A sermon preached by Associate Professor Michael Horsburgh in Saint James’ Church, King Street, Sydney, on the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, 3 August 2008
ON EATING TOGETHER1
ON EATING TOGETHER1
I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you. 2
So says Shylock to Bassanio in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. As a Jew, Shylock will not eat with Gentiles. Given the anti-Semitism that underlies Shakespeare’s play, there may be some wisdom in his reluctance, but that is not its source. Rather, he will not eat with Gentiles for religious reasons. This is most clearly shown in his linking of eating, drinking and praying. He will join them in the ordinary activities of commercial life but he will neither eat nor pray with them. One cannot help thinking that the words might also have been said by those bishops staying away from the Lambeth Conference.
But I come to this quotation by way of beginning our thoughts about this morning’s gospel.
Jesus is followed into a deserted place by a large crowd, said to be comprised of five
thousand men plus the accompanying women and children. As evening approached, the disciples came to Jesus, concerned about feeding such a large crowd. They asked Jesus to send them away. Jesus replied that they should feed the crowd themselves, to which they replied that they have very little food. Jesus asked them to bring what they have to him. He blessed the food, broke it and distributed it to the crowd. Everyone was fed and there were twelve baskets of leftovers.
This is surely an authentic story; it appears in all four gospels.3 Matthew and Mark also have a parallel story of the feeding of four thousand, which is arguably a repetition of the same event.4
In that case, there are six accounts of the same miracle, which makes the story not
only authentic but very important. The stories all have similar contents, including the need to feed the multitude, the discovery of a small amount of food, and the large quantity of leftovers.
Now is, of course, the time to ask the quintessentially modern question: what actually
happened here? I say that this is a modern question only because we are the ones who are in search of explanations. We ought not to think that the gospel writers and their hearers and readers were either stupid or gullible. They knew as well as we do that five loaves and two fishes cannot feed over five thousand people and leave so much still to be eaten. Only their knowledge of the unusual nature of the event could account for its being remembered and written down. After all, if this happened every day, it would be commonplace. They knew that this was a miracle but they did not have our thirst for scientific explanation. Neither did they discount things that they could not explain or imagine that there must be an explanation, if only they could find it. We might say that they had more faith than we do or, to put it more exactly, they gave a different significance to such events.
While we might think that our predecessors failed to ask the obvious questions, we need to learn from them how to invest these stories with a true significance. We must not allow our quite proper question and its possible answers to obscure the meaning of the story.
Five different kinds of answers have been given to what actually happened. The first is that it happened exactly as it is recorded; Jesus made the small amount of food go around everyone.
The second explanation derives from Albert Schweitzer, who suggested that this was a
prototype sacrament in which small amounts were distributed to everyone and the story became inflated over time.
Third, this was a lesson in unselfishness and, following the example of Jesus, everyone shared the food they had brought with them.
Fourth, this story is a development of a time when Jesus and his followers survived on short rations in the desert.
These four explanations acknowledge that there was a real basis to the story but the fifth suggestion is that it has no factual basis. It is instead an allegory of the Eucharist and the fulfilment of all things when Jesus returns.5
I don’t know whether any of these accounts impresses you but I want this morning to
consider one discussion that is of the third kind of explanation: the lesson in unselfishness.
Some scholars consider this to be too facile an explanation to have any credibility. In part this is due to the idea that such a simple explanation can hardly account for the importance that the story has in the gospel record. While selfishness is a common human trait, so also is altruism. And while an occasion on which one overcomes the other might be noticeable, it is hardly miraculous. But the Catholic author Gil Bailie6 takes an importantly different slant to this explanation by setting it within its New Testament cultural context. Bailie begins with noting the significance of sharing food in the Jewish community of Jesus’ day; it was a dangerous activity.
The gospel of Mark, chapter 7, reports an incident in which the Pharisees berate Jesus
because his disciples ate food without first washing their hands. The gospel includes several verses explaining the Pharisees’ rules about washing. Whilst we might regard this as a quite proper sanitary practice, the Pharisaic objection is not that their hands were unwashed in our sense, but that they were defiled by possible contact with ritually unclean things. Thus the food they touched would also be defiled and its eating would render their bodies defiled. The possibility of such ritual defilement was very real and its consequences severe, requiring ritual cleansing and additional sacrifices.
Scrupulous persons had also to be careful of whom they dined with. This is why the
Pharisees were so concerned that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, including, it appears, prostitutes. Leviticus required ritual cleansing after sexual activity, so prostitutes were bound to be ritually unclean, having too much sex too frequently. As Bailie points out, Jesus was making a significant statement by his flouting of these rules: The meals Jesus shared with the outcasts were not, therefore, simply the occasion for the delivery of his message. They were the message. They served as “prophetic signs” meant to manifest the meaning of Jesus’ ministry.7
That meaning was the inclusion of the outcast in the kingdom.
Now we come to the hungry crowd in the deserted place. Bailie says:
… most religious-minded Jews of the time would have taken the precaution of bringing with them enough bread or dried fish to insure that they would not be forced to eat food whose ritual purity was in doubt. But taking the precaution of bringing a supply of ritually clean food would have been only one hurdle, and perhaps not the largest one. For eating these provisions while in the company of others of uncertain moral and religious character would have placed one in jeopardy of moral contamination from sinners and pagans. The fact that Jesus had a reputation for attracting and tolerating the socially marginal would have added to the anxiety of observant Jews in this regard. Not knowing the moral and religious status of those sitting nearby would have made many reluctant to bring out whatever provisions they had with them.
That this barrier could and should be broken down was Jesus’ suggestion. Bailie concludes:
By now the reader will have guessed what I think the miracle was. Jesus opened their hearts, and they, in turn, opened their satchels, and the greatest miracle of all occurred. Following a pattern that is still today embedded in the Catholic Mass, Jesus preached of a God of love and forgiveness and then invited those who heard his message to sit down together and live for a moment in the “kingdom” about which he was preaching.
So we can see that Bailie not only uses the third type of explanation, that of overcoming reticence about sharing, he links the miracle directly to the eucharist, making an allegory out of the reality, which is the fifth kind of explanation.
Whether or not you find this account satisfactory is not the point of my sermon this morning.
I want to go on from this explanation and explore how the miracle seen in this way can illumine our faith journey. My starting point is to note that the single most significant aspect of the divisions within Christianity and within the Anglican Communion is a reluctance to join others at the Lord’s Table. The services in this church contain an invitation to all baptised Christians to join us in communion. That invitation is itself a remarkable thing. It cannot be made in Orthodox or Roman Catholic services. It will not be made in sectarian meetings where close attention is paid to judging the worthiness of communicants. In the meetings of Anglican Primates those dissatisfied with the Episcopal Church for its consecration of Gene Robinson first decline to receive communion alongside the Episcopal Church Primate. By inventing the peculiar doctrine of ‘episcopal taint’, some Anglicans exclude bishops who have ordained women as well as both the men and women they have ordained. We need to note that the concept of ‘tainted hands’ is almost exactly the concept of ritual defilement against which Jesus argued.
One of the characteristics of such ritual exclusions as the Pharisees exercised is a high degree of uncertainty about one’s acceptability to God. Far from living as persons accepted by God’s grace, such people see themselves as having to achieve acceptability. It is inevitable in such a case that the exclusion of others becomes a way of achieving one’s own inclusion.
Another way of putting this is speak of identity. Only a sure identity can withstand the
temptation of uncertainty. In Jesus’ day, observant Jews found themselves in an increasingly cosmopolitan world. Perforce they had to associate with Gentiles and with their fellow Jews who succumbed to the foreign ways. They thought that it was imperative to insist on ever stricter standards in order to preserve their cultural identity. In some ways their reaction was similar to that of some Islamic communities today. It is, however, ironic that their identity, which is an interior thing, found itself turning to external observances for support.
In the light of this, we need to understand what great danger we are in when we exclude others or cut ourselves off from converse with those with whom we disagree. This morning’s gospel teaches us at least that.
If we need more confirmation, we might turn briefly to this morning’s story of Jacob
wrestling with the angel. While researching this story I came across a reference to
Rembrandt’s painting of the scene. Not surprisingly, this has been a popular subject for artists. Most depict two muscular men struggling together, one of them with wings.
Rembrandt’s painting is quite different. Far from engaging in an epic battle, the two
protagonists are almost in an embrace. One commentator says that they are dancing rather than wrestling. The angel looks at Jacob with compassion and love, while Jacob reluctantly turns to look at his assailant. This struggle is not about overcoming or being overcome. It is about being loved by God and about the transformed identity that God’s love brings. Its outcome is a new name for Jacob and, on the next day, reconciliation with his brother.8
The uncertain and fearful Jacob is transformed by this encounter with God just as the uncertain and fearful hearers were transformed by Jesus in this morning’s gospel. Both by invitation and by gift, our identity is transformed by the God who loves us. How then will we dare not to share our table? How then will we dare to imagine that the love that transforms us is not present with others?
1 Readings: Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7, 16; Romans 9:1-8; Matthew 14:13-21.
2 William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene iii, line 36.
3 See Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13.
4 See Matthew 15:32-39; Mark 8:1-10.
5 See http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/proper13a.htm
6 See http://www.test-cornerstone.org/
7 Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads, pp. 212-215. New York: Crossroad, 1995.
8 See also Walter Brueggemann, http://www.thewords.com/articles/walterjacob.htm and Claire Amos, http://www.rethinkingmission.org/article_clare.htm
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1606 – 1669
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel