Women (Not Jesus) Work the “Miracle” of Loaves & Fishes (Sunday Homily)

Enough Food
Readings: 2 Kgs. 4:42-44; Ps. 145: 10-11, 15-18; Eph. 4:1-6; Jn. 6: 1-15

Thirty thousand children die every day of absolutely preventable causes associated with hunger. Mostly they die from diarrhea connected with unsafe drinking water.

Thirty-six million people in all die every year from those same easily remediable causes. That’s like the death toll from 300 jumbo jets crashing each day for a year, with no survivors, and with most of the victims children and women.

Can you imagine 300 jumbo jets crashing every day? Of course, you can’t. Just three jumbo jets crashing on a single day would throw the airline industry into complete panic. It would recognize that something was deeply wrong with the system. More regulation would be demanded by everyone.

And yet, with hunger, the equivalent of one hundred times those crashes with the horrendous figures I just mentioned happen each day, throughout each year, and no one in authority will say that the system is defective. In fact, we celebrate it as the very best possible. Politicians commonly champion less regulation rather than more. They believe the free market is the solution to all of the world’s problems.

But is unregulated market the answer to world hunger? According to the U.N., the problem of world hunger is not lack of food production, but its faulty distribution. Through no fault of their own, but through the fault of the reigning market system, people in hungry countries just don’t have the money to buy food. According to the same U.N., a mere 4% tax on the world’s richest 250 people would solve that problem.

Each year those 250 people receive as much income as the world’s nearly 3 billion people who live on $2 a day or less. Taxing the 250 by a mere 4% would provide enough to make the hunger I’m referencing disappear – and not just hunger, but unsafe drinking water itself, along with illiteracy, poor housing, and lack of medical care.

That sounds so easy. But such a tax is not even discussed – not even by Christians like us who profess to be “pro-life” and concerned about defenseless human life forms – at least before they’re born. In defense of the unborn, such Christians want to force women to bring all pregnancies to term. However, they see forcing the super-rich to part with an infinitesimal portion of their great wealth an unfair limitation on the wealthy’s freedom – even if it is to save thousands of already born children each day.

In the face of such intransigence (not to say hypocrisy) on the part of those who see the free market as the solution to everything, many in hungry countries have turned to the violence of revolution or terrorism in efforts to change the system.

So, our question becomes: free market or violence against that system? Which way did Jesus approve?

Today’s gospel reading indicates that Jesus approved of neither. Instead, he offers a third alternative – a non-violent system of sharing led by his followers with women in the forefront.

Let me explain what I mean.

Today’s Gospel reading comes from John the Evangelist. Bread holds an extraordinarily prominent and symbolic place for him. But note that in John’s version of Jesus feeding bread to 5000 men, there is no mention of the women and children inevitably in the crowd. (As we’ll see, Mark’s version of this story importantly centralizes their presence.)

It is also important to note that there is no mention of a “miracle” in either John’s or Mark’s account.

Instead, the story goes like this: People have followed Jesus “to the other side” of the Lake of Galilee. They are hungry. Testing him, Jesus asks Phillip where to buy bread for so many. Phillip has to confess that the market system cannot even begin to feed them all. There’s nowhere to buy, and even then, a year’s wages would be insufficient to give each person even a morsel. To reiterate: in the story, the market system proves incapable of meeting the challenge. Jesus and the women in the crowd are about to offer an alternative.

[Before we get to that, however, let me offer an aside about men. Armed violence, of course is the traditional “manly” way of dealing with almost any problem, isn’t it? However, John the Evangelist underlines Jesus’ rejection such “manliness” – even though the Master evidently gives revolution and insurrection much more consideration than the market alternative he considered briefly with Phillip.

Think about it. In John’s account, the time is near the Passover feast of national liberation – a traditional period of civil unrest in Jesus’ Palestine. Moreover, the episode we’re considering takes place in the desert – the time-honored place of insurrectionary resistance. Revolution is evidently on the minds of the 5000.

Jesus knows, John says, that the men want to make him king by means of violence. Perhaps that’s the whole reason they’ve stalked Jesus and cornered him in his desert get-away. In any case, after a day-long dialog with Jesus, the intention of the 5000 evidently remains unchanged.

Nevertheless, instead of acceding to “manly” impulses, Jesus enacts a parable about how to deal with the frustration of unmet needs that drives men to violence. By contrast, he adopts a typically female solution to the immediate problem of hunger. What he demonstrates might be called “The Kingdom Sharing System.” It begins by first establishing personal friendships and ends by sharing.]

To begin with, Jesus has everyone relax – to sit down on the soft grass that nature has provided. In Mark’s account of this same event, the evangelist notes that Jesus divided the huge crowd into small groups of ten or so each. That gave all present a chance to introduce themselves and exchange pleasantries.

Then a child shows the way. A small boy brings forward five loaves and two fish and places them before Jesus. Jesus calls everyone’s attention to what the child had done. And that starts a “miracle of sharing.” The crowd is touched. People begin to offer one another the plenty collectively present among them, but that everyone was apparently reluctant to share.

The abundance was surely there, thanks to the way women work. I mean, can you imagine a Jewish mother going on a day-long trip to the desert without packing a lunch for her husband and children? Of course not. In fact, there’s such abundance that even after everyone has eaten, 12 baskets remain to bring back to those not present to witness this “miracle of enough.” The dramatized parable’s point is: that’s the way the Kingdom of God works. (And note how women must have been central to it all.)

What’s the lesson in all of this? First of all (as today’s responsorial psalm says) it’s God’s will that everyone might have enough to eat. Bread is God’s gift to us all, without exception. And whether people eat or not shouldn’t be dependent on their ability to buy. In fact, if someone is hungry, humans and their market system are the sinfully responsible ones.

The bottom line here is that the way to satisfy hunger is not by depending on blind market forces or by waging violent, manly revolution. Rather it is exemplified by the child in the story and the women in the crowd. That’s the way that Jesus calls us to deal with the problem of hunger with which our reflections began this morning.

And it’s Jesus’ followers, people like you and me who should be following the women who typically lead the way.

How best can we best enact “The Kingdom Sharing System” in our hungry world? (Discussion follows.)

The Loaves & Fishes Story Is Not Just about Food: It’s about Just Food

loavesfish

Readings for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 55: 1-5; PS 145: 8-9, 15-18; ROM 8: 35, 37-39 MT 14: 13-21

I’ve been vacationing in Michigan over the past three months. We’re living in the lovely cottage my wife, Peggy, inherited from her father in the northern part of the state.

The community there is called Canadian Lakes. It’s white, upper middle class, and very pretty. Peggy and I have spent large parts of our summers there ever since we we’ve been married. Our kids feel attached to the place. In a sense, they’ve grown up there.

In a word, life at Canadian Lakes is good. It’s water-centered and comfortable.

That makes today’s liturgy of the word (with its emphasis on the free gift of water) especially poignant for me. So does the fact that our lake home is located in Michigan with Detroit not so far away. Water’s a problem there.

You see, the relationship of Detroit’s poor to water is very different from ours in Canadian Lakes. Unlike our lakeside community, 44% of Detroit residents fall under the poverty line; 83% of the city’s population is African American. Unemployment in the former Motor City is well above 14.5%. Yet, Detroit’s (unelected) City Manager has been cutting off the water of poor people there. Regardless of your circumstances, if you’re an ordinary Detroit resident two months, behind on your bill, you will suddenly find yourself without water for drinking, bathing and flushing toilets.

If you’re rich, however, it’s a different story. Some of the city’s largest corporate water users are also behind on their water bills – even years behind. For instance high-end golf courses, the Detroit Red Wings, the city’s football stadium and more than half the city’s commercial and industrial users owe back water bills totaling over $30 million. No one is cutting off their water.

It’s also worth noting that the price of Detroit’s water system (administered by private contractors) is more than twice the national average and that the water cut-off plan is part of a scheme to move the city towards a completely privatized water system. Some see it as a measure intended to drive Detroit’s poorest from the city for purposes of gentrification.

Detroit’s water policy has gotten world-wide attention. A United Nations Human Rights office designated it a clear violation of fundamental human rights.

In the light of today’s liturgy of the word, we might also designate Detroit’s plan (and in general the commodification of God’s free gifts to all of creation) as a violation of God’s order. In fact, today’s liturgy of the word implies indictment of water privatization schemes and the market system’s practice of treating food itself as a commodity. These are gifts of God the readings say – part of God’s gift economy which is unbelievable in its generosity.

And why should we be surprised? The God celebrated in today’s responsorial is described as “answering all our needs.” According to the psalmist, that God is gracious, just, holy, merciful, slow to anger, hugely kind, and compassionate. S/he gives food to everyone and everything – without cost.

So why pay for water? Isaiah asks. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!” he says. “You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”

The point of contrasting God’s “gift economy” with our exploitive “exchange economy” is driven home in today’s Gospel episode from Matthew the evangelist. The famous “miracle of loaves and fishes” is actually a dramatic parable about God’s Reign and its order. The event may even be factual in the way I’m about to explain.

In any case, the tale is symbolic. It’s about the way the world would work if God were king instead of Caesar. In God’s dispensation, the gifts of creation – food and drink – are given to all without payment. God’s order contradicts our own where food production and even water delivery reap huge profits for the rich.

You know the story. Jesus meets with 5000 men in the desert (“not to mention,” Matthew says, “the women and children”). It’s late in the day. People are hungry and no-doubt getting restless. Jesus’ disciples offer a market solution to the problem of the crowd’s hunger. They say, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”

Jesus’ solution is different. He says. “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.”

The disciples almost mock Jesus’ suggestion. They say, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” We can imagine them rolling their eyes and smirking ironically in disbelief at Jesus’ naivety. Did he really think that the loaves and fishes they had would be enough to feed 5000 hungry men and their families?

Nevertheless, Jesus “ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.” Mark adds the detail that he had them break up into small groups of 50 and 100. In those smaller groups, people could see each other’s faces. Inevitably, they must have introduced themselves and shared some personal background, a joke, laughter and human warmth. Friendships blossomed.

Then Jesus “said grace:” That is, with everyone’s eyes on him, the Master Teacher broke the bread, divided the fish and gave it to those around him. No doubt he did so with gestures inviting the crowd to do the same.

As a result, the “miraculous” happened. And it wasn’t a “popcorn miracle” where five loaves suddenly popped into 5000 or where two fish suddenly multiplied by 3000. Instead, the good mothers in the crowd must have followed Jesus’ example. (Can we imagine any good Jewish mamma leaving home for a day in the desert without packing a hearty lunch for her husband and children?) The mothers opened their picnic lunches and shared them with the people they’d just gotten to know.

It was a “miracle of enough.” Everyone shared. So even the improvident were able to eat with plenty left over – 12 baskets Matthew tells us.

No, I’m not saying the miracle of loaves and fishes was just about food. No. As John Dominic Crossan puts it, the “miracle of loaves and fishes” was not just about food; it was about just food – about just distribution where no one is left hungry. Why? Because that’s the way God and his order are. God gives food, drink – the earth itself – to everyone and everything without cost.

That’s the order Jesus’ followers are called to imitate here and now.

And it is Detroiters (as well as many others throughout the world) who doing just that. They’re busy not only sharing water, but gardening and eating free from their plots on vacant lots – taking grateful advantage of God’s free gifts. You might be surprised to know that Detroit has the largest number of urban gardens in the United States.

We would do well to follow the example of people there and expand on it, taking advantage of God’s free gifts by:

• Opposing water privatization schemes
• Supporting local farmers
• Gardening
• Composting
• Installing water catchment systems
• Heating water (and our homes) with solar energy
• Bicycling to work
• Getting to know our poor neighbors
• Sharing food with them
• Even paying their water bills
• Opposing military spending increases while U.S. citizens go without water.

To repeat: today’s readings are not just about food and drink; they’re about just food and drink. They’re about sharing God’s free gifts rather than turning them into commodities to benefit the 1%.

(Sunday Homily) Jesus Meets with Terrorists in the Desert

Loaves & Fishes

Readings for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ: GN14: 18-20; PS 110: 1-4; I COR 11: 23-26; LK 9: 11B-17.

In this morning’s Gospel episode, a group of 5000 men— presumably with something to hide – meet in in a secret, out-of-the-way place.

The secrecy is entirely appropriate at this time of revolution against the Romans, their country’s hated occupying force. That context requires it. If such a gathering were discovered, the Roman Pigs (MK 5: 1-13) would surely attack and wipe out all present without a trace of pity. It’s been their consistent track record.

The desert context also evokes in everyone’s mind the halcyon years their ancestors spent in the desert following their liberation from Egypt. It reminds them that deliverance from foreign domination is the very core of their faith heritage. As well, the wasteland context recalls the recently martyred prophet, John the Baptizer who lived among the rocks, sand, wild creatures, heat and cold.  In absentia, his own wildness is the unspoken inspiration for this assembly.

Naturally, many of the men present are armed. They are part of the resistance, the Insurrection. Virtually everyone in the country supports them. They are celebrated as heroes.

This day, one of those sympathizers known for his fiery rhetoric spends hours speaking. It’s the worker-rabbi, Yeshua, the carpenter from Nazareth. He is the heir apparent of the assassinated Baptizer. Like John, Yeshua is a social revolutionary hated by the Scribal Establishment. The same is true for the priestly caste and Roman occupiers. They all think “the Master” is a terrorist – an armed Zealot like many in his audience. In fact it is certain that several in his inner circle bear arms (LK 22:38, JN 18:10). They are suspected of being sicarii – patriotic assassins of Roman soldiers.

In the past, Yeshua has routinely excoriated the rich who collaborate with the oppressors of their own people. He has encouraged the destitute. Today is no different. Over and over he has told his oppressed followers “The Kingdom of God is yours.”

All are familiar with that metaphor – “the Kingdom of God.”  It describes what Israel would look like if it were ruled by their tribal God, Yahweh, rather than by filthy goyim. Everything will be reversed in the Kingdom, Jesus has said. The rich will weep; the poor will laugh. The first will be last; the last, first.

“The Kingdom of God” is not about some “heaven up there,” Yeshua insists. “Don’t let anyone tell you different. It is about this world of body and blood, bread and wine.

“Eventually, it will be about my body and blood,” he has also predicted on several occasions. With such words he has signaled his fearless embrace of his “prophetic script.” Like prophets before and after him, he knows his inevitable fate. The Powers and Principalities simply cannot abide prophets or liberators. They call all such resisters “terrorists“ and butcher them without a second thought.

“But my death,” Yeshua has assured, “will be like a seed giving rise to others like me. There have been many before. Many will emerge after my death. Everyone has a duty to resist oppression. Take long quaffs of my blood,” he has said. “Death suffered struggling for God’s justice is nothing to fear.”

Like most revolutionary groups, the assembly this day is highly organized. After Yeshua finishes speaking, it disarticulates into 100 groups of 50 for discussion. A subsequent plenary centralizes the far-reaching conclusions of a group of fishermen especially close to the prophet Yeshua. The fishermen propose a New World Order where wheat farmers share bread and fishermen distribute the fruits of their labor for free. Such sharing, they’ve concluded is the answer to hunger and poverty. It would yield abundance for all with plenty left over.

And that’s what happens on this day. When everyone shares the lunches they’ve brought with them, 12 baskets of bread and fish are left over.

“It’s a miracle,” everyone agrees.

And it’s true: selfless sharing is revolutionary. It’s the nature of God’s Kingdom.