Ninth Sunday in Pentecost in Year B

“Gather the pieces that are left over and let nothing be wasted”—reverential economy of our use of God’s grace.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year B 2012

                                                                                                            By Dennis Ormseth

 

Reading for Series B: 2011-2012

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

2 Kings 4:42-44

Psalm 145:10-18

Ephesians 3:14-21

John 6:1-21

 

The gospel readings from Mark for the last three Sundays have focused our attention on the context of the feeding of the five thousand; with this Sunday's reading, we hear the details of the feeding itself, but they are from the Gospel of John. We turn to John's account, however, with heightened awareness of the significance of Mark's narrative for care of creation. Our engagement with Mark's story served to illumine the important implications for care of creation of the shift from the temple in Jerusalem to Jesus as the locus of divine presence. Focused on Jesus, we have found ourselves gathered by the “sea” of Galilee or, more precisely, on it, with his disciples in a tossed-about small boat, as well as on both sides of it, a removal to a religious geography that opens up the narrative to the more primordial cosmology of sea and wind—in the presence of one who not only quiets the storm, but restores justice to  relationships in society and healing to land and bodies. Among the peoples of Galilee and the “country of the Gerasenes,” newly unbound from the anxieties that transformed temple ritual into structures of social and political oppression, we discovered ourselves freed to embrace the sacredness of all the Earth, and to hope for healing everywhere.

 

With an orientation to creation thus informed more by the prophetic than the cultic traditions of Israel, our engagement with the narrative of the meals of Mark has nonetheless uncovered a pattern of religious practice that provides the church, in Walter Brueggemann's phrase, with a “regularized, stylized practice of symbolization . . . indispensable for the sustenance of intentional ethical practice.” Along with the teaching of Jesus, a Eucharistic meal will be a central element of the church's future gatherings. Out of the contrast between the banquet hosted by Herod at the center of political and religious power, when the prophet John's head was served up as if for food, and Jesus' feeding of the crowd in the wilderness, where people are fed out of Jesus' compassion for them, there emerges a characteristic orientation that shapes our most fundamental relationship to Earth, namely, the eating that sustains us in life, even as it also inherently involves us in the reality of death.

 

Moving into the texts for the next five Sundays, what more beyond this can John's narrative of the meal offer? Why focus for five more Sundays on the meal and its meaning? Norman Wirzba again helps us to understand the high value of this extended engagement: “It is helpful,” he writes,

 

to recall that bread is not simply a material substance. . . . bread comes to be what it is because of multiple processes.  People have to grow gain, transform it into flour, and then think about the social relations that can potentially develop around its production and sharing. All along the way, decisions have to be made about how people related to the land (agriculture) and each other (culture). These decisions reflect more or less appropriate forms of abiding: bread can be consumed in ways that respect and honor field workers, farm workers, and bakers, but it can also be consumed as a product in which relations to land and others have been degraded. Food production and consumption, in other words, embody a logos. What we eat and how we eat it reflect whether or not we think we need to abide with others at all (Food and Faith:  A Theology of Eating. New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 155).

 

Is there a distinctively Christian logos of eating? Yes, of course. In the readings for last Sunday, we have already seen how the narrative of the feeding calls into question our anxiety-laden dependence on our culture's destructive way of producing and consuming food. The readings for this Sunday and those that follow offer further understanding of this crucial dynamic of the faith.

 

With a bow in the direction of the history of New Testament literature that is far too complicated for us to take up here, we first take note of the scholarly consensus that John's Gospel was written later than the synoptic Gospels, and represents a more developed stage of reflection on the meaning of the events of Jesus' story. Particularly important for our concern with care of creation is the proposal  that in John's Gospel the eschatological hope inspired by Jesus' teaching becomes to some significant degree a “realized eschatology” (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (New York, Doubleday, 1966, pp. cxvi – cxxi for a brief discussion of literature on this topic). If the community of John has in some measure appropriated the significance of the new orientation to creation which that hope opens up, is there an identifiable  trajectory of care of creation, from Mark's Gospel to that of John?

 

A comparison of John's narrative with that of Mark turns up some intriguing contrasts. To begin with, although the two accounts share many details and both connect the feeding to an epiphany on the sea, where Mark has two feedings, John has only one.  Mark's feeding is part of a complex narrative that includes acts of healing as well as feedings on both sides of the Sea of Galilee, and Mark advances his interest in the socio-political aspects of Jesus' mission. As we see in this Sunday's reading (6:1-21), John's account is a simpler telling of the story of the meal per se, but the following discourse on Jesus as the Bread of Life is extended and complex. John's concern here is clearly more christological, and his purposes are served well enough by a more generalized geology  (the sea and  the mountain, the latter being introduced by John) and a single feeding, with some particularly interesting details folded into the account of the meal. 

 

For example, Raymond Brown calls our attention to John's explicit assignment of the feeding to the time of Passover (6:4), suggesting that this assignment prepares the reader for the Bread of Life discourse that will follow the feeding, and in which the account of manna in the wilderness figures significantly. When Brown also notes, however, by way of claiming an element of historical veracity for this connection to Passover, that without mentioning Passover, Mark describes the setting for the meal as having green grass, we wonder if Brown’s concern for the historicity of John does cause him to miss something more significant. While John does make this connection between the meal and Passover, he also notes separately that “there was a great deal of grass in the place” (6:10; emphasis ours). Why this strong interest and even emphasis on the presence of grass?

 

Of similar interest is the presence of a lad with barley loaves, which recalls another Old Testament text: the Elisha story in 2 Kings 4, our first lesson this Sunday.  As Brown explains,

 

We remember that the NT establishes a parallelism between Jesus and the closely connected figures of Elijah and Elisha”—and the parallels here “are startling:  A man comes to Elisha with twenty barley loaves (one of the four uses of 'barley' as an adjective in LXX). Elisha says, “Give to the men that they may eat.” There is a servant present (designated as leitourgos here, but as paidarion five verses before, and the latter is his normal designation –a question similar to vs. 9 in John. Elisha repeats the order to give the food to the men, and they eat and have some left. The servant asks, “How am I to set this before a hundred men?”—a question similar to vs. 9 in John (Brown, p. 246.)

 

As we noted in our comment on Last Sunday's lessons, Ched Myer thinks that the Elisha story has shaped the telling of the feeding story already in Mark: it is a story about feeding people during a famine in the land.  Accordingly, we would suggest that John's heightened emphasis on the presence of grass might also have related significance for interpreting the meaning of the feeding. Last Sunday, we read Psalm 23 in connection with Mark's suggestion that Jesus is the prophetic “shepherd to the shepherdless”: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (23:1). Now we recall that the psalmist also wrote, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Jesus, this  inter-textual reference would suggest, is indeed the shepherd king, an inference strengthened by the fact that after having “a table prepared for them in the presence of [their] enemies,” the crowd will shortly be “beside still[ed] waters” (23:2, 5). The allusion to Psalm 23 thus resonates with the harmony between the psalmist and God's creation, a manifestation of the “goodness and mercy” of God that drives out all fear and that is to “follow all the days of [the psalmist's] life.”

 

Two aspects of this inter-textual reference are particularly interesting. First, if Jesus was “shepherd for the shepherdless” or, in Israel's tradition, the messianic king who does what that shepherd king was expected to do, why does he not welcome, at 6:15, the demand of the people that he become king to replace Herod? The desire for that king seems not only natural (he does provide needed food), but, in some sense, it is also a faithful response to the promises of God to the people. The answer to this question lies, of course, in the greater mission of Jesus as the Son of God. The feeding of the five thousand, Brown notes, is more than a simple act of compassion on the hungry; even in the synoptic Gospels, it “seems to border on the concept of a miracle as a sign, as something designed to teach those who saw it about Jesus. Seemingly, the Synoptic evangelists saw it as a messianic sign fulfilling the OT promises that in the days to come God would feed His people with plenty.” But now in John's Gospel, Brown continues, we see that “as the account of the multiplication was handed down in the teaching tradition of the Christian community, its connection with the special food of God's people, the Eucharist, was recognized” (Brown, p. 247). Or, as Wirzba comments, “John's point . . . is that Jesus is not simply the provider of bread. He is the full meaning of bread, the nurture that 'comes down from heaven and gives life to the world' (6:33)” (Wirzba p. 155). This becomes the theme of the following discourse on Bread from Heaven. But already here, observing that Jesus as host of the meal actually takes over from the disciples the task of distributing the bread (the role of servant from the story of Elisha?), we realize that the Lord who is the shepherd of all creation everywhere and for all times, must remain free to serve all creation.

 

Secondly, we note that the psalmist also expects to “dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long,” meaning that he will worship in the temple all is days. But if the temple is no longer the locus of divine presence because it has been taken over by the enemies of God, can one not instead worship the Lord in the wilderness, where God alone governs and supplies the people's needs? That is precisely what the gathered crowd does as guests of Jesus.

 

 In this regard, two actions are particularly significant. First, before he distributes the loaves to those who were seated, John notes, Jesus took the loaves and gave thanks (eucharistein). We can easily image that the content of this prayer might have been drawn from the psalm for this Sunday, Psalm 14: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings” (145:15-17). And the doxology from the end of the Eucharistic and kerygmatic section of Ephesians (3:14-15), our second lesson for this Sunday, gives even more fulsome praise to God.

 

The second action occurs when Jesus subsequently directs the disciples to “gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” Brown and others see an allusion here to the gathering of manna in the wilderness, remembrance of which is part of the Passover ritual. Actually, however, there is a subtle but important difference between the gathering of manna in the wilderness and the action here Moses' instruction cautions against hoarding: namely, the people are to take only what they can eat in the allotted time whether weekday or Sabbath; any over-supply will perish. Jesus' instruction to gather up all the fragments would rather seem to be about conservation of the bread, so that others can be fed, with each disciple using his basketful to further feed people in the future. Appropriately, an annotation from the New Oxford Annotated Bible at John 6:12 suggests that the instruction regarding the fragments concerns “an act of reverential economy toward the gift of God,” and the NIV translates the verse, provocatively, as “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.”

 

In these details, then, John's account of the feeding displays a concern for creation that is enduring and life-giving, and for which, indeed, gratitude is ever due. With Jesus offering the prayer, the crowd gives thanks for food that is given to restore their life; the gathering up of fragments after they have eaten, in turn, will have the significance expressed later in a prayer from the Didache meant to be said over the bread: “Concerning the fragmented bread [klasma], 'We give thanks [eucharistein] to you, Our Father . . . As this fragmented bread was scattered on the mountains, but was gathered up [synagein] and became one, so let the Church be gathered up from the four corners of the earth into our kingdom (Brown, pp. 246-48). Jesus indeed comes “to give life to the world'” (6:33).

 

Just so, gratitude for the abundance of God's great gift, coupled with a reverential economy in its use, belongs at the heart of the Christian ritual of the meal; indeed, we see that it has become a guiding metaphor for the church' in prayer about its future existence. A grateful and conserving heart, we might say, belongs to the very essence of Christian worship of God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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