We long to return to restaurants and bars; but what is it that we are searching for? It is now most vital that we answer that question quickly for ourselves since pre-mature and thoughtless gathering without masks and distancing and sanitizing, is surely inviting the plague to return with a vengeance.
Yet, we need to break bread together. But what kind of bread, and how? And what are we longing for? Those are the existential questions of this hour.
This Sunday we read these words in Isaiah (55:1-5), written for those heartbroken by disappointment when, what was to be a glorious return from exile only occasioned more competition, more doors slammed shut, and more corruption:
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
The prophet mixes metaphors creatively: the feast of food that satisfies is for the ear, not just the mouth.
And in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude (Matthew 14:13-21), we read that the disciples feel helpless and want to send the people away. They cannot feed a multitude in a deserted place. But Jesus charges: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
The Gospel reading is where I would like to focus attention. It is a great example of the favored religious mode of communication. Back in the days when intellectuals were debating whether Darwin’s theories of evolution were compatible with the Bible, a philosophical writer named Samuel Butler wrote, “The men of religion tell a lot of little lies for the sake of one big truth, and the men of science a lot of little truths for the sake of one big lie.” This is just a bit too simplistic a caricature, but it also helps us understand the kind of story-telling we encounter in Matthew’s version of the Feeding.
Matthew’s first little lie is about location: that the feeding takes place in a “deserted place.” The Greek word refers to a wilderness; yet Jesus and the disciples, according to the flow of stories, are actually still in Galilee. Another little lie is temporal: Jesus goes ashore, heals the crowds of followers, and then the feeding happens “when it was evening.” Then, in the following section about Jesus dismissing the crowds and going to pray by himself, it says “evening came.” The first lie turns our thoughts back to the origin story of Israel, who took shape as a people when God fed them manna in the wilderness of Sinai. The second lie turns our thoughts forward to when Jesus will share the last supper with the disciples, which will become then the Lord’s Supper of the church.
The one big truth is this: Manna for Israel, feeding of the multitudes, Passover meal with Jesus, Eucharist in the church—and while we are at it, eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors, and Emmaus meal where the resurrected Lord opens the eyes and starts a fire of inspiration in two disciples—all these things work together to become the meal that satisfies. They are what our hearts and minds truly long for in this time of pandemic.
What we are searching for is not buffalo wings, beer, and loud conversation in a crowded restaurant. What we need, is the kind of deep connection and belonging that happens when God is host. What will satisfy involves not only our mouths, but our ears as well—the invitation not to careless abandon, but to mutual caring in covenant with each other and with our Lord.
This is a critical time in the life of our nation. Political winds want to blow us apart from each other. We are told to care very much for our individual freedoms, and to distrust collectivity itself, and especially government. But this attitude has made us the worst nation in the world for battling the killer virus.
But God is calling us together in a covenant of caring. Only if we can forego our self-serving freedom, and embrace instead the freedom from our appetites for the sake of caring for others, will we survive. Only then will any of us be able to step out of the darkness and bring light to the nations.
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