Monday, July 30, 2012

Far more than all we can ask or imagine

2 Kings 4.42-44
Elisha has a crowd of hungry people with him. It’s a time of great scarcity and feeding them is a challenge. And then one of those things happens which, with the eyes of faith, we can see as God’s providence at work. A man brings to the prophet a first fruits offering from his harvest. He does this in obedience to Jewish Law - but Jewish Law as we know it now was still evolving at the time. Later, believers would be instructed to offer the first fruits of their harvest to the priests and levites, but this man chooses to bring his offering to Elisha because of his profound respect for this holy man.

Seen as an offering of first fruits it’s actually quite a generous gift, twenty loaves of bread plus some ears of grain. But Elisha chooses to share it with his whole entourage. Twenty loaves among one hundred people means just a few slices or hunks of bread each - enough to take away the pangs of hunger for a few hours, but no more than that. If God is satisfying their need through this man’s gift it’s on a subsistence basis. As Jesus says much later in The Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us each day our daily bread.’

And yet, surprisingly, there is some left over. What’s going on here? There’s no suggestion that it was a miracle - although Elisha has already worked a miracle to turn some poisonous stew, accidentally made by desperate people gathering the wrong sort of herbs, into a wholesome meal that’s good to eat.

What we do know here is that the people are conscious of sharing in a holy gift. They’re eating the first fruits of the harvest which have been offered by this man to God. They’re taking part in the meal because Elisha - the holy man - has seen fit to invite them to share in it. So perhaps they’re inspired to make sure the food goes round everyone, with some left over. The generosity and faith of the giver, and Elisha’s confidence that they will rise to the occasion, causes them to set greed on one side and make do with just enough.

We live in a society which faces an epidemic of obesity and where all of us eat more than enough every day. Is there a lesson here? Someone has said that we don’t show enough reverence for our food - for the care that goes into tending crops and rearing animals, and for the sacrifice of their lives so that we might have food. Instead of eating a lot of everything, whether we need it or not, or - worse still - buying a lot and then throwing some of it away when it passes its sell-by-date - we should be inspired to eat as varied a diet as we can, with plenty of different fruits, vegetables and salads and just a little meat. The meat bit is, of course, optional for vegetarians, but the respect for what we eat, and the willingness to think of others and not to buy or eat too much, is not optional. It’s part of what it means to see God as the provider of our daily bread. Give us, O Lord, enough for each day and no more.

John 6.1-14
Jesus is like Elisha. He attracts people to him because of the signs and wonders which he performs, particularly the way he can heal the sick. Like Elisha he’s also able to feed the crowd with a gift of barley loaves, this time accompanied by fish rather than ears of grain. But Jesus is greater than Elisha. Whereas the twenty loaves of barley brought by the man from Baal-shalishah fed one hundred people with an unspecified amount left over, the five barley loaves supplied by the boy feeds five thousand people and there are twelve baskets full left over.

Again, the boy’s gift - presumably of his own picnic lunch - is an act of great generosity. The man was generous because he gave more than was absolutely necessary - the first fruits and then some. The boy is generous because he gives all that he has. If he had kept his picnic secret and eaten it surreptitiously he - at least - would have been fed, even if everyone else around him was hungry. Now he risks being just as hungry as the improvident people who either left home without any food, or else ate it all on the journey.

There is an argument for saying that, just as the holy nature of the offering by the man from Baal-shalishah prompted everyone to be unselfish and to share the food he had provided, so this boy’s act of unselfish generosity shames everyone else into getting out and sharing their secret stash of food. On this interpretation it becomes like a midnight feast in one of Billy Bunter’s dorms. ‘Cripes everyone, let’s share all the wonderful tuck that we’ve been sent from home!’

However, whereas the narrative of the Elisha story positively encourages that interpretation, John positively discourages it. There’s no hint in the Elisha story that his sharing was a miracle, even though Elisha had worked plenty of miracles before, but here we clearly are in the realm of the miraculous. If people are sharing what they have brought with them they must have massively over-catered for themselves, because they can afford to be careless with it - they don’t just drop a few crumbs, they drop fragments of bread and fish that are large enough to be collected up by the disciples into twelve baskets - and that’s an awful lot of leftovers.

But like the first fruits offering in Elisha’s story, John makes clear that - once Jesus has given thanks over it - this picnic of bread and fish becomes special food. It cannot be wasted or left to rot. There’s a holy imperative to gather it up and presumably distribute it later to other people in need.

Both stories evoke memories of the Passover, when the people of Israel escaped from Egypt and were fed with manna in the Wilderness. ‘They shall eat and have some left,’ the words of the Lord quoted by Elisha, don’t actually come from our version of the Manna story but they probably do come from a lost version known to Elisha and to the writer of the Books of Kings and they certainly do evoke the manna story because that’s what happened The Israelites ate the manna and had some left, and tried to keep it until evening, only to find that it didn’t store very well and went maggoty -except on the Sabbath when it stayed fresh.

In John’s story the reference to the Passover is even more explicit. He tells us that the miracle happened at Passover time. But this is a greater miracle than the manna from heaven, because there really is a lot left over and furthermore it could be kept until another day.

Because of the explicit link with the Passover, another argument holds - that this is a Eucharist or Passover meal and that after giving thanks Jesus breaks the bread and fish into pieces so small that everyone has a very tiny piece to eat. But again, that cannot be the explanation. You couldn’t fill even twelve small baskets with the crumbs from five barley loaves and two fish! And in what sense would that be a miracle - a sign from God?

Impressive as it would be to have a eucharistic sharing that involved so many people, and there certainly are echoes of the Eucharist here, would you really say to yourself afterwards, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world’? In other words, a prophet greater even than Elisha! No. You would say to yourself, ‘If this is a sign it’s only a sacramental sign of an inward and invisible gift of God’s grace.’

Holy communion, the Eucharist, is not - at least in the Methodist understanding - a miracle, a transformation of the bread and wine into something else. It’s a sign, a reminder, that as we share the bread and wine God comes to be with us in Jesus. It’s a promise of something extraordinary in the ordinary. The feeding of the five thousand is, then, in a different category from holy communion because it’s totally out of the ordinary.

Perhaps Ephesians chapter 3 verse 20 offers us an insight into what this sign is telling us. ‘By the power at work within us’ says the writer, God ‘is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.’

The feeding of the 5,000 was certainly far beyond what Jesus’ first disciples could have asked or imagined. Philip said, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of these people to get even a little!’ And yet Jesus was able to feed the crowd because of God’s power flowing through him. Not only that, but he was also able to accomplish it abundantly; there was a superfluity of God’s power at work here, leading to twelve baskets of leftovers.

So what’s the message for us - is it that on the journey with Jesus we have to expect the impossible, to learn not to worry too much about having the resources to finish the task when we set out, to be prepared to have our imaginations stretched and our horizons broadened? Do we sometimes fail because we are too cautious, too reluctant, too calculating?

Yet sometimes Jesus says, ‘Don’t set out to build a tower unless you have the resources to finish it, don’t go out against an army unless you have overwhelming odds on your side.’ How does that advice square with the story of the feeding of the 5,000? Feeding a lot of people, especially feeding those in genuine need - in the middle of a famine, for instance - is a huge logistical task and it actually takes a lot of foresight and planning.

So maybe the message is that - as often as possible - we should be like the boy. I’m always amazed when people go out and buy their lunch every day when they could save a fortune by packing up a sandwich. We should all take rations with us for the journey with Jesus, and be prepared to top them up when we can. But there will be times, as he says, when it is essential instead to travel light, to take no pack on our back, no sandwich box and thermos flask. There will be times when, to grasp the opportunities that are presented to us, we must be prepared to take risks and believe that God can ‘accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.’

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