Sunday, July 31, 2011

Justice is Served

Taking the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. (Matthew 14.19)

What’s with the Food?

I’m always delighted to meet people who have a vague idea of Who Jesus is, but the details and depth of His life and ministry (which we take for granted) escape them. As I fill them in, I also find myself feeling a wee bit envious of their chance to hear about Jesus with fresh ears and watch His story unfold through new eyes. None of our jaded, oh-yeah-I-remember-that-from-Sunday-school nonsense gets in their way. And since today’s Gospel pulls out one of the all-time Sunday school favorites—the miraculous feeding of 5,000-plus people—let's try a little experiment. Let’s pretend we know very little about Jesus. After reading the Gospels with curious detachment, what might strike us as most unusual about what Jesus does and says?

Many aspects of Jesus’s story may take us by surprise. He’s very adept at staying below the radar; He doesn’t hide, but neither does He court controversy like His cousin, John the Baptist, does. He’s unintimidating, yet never intimidated. He’s the underdog’s ultimate champion. These traits jump out at us. But sooner or later we’re sure to ask, “What’s with the food?” Because it's nearly impossible to get through a chapter of the Gospels without food entering the picture in some form.

Jesus introduces His philosophy by talking about people who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” and teaches His disciples to pray for daily bread. He performs His first miracle at a banquet, turning water into wine. He routinely invites Himself to dinner and attends a lot of feasts. He defends His disciples when legalists criticize their table manners. What’s more He dismisses criticism that He eats with the wrong crowd, saying, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” (Matthew 11.19) Most of His stories revolve around growing food, raising livestock, or throwing parties. He says He’s the Bread of Life. The night before He’s executed He hosts a supper and asks His followers to remember Him whenever they break bread and drink wine. After His resurrection, He cooks breakfast for the disciples. Really. What’s with the food? The answer may surprise us more than any suspicion that Jesus—often imagined as a rail-thin, otherworldly ascetic—might very well be a foodie.

Tangible Reminders

Every time Jesus touches, tastes, or talks about food, He puts justice on the table. Teaching us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” sets the stage for our next request: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” God’s grace and mercy in meeting our daily needs obligates us to offer grace and mercy to those no more worthy of them than we are. Multiplying food and wine demonstrates that no one deserves to go without. Sitting at table with the shunned and disrespected—as well as the rich and powerful—proves that Jesus regards everyone equally. Concerns about His reputation never interfere with opportunities to redeem reputations of those who’ve been misjudged or denied. The farming and feasting parables inevitably come down to this: human judgment is flawed. Every story stresses how knee-jerk assumptions undermine justice. Pulling up the weeds will kill the crop; let them grow up together and the farmer will judge what’s good and bad. The safety of 99 sheep matters little when one is lost. If the smart crowd turns down your invitation, don’t cancel the party; open your doors to outcasts and irregulars. When the wayward son returns broke and broken, welcome him with a lavish feast; don’t penalize him for his foolishness.

During the three-and-half-years Jesus lives and teaches, food and justice become so inextricably wound together they’re inseparable. That’s why, at the Last Supper, He intuitively reaches for bread and wine, declaring them tangible reminders of the physical body and blood He will sacrifice. For what is Calvary, if not justice redefined? Mercy rendered for lawlessness. Grace extended for selfishness. Acceptance offered to defeat shame and prejudice. Hope provided to end despair. All that and more is in the bread and wine, because justice is in the bread and wine. And while that may not be readily apparent to us, it’s very obvious to the disciples. Because what Jesus does with the bread at the Last Supper is what He’s always done to provide for His followers.

The Means

Of course, the disciples recognize what Jesus is doing at the Last Supper. How could they ever forget what they witness in today’s Gospel? (Matthew 14.13-21) Having just heard John the Baptist has been beheaded, Jesus seeks out a lonely place to grieve privately. But the masses find Him and He sets His sorrow aside to heal them. A rough count puts the crowd at 5,000 men, along with untold women and children. As dusk sets in, the disciples advise Jesus to send the people back to their villages so they can eat. “There’s no need for them to leave,” Jesus replies. “Let’s feed them.” Evidently the disciples know to expect this, because they’ve polled the crowd for food and only come up with five loaves of bread and two fish. “Bring them to me,” Jesus instructs. He does exactly as He does at the Last Supper. He takes the bread, and after blessing it, breaks it into pieces, and gives it to the disciples. They pass through the crowd, pulling off enough for each one to eat, and return with more than when they started—12 baskets full, or one for each of them.

To send the crowd away hungry is unthinkable to Jesus, because it’s unjust. “How so?” we ask. Didn’t He ignore His own grief to relieve theirs? Why isn’t it fair to let them fend for themselves? They didn’t care enough about His feelings to give Him space. Let them get their own bread. If they want to hang around, so be it. Nobody ever died from skipping dinner. But here’s what we overlook. Jesus has the means to meet their need. Looking at hungry faces while having food on hand leaves Him no just reason for not feeding them.

Even so, isn’t ridiculous to try? There’s not enough to feed Jesus and the disciples. At the very least, shouldn’t He devise a plan to thin out the crowd—say, set criteria for who gets to eat for free and who doesn’t? Out of more than 5,000, surely there are plenty of hangers-on and fakers and leeches looking for a free meal. Now that we think about it, forget the whole lot. Why did they show up in the first place? Not to console Jesus. Not to learn from Him. They came for miracles. They got what they came for. Send ‘em home. As right as that may sound, Jesus will have none of it, because it’s unjust to deny anyone in need when we have something we can offer.

On the Spot and In the Moment

This miracle, the Last Supper, and the supreme miracle of Christ’s sacrifice teach us justice is served when we use everything we possess to meet the needs of those without means. It’s a stand-alone process impervious to human logic and limitations. Justice is always served here and now—on the spot and in the moment. Let’s assume everyone has cupboards overflowing with food. They’re not at home, though. They’re hungry now. Let’s assume the disciples will figure out what the crucifixion means. They’re confused now. They need answers now. Let’s assume humanity can come to its senses and correct its evil ways. We’re lost now. We need help now.

We don’t know how Jesus takes five paltry loaves, breaks them, and feeds a multitude, no more than we understand how there’s never a shortage of grace for our sins. All we know is when justice is served, there’s always more than enough. When called to serve justice, we take what little mercy we have on hand, bless it, break it, and give it to those hungering for it. We don’t worry if it’s enough or whether they deserve it. We don’t begrudge them because they’re insensitive to our feelings or their motives may be impure. It’s not about what they have or haven’t done, or how much we’ve already given. Justice is about recognizing their need and knowing we have the means to meet it now. The rest is useless speculation and counterintuitive to everything Jesus teaches and models.

Such grace You’ve given us, O God—grace that defies reason and exceeds measure. Such trust You’ve placed in us by offering Your Son, our Bread of Life, to show and teach us the true meaning of justice. Pry logic’s grip from our minds and doubt’s hold from our hearts so that we may serve justice as You do. Amen.

We take what’s available to us, bless it, break it, and offer it to those in need. Though it may look paltry, there’s always more than enough to ensure justice is served.


Sherry Peyton said...

Tahnks for such a beautiful statement of faith. The code of hospitality is something so unknown in our own culture and that is terribly sad. So much is gained from the practice. We don't ask people's qualifications, but simply invite people into eat because to not do so risks their very lives. In doing so, we learn of their ways, and in the end, we learn that we are all not so very much different. That breeds tolerance, that breeds Us and we versus them and others, and that leads to justice in the truest sense. You have spoken well my friend.


Tim said...

There's so much wealth in what you say, Sherry. Only by giving can we share, and only by sharing can we come to know. Of course, hanging over this story today is the current budget brouhaha. And as I listen to people grouse about "their" tax dollars being spent on others they believe are undeserving, my first question is always, "How well do you know the people who are being helped?"

By and large, the grumblers have no experience with whom they speak so harshly. (Part of me wants to hire buses, pack them with needy folks, and set them loose in well-heeled areas, knocking on random doors to introduce themselves.) As you so splendidly explain, that experience transpires at the table--if not literally, then figuratively, wherever we give of ourselves to satisfy hungers.

We bond over bread, don't we?

Thanks for your thoughts. They bless us all.