Notes based on the New Revised Standard Version, first published in ‘Words for Today’ (IBRA, 2000)
For some in our world bread is a luxury, while others take it for granted. These readings ask us to reconsider what gives substance to our lives, to ask what Jesus, as ‘the bread of life’ requires of our churches and societies, and to rediscover our Hebrew heritage as we prepare for the Feast of Life for a hungry planet. These notes were prepared in the aftermath of the eighth assembly of the World Council of Churches in Harare, Zimbabwe. When Christians from every continent come together we have a chance to glimpse the community of God that requires us to hunger and thirst for righteousness.
John 6. 1 – 21
Breaking and freeing
Two of the most important elements in John’s Gospel are signs and discourses. This famous passage (which parallels Mark 6. 34 – 52) contains two of the best-known incidents in the New Testament: Jesus’ walking on water, and the feeding of the five thousand. But the key to the true significance of these stories in John’s schema lies in the two verses that do not appear in Mark’s account — verses14 and 15. Here we read that Jesus rejects attempts to make him a worldly king, and instead he is recognised as “the prophet who is to come into the world.” But what does this mean?
The renowned Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has talked about two very different dynamics running through the Hebrew Scriptures. One, associated with Moses and the prophets, was a radical movement, critical of the Temple cult and of attempts by priests and rulers to manipulate faith and ritual for their own ends. Another was the monarchical tradition that upheld the established religion in matters of statehood as well as piety.
In this passage, John is placing Jesus firmly in the first camp. The preceding references to Moses (5. 45 – 47) make this even clearer. In showing Jesus calming and crossing the sea of Capernaum, the writer is associating his Lord directly with the Exodus event and the parting of the Red Sea. Similarly, the feeding of the multitude recalls the manna in the desert and demonstrates that Jesus has come to offer (as John also reminds us) life in its fullness. Here is not just a one-off satisfying of his follower’s hunger, but a dramatic promise of bread and freedom for the world. Jesus’ followers are amazed, but they are also puzzled. Like us they want to know how and when these promises will be fulfilled.
* God of the multitudes,
May your presence feed our hope in a world freed for sharing.
Genesis 18. 1 – 15
Feeding and laughing
To laugh or not to laugh? Sarah, quite naturally, has difficulty in seeing how the promise that has been made to Abraham — fertility where there is dryness, a future where none seems available — can possibly come true. For a Christian reader the appearance of bread and water and the promise of a son point us towards those images and realities (they are both) which the Gospel writers subsequently weaved into their portrait of Jesus as the one in whom God’s purposes become clear.
But for Abraham, the father of a universal hope of deliverance born among the most unlikely of peoples, things are far from certain. The sagas of the patriarchs in chapters 12 to 36 of Genesis, in which this text finds its home, are all about trust, perseverance and the hope of restoration for an ailing generation. Abraham sees in his unexpected guests a possible sign of God’s favour, and his sharing of food and hospitality becomes the vehicle for this most unlikely of blessings. As so often in the Scriptures, the breaking of bread becomes a moment of revelation. The Covenant relationship, in which all can find a place (cf. Genesis 17. 26 – 27) will even visit an old and barren woman — one of the least respected members of the community.
Where we take our leave of this episode is at a point of uncertainty, however. Knowing what will happen, we may rightly see Sarah’s womanly laugh as one of ultimate triumph. But for her at this moment it is a cry in the dark, and she is sorely tempted to deny it.
* God of surprises,
Show us how to rejoice in your fertile future.
Exodus 16. 9 – 21
Hungering and thirsting
The next scene in our journey through these biblical stories of hope and longing starts with the growing discontent of the liberated people of Israel. They have dared to cross the sea (their Rubicon) to leave the oppression of imperial Egypt behind, but now they are finding that freedom does not come cheaply or easily.
Earlier in the same chapter (see back to verses 2, 3) the people challenged Moses, the leader, with their persistent stomach pangs — and with a certain nostalgia about the ‘fleshpots’ of consolation which they enjoyed in the old days of captivity. Perhaps Jesus remembered their pain when he particularly chose to bless those who “hunger and thirst that right may prevail” (Matthew 5.6)
In any event, the God of Exodus does hear those rumblings of hunger, and provides a very strange food (manna, literally “what is it?”) — something to nourish the people for the next part of their sojourn, but not such as to allow them to institutionalise it into a system of organised luxury (verses 20, 21).
When so much of our world is based on ‘futures markets’ and on planned extravagance for the privileged few, perhaps Moses’ ‘theology of enough’ (to adapt a phrase from the missionary theologian, John V Taylor) sounds strange to our ears. We, like the freed but frustrated Israelites, need to realise that the bread that truly satisfies is for what we need not for what we try to grasp.
* God of deliverance,
Nourish us to hunger for what is right for your world.
Deuteronomy 8. 1 – 10
Eating and talking
In this passage, the Deuteronomist, the unveiler of God’s word, recapitulates the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt in order to offer a promise and a warning. As ever in the Hebrew Scriptures, the good news and the tough news belong together. As the heading in the NRSV pithily reminds us, at the heart of this address (part of three main blocks of discourse concerned with Law, Covenant and Blessing) lies an injunction not to forget God’s purposes in times of prosperity. This warning is apt. The Deuteronomic texts comprise reminiscences, exhortations, songs, appeals, forebodings and legal frameworks suited for a people who have arrived on the plains of Moab, just forty days away from entering the Promised Land.
This is the context for that famous saying, echoed by Jesus, “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of the Lord.” The point is not to drive a wedge between the physical and the spiritual. The stuff of life and the fullness of life belong together. But that is just the point. To concentrate on worldly ease and the desires of the stomach is to miss the richness of life that is possible in God, our ultimate destiny, who binds the bread of today and the bread of tomorrow together.
The intention is to train and discipline a wayward people on the edge of maturity (verse 5) to make the best use of the rich resources that are about to be theirs (verses 7 – 10). The lesson of the manna is that by clinging to our own needs, we risk losing them. The spirit of trust, generosity and ‘enough’ is God’s way — a way that offers life for all, together, as a community. But as we are reminded elsewhere in this book, unless an ethic of giving is at the heart of the household, the poor (those who are excluded and marginalised) will remain and the God-driven spirit will not find peace in the land.
So the land of milk and honey, of fertility and plenty, is certainly promised. But not on any terms, and not on the basis of self-seeking or exploitation. As the span of history shows, however, we human beings are slow to learn God’s lesson and quick to hog the bread of life to ourselves — with disastrous consequences.
* God of unveiling,
Blind us to all that blurs our vision of the Promised Land.
1 Kings 17. 8 – 24
Emptying and filling
In turning today and tomorrow to the two books of Kings we take another huge leap — from the Torah (the five key texts of the law) to the historical books of what we Christians call the Old Testament. We are moving from the threshold of the Promised Land to the time of monarchy and settlement, roughly spanned by the death of King David to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.
The sources for the first book are the records of the Temple and of Solomon, the annals of the Kings of Israel and Judah, and the stories of Elijah, the great prophet whose task was to recall people to the vision of divine promise. The editorial setting for the history of the Kings is similar in tenor to the warnings of the Deuteronomist. The rulers are judged not according to their imperial achievements, wealth or success, but in terms of their fidelity to Yahweh, the God of Exodus. This means that the concerns of the poorest (what Indian theologian M M Thomas called “the last, the lost and the least” remain of paramount importance. For God is continuingly being revealed as a universal deity, not a tribal one.
So it is that in the moving story of the widow of Zarephath, her unexhausted jar of meal and her wonderfully revived sick son, the central character is a poor woman from Sidon, an ancient Canaanite stronghold. Jesus recalls this story after his sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4.26), along with the cleansing of Namaan the Syrian in the time of Elisha (2 Kings). The point is that God’s love is poured out not just on the religiously acceptable and upright, but even on those who are despised by the upholders of ‘true religion’. It was this sentiment, that the bread of life is not ours alone, that led to Jesus’ violent ejection from the synagogue, and which played a crucial role in the conflicts and trials that Elijah had to endure.
* God of gifts,
Pour out your love on those who least expect it.
2 Kings 4. 42 – 44
Offering and transforming
Jesus’ reminder about the story of Namaan the Syrian (Luke 4. 27) takes us to chapter 5 of 2 Kings. But before we get there, we discover an important and often overlooked little incident at the end of chapter four concerning a man from Baal-shalishah who brings the first fruits of his produce to the prophet Elisha. This is a remarkable act of faith, for as the name of his village suggests, this man is probably not a worshipper of Yahweh but of Baal, the fertility god who was used by the priests and rulers of Canaan to give religious sanction to their monopoly of the land. Maybe this food was originally intended as a Baal sacrifice. It would certainly have been destined for a priest rather than a prophet. That the man came to Elisha at all is therefore extraordinary, and testimony to his evident goodness.
That goodness is instantly seen when Elisha orders his servant to share bread with the hundred people gathered in that place. In a similar way to the feedings of the multitudes by Jesus recorded in the Gospels, and in accordance with the Mosaic tradition, the food is duly distributed and turns out to be more than sufficient. We are reminded of Gandhi’s famous saying that there is enough for the world’s need, but not enough for the world’s greed.
But there is more. Again we see that the physical giving of food to a neighbour becomes an occasion of grace, an instance of God’s bounty transforming human meagreness and fear into plenty. And in saying this, we should recognise that we are not ‘spiritualising’ the story, but describing an enlarged reality — a new way for a whole community to be in companionship with God. Appropriately enough, therefore, we should remind ourselves that the Greek term com panos from which we derive that word, means ‘with bread’.
* God of grace,
Take our poor offerings and turn them into food for life.