A reflection on the readings for Proper 13B: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:15; Psalm 51; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35 by Janine Goodwin
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."
In this passage, Jesus is busy tearing down everything that stands in the way of relationship. The crowd comes to him, having put considerable time and effort (those boats didn't have motors) into finding him, and he confronts them, telling them they are looking for him because he gave them food. Material advantage is not the basis for a relationship with the infinite God. In our times, this passage can serve as a powerful contradiction to the prosperity gospel, which claims that the wandering homeless man Jesus wants you, yes, you, to be rich. The point is not food, though food is good and Jesus has fed them. He has met them where they are, and now it's time to go deeper.
The point, which the crowd keeps missing, is not what Jesus does, but who he is. The point is that he wants people to know him. We are that crowd. We want things, we ask for things, and Jesus wants a relationship He wants to feed us in a deeper way than the material, not instead of but as well as the material. He wants to be known, to give life, to answer the hunger and thirst for meaning and connection. He wants us to care for one another, as well; the passage from Ephesians reminds us that the love of God is meant to be lived out with others.
In a culture as materialistic as that of 21st-century America, this can be a hard passage to read. Our popular media present an endless stream of commodities, and people and relationships can seem like just another thing to be obtained through hard work and earned prosperity. We can get the perfect spouse, job, friends, kids, and great car if we just do the next thing and buy the next gadget and improve ourselves! This seems like a message of hope, but in a time of contracting economies and deep imbalances between rich and poor, the message of advertising carries an underlying current of desperation and despair. The despair deepens when the gadgets we manage to get don't make us content. We yearn after luxury while fearing we will not even have the necessities, and in between it all we have trouble caring about each other. Others are clearly flawed, not like the images of airbrushed and photoshopped beauty, male and female, that meet us on every flat surface in a city and every screen we pass. We are flawed when we judge ourselves by the standards of perfect looks, wealth, and personality. How can we believe in a God who wants to meet us where we are, know and love us, and be known and loved? How can we believe that we and those around us are worthy of love and generosity?
I have spent the last couple of weeks thinking about the way Bathsheba is absent in her own story, the story of her abduction and rape by David (it is a rape: she had no other real choice but death). Even Nathan's heroic confrontation of David places her firmly in the role of property, comparing her to a sheep. David repents of his actions not because of what he has done to her, but because he has stolen property from another man and offended God. All we know of her soul is that she mourned for the husband whom David had arranged to have killed. Except for that brief glimpse, the narrator of the story treats her as a commodity. Even the death of her child is a punishment for David's sins. Psalm 51, said to be David's response to Nathan, says nothing about his relationship with others, only his relationship to God. Something is missing even in his repentance.
Our culture is not that different than David's, for all the progress we have made toward letting women have some independence. We know little about any kind of love, despite all the songs about infatuation that play continually on our radios: we, too, see people as commodities, and the language used for love is too often about possession and control rather than caring and communication. Feminism, as has been famously said, is the radical notion that women are people. I sometimes wonder whether any of us see each other as people, whether we can see ourselves and see each other as God sees us. It is not progress when women learn to objectify men in the ways men have always objectified women. Children are still despised, abused, and treated as property. Disabled and elderly people and poor people are still seen as worthless. How can we learn to know and care for one another as Jesus wants to care for us? How can we learn to know him as he wants to be known? How can we reach the vision of community in the reading from Ephesians and not limit community to a few people like us, but be like Jesus and see all people as worth loving? It is hard work, far harder than sailing or rowing after someone who has given us bread. It calls for constant awareness of our own ingrained attitudes and the courage to change them. It calls for the most difficult prayer of all, the prayer that is listening for the quiet voice of God in the very center of our distracted selves. Dare we do it?
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