Proper 13A, Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 31, 2011
|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Isaiah 55:1-5||Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21||Romans 9:1-5||Matthew 14:13-21|
By Jeanyne B Slettom
These verses are like a GPS guiding us toward what is of real value—bread that fills, labor that satisfies. They come at the end of what is now regarded as the Second Isaiah portion of this book, written sometime during the Babylonian exile, but the language of comfort, hope—and direction— speaks to alienated and forlorn people of any time or place.
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor that which does not satisfy?” the prophet asks, invoking again a theme that runs throughout both testaments of the two ways of being in the world. So many of us chase after material goods, or distract ourselves with entertainment, while God is always offering us “food” and “drink” that can be “bought” with no money! God offers a different value system altogether, one in which monetary value is meaningless. And, reminiscent of Jesus offering the woman at the well “living water” that would never need to be re-drawn, the prophet here implies that food such as the world offers needs to be bought and consumed again and again to provide nourishment, whereas the food that God offers is of a different sort altogether whose nourishment never fails.
The idea of a value system different from worldly definitions of success is, of course, not peculiar to faith traditions. Philosophers very early on concerned themselves with questions of what constituted the “happy life,” and they led to ethical systems that still make sense to us today. (Aristotle’s Golden Mean comes to mind.) And Whitehead’s process philosophy stands very securely in this tradition. But it also adds something important: value in a process understanding transcends the self and points toward the well-being of creation, a telos that adds a theological dimension.
In every moment, we confront the past and our feelings about it along with what Whitehead calls the divine aim—God’s feeling for what will optimize value in the moment, but also add value to the future and the overall flourishing of creation. That is, God is concerned about the intrinsic value of the moment—what it is in and for itself—and also its instrumental value—what it can contribute to the future. Whitehead measures value in terms of truth, beauty, harmony, zest, and peace, so if we turn all of that into an ethical principle, we would say that in each moment we decide what is most likely to result in truth, beauty, harmony, zest, and peace in our own lives and being, and also what is most likely to enhance those qualities in the world. (And for those concerned that “justice” isn’t on the list, consider this: there is no justice built on lies, and there is no harmony or peace in the absence of equality or fair practices.)
God urges us to realize this kind of value in our lives, but also urges us to participate in the healing of the world by contributing something of value to it. Process theology tells us that what we do makes a difference. The only question, then, is what kind of difference do we want to make?
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
These verses are like balm for wounded souls; manna for people in our present-day wilderness of economic woes and social uncertainty. They are also an eloquent meditation on the nature of God. The overwhelming message is this: God is present. And we can trust God to be present with us no matter what we experience, no matter what we do or what befalls us. An effective way to preach on this text would be to lift up the concerns of the congregation, globally, in terms of violent storms, climate change, political and economic machinations beyond our control; and personally, in terms of particular suffering and concerns about making house and debt payments, finding or holding onto a job, illnesses or injury, depression or addiction. Then re-read the text slowly, letting the words sink in, and preach on the abiding presence of God, God’s intimate knowledge and sharing of our feelings. Remind listeners that God is always present with the aim of transforming what is into what can be. No matter what our circumstances, the creative, transforming power of God is always already at work in our lives, and what we are called upon to do is to trust and be open to this presence and this power.
This is a problematic text for preaching, especially, because of its interpretive history, given the need for careful exegesis—all of which would be too long (long-winded?) for a sermon. One approach would be to use this text as a “teaching moment” for interfaith dialogue. That is, rather than fight it, acknowledge the interpretive strain that has used verses like these to make supersessionist claims against Judaism and then contrast that with supersessionist claims made by some Muslims against Christianity (Jesus was a prophet, but not divine; the doctrine of the trinity is polytheistic). Many Christians have been blithely unaware of their appropriation and “correction” of Judaism—and how that feels to Jews. When the shoe is on the other foot, they may realize that before removing the speck from another’s eye, they should remove the log from their own. Supersessionism as a practice is arrogant, and it closes the door to interfaith conversations and friendships. The Abrahamic faiths have far richer areas of mutual concern that can be helpful in bringing them together, so that differences can be respectfully explored.
There are two ways to approach this text, and each needs the other.
On the one hand, whether you preach that Jesus is the bread of life, or that Jesus offers the bread of life, the Revised Common Lectionary folks are suggesting that Jesus is the answer to the problem posed in the Isaiah text. He is the food that satisfies and that cannot be bought or sold. But even with this metaphorical approach, it is important to remember that the point is still about an alternative value system, and that this alternative belongs to God. That is, what Jesus teaches as the alternative to empire is the same alternative promoted by the Old Testament prophets. In the latter, the code phrase is care for the widow and orphan; in the former, the concept is codified as, “the kingdom of God.”
On the other hand, Jesus is very much concerned with the material needs of the crowd and the issue of equal distribution. Jesus “has compassion.” He does not want anyone to go hungry. This material approach is just as important as the metaphorical one—if not more so—especially in rich societies where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few while an underclass is homeless and starving. In the story of the feeding of the 5,000, the manifest content may speak to miracles, but the latent content—the actual point—is that in the kingdom of God, there is enough for everyone. When it is distributed fairly—without hoarding or exploitation—there is enough. No one goes hungry. In the preceding chapter, Jesus offered one parable after another to explain the kingdom of God. In this chapter, the story itself is a prophetic act that models the kingdom.
From a process perspective, ideals are not real until they are actualized. An abstraction has no agency, but once it is adopted in an actual moment of existence it has the power to influence subsequent moments of existence. In other words, “the kingdom of God” is just a string of words until we commit ourselves to it. We realize the kingdom—make it effective—by the choices we make and by our actions in the world. In other words, the kingdom of God really is at hand—in our hands—and is realized when we act as Jesus did; that is, commit ourselves to social and economic justice, to equal distribution of Earth’s resources, “having compassion,” and ensuring that everyone has enough.
Jeanyne B. Slettom is the director of Process & Faith. She received her PhD from Claremont Graduate University. She is an adjunct professor at the Claremont School of Theology and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and also co- pastor of Brea Congregational (UCC) Church in Brea, CA. She is the editor of Creative Transformation, managing editor of Process Studies, and editor of The Process Perspective, by John B. Cobb, Jr., and The Process Perspective II.