in cold blood. A similar atrocity, on a much bigger scale, happened at about the same time in York. But none of this might have happened if the people of medieval England had been able to read, or to listen to the Bible being read in English. For Paul makes clear that the Jewish people have a very special place in God’s plan.


They are the people to whom the prophecy was revealed about the new covenant. The Prophet seems to envisage that the whole nation will take on the messianic role of bringing God’s message to the nations, but of course Paul wants to identify the Messiah, God’s anointed messenger, with Jesus. Nonetheless, he makes clear that Jesus the Messiah is himself Jewish, just like Paul, and that the promises and covenants made with Israel are for ever and still apply, even though - by God’s grace - they have now been extended to us as well.


Look everyone! Gather round and see what we have to offer. God’s promises are freely available to all - even today - and in communion with Jesus, so beautifully symbolised in the re-enactment of the Last Supper, when he comes to join us in the circle as we share the bread and wine, we can be fed and satisfied with all God’s spiritual gifts. Why look elsewhere? Why spend money on what is not good to eat?

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