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July 29, 2012
2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145: 10-19
2 Kings 4:42-44
This little snippet from the Elisha cycle in 2 Kings is one of several stories in Chapter 4 illustrating how God brings abundance out of scarcity through the ministry of the prophet. Verses 1-7 tell of a jar of oil that does not run out until a woman has poured out enough oil to sell and settle all her debts. Verses 8-37 tell the story of a son born to a barren woman of Shunem, and then restored to her after a deathly illness. Verses 38-41 tell of a stew made from gourds that appears to be poisonous until some flour is thrown into the pot and the food is made wholesome.
In each case, it is the direct intervention of Elisha, “the man of God,” that effects the transition from scarcity and harm to abundance and well-being. The same is true of this final story in the series: a sack of twenty barley loaves feeds more than a hundred people — perhaps people of “the company of prophets” mentioned in vs 38 — once Elisha invokes the prophetic formula “thus says the Lord.” Taken together, the stories evoke the grace of God that makes up for the deficiencies of human relationships and communities, providing plenty where the human and natural systems on their own are inadequate to meet the presented needs.
It is important to note, however, that in none of these stories does the abundance of God become manifest without human participation. The woman with the jar of oil must gather vessels and begin to pour, even though she knows there is not enough; the woman of Shunem shows hospitality to Elisha and travels a long way to seek him when his help is needed; the men from the company of prophets must go out to the field and gather herbs and vegetables for their stew, and then they had to trust that it had been made palatable again; the man with the twenty loaves must give up his offering of first fruits, and have the courage to set them before a company that can see they won’t be enough.
In each case, the people involved must act along with Elisha, who is himself acting along with God, to bring the unexpected abundance into being. The whole chapter, then, serves as a sustained reminder of how people are called to be co-creators with God in bringing into effect God’s longing for justice and peace, right-relationships of mutual well-being, in the midst of inadequate and unfair social systems and structures. Within this general picture, the specific verses assigned for today, the story of the twenty loaves, sets the stage for the feeding miracle in the Gospel passage.
Psalm 145: 10-19
This selection of verses from Psalm 145 constitutes a hymn of praise to God for “the glory of your kingdom” and for God’s unwavering “power.” This glory and power are based on the fact that “The LORD is faithful in all his words and merciful in all his deeds.” The psalm provides two prime concrete examples of God’s faithfulness and mercy, and therefore examples also of God’s glory and power: that “The LORD upholds all those who fall; he lifts up those who are bowed down” and that “The eyes of all wait upon you, O LORD, and you give them their food in due season. You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature.”
That is, God’s glory and power are shown chiefly in providing food that sustains life, and especially in sustaining those who are not able to sustain themselves. The psalm thus states in doxological and hymnic terms what the First Testament and Gospel passages describe in narrative.
Linked to the other readings from today’s lectionary, this passage from Ephesians stands out as a prayer for divine abundance to be made manifest in human activity. That theme is treated in the first and third readings in a narrative fashion, as seen “from the outside”; the prayer in Ephesians approaches it as spiritual experience “from the inside.” The author prays for the Christians in Ephesus, and by extension for all Christians, that they “may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit”; the “inner being” indicating that part of the human self that perdures through changes of emotion, feeling, immediate experience, passing thoughts, and the like.
To be strengthened with power through the Spirit in the inner being is equivalent to “Christ dwelling in your hearts through faith,” or the divine aims and ideals embodied in Jesus coming to be enduringly embodied in the believer as well. This leads to the believer’s feelings and actions being increasingly “rooted and grounded in love,” which is the chief characteristic of God exemplified in Jesus, and also to “comprehending” — which here means not only “to understand” but also “to hold together” — “what is the breadth and length and height and depth” of “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” in active embodiment in the actual world.
By comprehending divine ideals and worldly actualities, we become co-creators with God of the love God wants for the world, and God in that co-creativity affects a “power at work within us which is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” In this way prayer puts us in touch with the power of divine creativity, which alone can take up our inadequacies and shortcomings and transform them for abundance.
On this day the lectionary takes a departure from Mark, the usual gospel of Year B, for John’s parallel version of the feeding of the five thousand, along with the following “Bread of Life discourse” that is unique to John. John’s account follows Mark’s in general outline, and in some specific detail — interestingly including the disciples’ worry about money when they realize they will have to feed the multitude.
Mark has the disciples ask whether they should “go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat,” with the implication that they ask the question rather sarcastically; while John shows Jesus first asking the question about buying bread “to test” them, and the disciples then stating flatly that “six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little,” where six month’s wages, at a denarius a day, would work out to about 180 denarii, just a little less expensive than Mark’s estimate of 200. More than one good idea for ministry has been reduced to a question of payment before it has been fully explored.
John’s version of the story, however, does include some specific details not found in Mark, and these details help to emphasize the particular thematic development John wants his readers to see in the story. John notes that the crowd gathers around Jesus and the disciples in the deserted place “because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick”; they are particularly motivated by a search for wholeness and well-being, which is then fulfilled beyond their expectations in the multiplication of the loaves.
John notes that this event takes place when “the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near,” thus making it clear that this event is to be taken as an explicit echo and re-enactment of the abundance of manna in the wilderness; and this underlines John’s christological theme that Jesus is the Word of God identified with and at work in a fully human bodily life. Perhaps most significantly, John adds the detail that the five loaves and two fish come not from the disciples themselves, as in Mark, but from “a boy” who apparently has come forward to offer them, blissfully innocent of the fact that his offering is totally inadequate to the occasion.
The boy’s naive generosity thus provides an immediate contrast to the disciple’s prudential concern for money (and their lack of it); further contrast is added when it is the naive generosity rather than the financial prudence that Jesus can take up and transform into abundance. And it is the taking up and transforming into abundance that is the point of this story: Jesus is here shown to be doing what God does, as in Psalm 145, when God gives creatures their food in due season, as in 2 Kings when God acts through Elisha to feed a hundred with twenty loaves.
John emphasizes that the feeding is Jesus doing what God does when he says that it is Jesus himself who broke the loaves and then “distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted”; Mark (and Matthew and Luke, for that matter), say that Jesus broke the bread and gave it to the disciples to give to the people, which surely makes more practical sense in a narrative of distributing food to thousands of people. But John forgoes a bit of practicality here to make the christological point that Jesus is God acting in the world, Jesus himself opening wide his own hand, just as God does, to satisfy the needs of those who come to him.
Nevertheless, for all his emphasis on Jesus being the sole agent of the feeding, John does also point out that human cooperation and co-creation are required for divine abundance to be made manifest. The boy has to offer his food; and Andrew, even though he is prudent enough to know the offer is next to meaningless, has to bring the boy to Jesus; and the disciples as a group have to gather up the fragments “so that nothing may be lost” and to make clear just how abundant this act of abundance is. John thereby emphasizes that the source of life abundant is God and God alone; but willing co-creative activity on people’s part is the channel by which that abundance can become a contributing influence in the constitution of lived experience.
The Gospel, then, takes up and completes the themes of the other readings: the invitation and call to us in our contemporary circumstances and contexts to be co-creators with God, offering our naive generosity as well as our prudential planning, to bring into effect God’s longing for justice and peace, God’s longing for right-relationships of mutual well-being, in the midst of inadequate and unfair social systems and structures, in the hope of personal and communal abundance of life.