Sermons

Sun, Aug 06, 2017

A kingdom of compassion

Series:Sermons

Apparently a new restaurant has opened in Cairo with only one item on the menu:

an Egyptian delicacy known as kebda--

spicy grilled beef liver sandwiches.

The restaurant was established... 

and is run... 

by a group of doctors...

who were troubled by the number of food poisoning cases that they were seeing...

from poorly prepared kebda sold by street-vendors.

They hope to avoid that with an emphasis on hygiene--

carried over from their medical practice.

Their intention, of course, is highly commendable...

but I think that they have taken it all a bit too far.

The restaurant has been established with an operating room theme.

All of the chefs--

in the open kitchen--

and all of the waiters... 

wear surgical scrubs and hats and surgical gloves.

Fortunately, there are no gurneys or hospital beds to be seen...

and one hopes that they don't start serving drinks via drips.

Honestly, it's all a bit strange...

even bizarre.

And yet, it's still believable.

 

Our story from Matthew's Gospel this morning--

on the other hand--

belongs to an entirely different category.

The story of the feeding of the multitude using five loaves of bread and two fish...

is completely and utterly incredulous.

Of course, down the ages, there have been any number of people who--

out of pre-critical naïveté--

have assumed that it happened just as the story is portrayed...

putting aside all of the scientific, historical, and common-sense issues that it raises.

But there have also been a number of attempts to try to explain it. 

For example, Albert Schweitzer once suggested...

that maybe Jesus gave out tiny morsels of bread to the crowd...

by way of a symbolic or sacramental meal--

a precursor to communion, if you like--

but, in its telling and retelling over the decades... 

that tradition was exaggerated and expanded like a old fisherman's tale...

until we ended up with what we have here. 

Similarly, some have suggested that...

maybe...

Jesus and the disciples shared what little food they had... 

which shamed other people in the crowd to share what they had...

so that, pooled together, there was enough to go around...

and that, too, was exaggerated and elaborated upon in the story's telling and retelling. 

All such explanatory attempts are ultimately futile.

Let's be honest--

this never happened!

Indeed, that's true of all of the so-called "nature miracles" in the Gospels.

It's a mythic story and almost parabolic--

full of symbolism...

and trying to make some significant theological points.

It's clearly a story that was inspired by the early Church's experience of the post-Easter Jesus.

It's a tradition that has clearly been manufactured--

echoing and paralleling an apparently "miraculous" feeding event performed by Elisha.

So, on one level, the story is equating Jesus with Elisha.

In other words, it's claiming that Jesus stands in continuity with the great prophets of Israel.

Furthermore, it also recalls the apparently "miraculous" feeding of the Israelites in the wilderness...

following the Exodus out of Egypt.

So it's likening Jesus to Moses...

but as one greater than Moses--

a favourite theme of Matthew's Gospel.

In so doing, it's also trying to make a point about God's generous provision.

And yet, notwithstanding those symbolic echoes and parallels...

it's also trying to say something profound to the Israelite people of the first century.

 

This episode falls hot-on-the-heals of the Kingdom parables in chapter thirteen.

As such, this episode is meant as a demonstration or outworking of the Kingdom of God.

First of all, the author suggests, Jesus had compassion on the crowd.

Now, in the ancient world, that was unusual.

Compassion wasn't considered to be a universal emotion.

It was an emotion that one only showed towards one's family and kin...

and it was only shown to those who deserved it.

It was certainly not something the ordinary mass of people expected to receive from their leaders...

or, if you like, from the state.

In other words, what this parabolic story is doing... 

is drawing a marked contrast between the Roman Empire and the Kingdom of God.

In the imperial ideology, the Emperor--

in consort with the gods--

was responsible for blessing the empire with adequate food.

But the Empire was a top-down, trickle-down sort of economy.

It was intensely hierarchical and patriarchal--

power and resources were concentrated in the hands of the small elite...

who hoarded what they had...

and who distributed their largesse as they saw fit...

to those whom they deemed worthy...

to those who had something to give in return.

It was a quid pro quo system.

And, despite the ideology, it was a system in which many did go hungry.

In many respects, Jesus' disciples in the parable bought into all of that:

"This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves".

They felt no compassion for these people--

after all, they weren't family...

they were good-for-nothing "hangers-on"...

not deserving of pity or compassion.

It wasn't their responsibility to feed them.

So it didn't matter how absurd their suggestion was.

After all, at that time of day the markets would be shut...

and, in any case, there would have been nothing left to sell...

let alone sufficient for such a crowd.

The disciples were simply mimicking the ethos of the empire.

Jesus' response to them--

"You give them something to eat"--

places great stress on the "you" in the Greek.

He directly challenges them to show compassion--

to show familial-like concern...

for those who had no claim to it.

As such, this symbolic, parabolic story is suggesting that--

in stark contrast to the Empire and its ethos...

and as an indictment of the attitudes and actions of the elite and the wealthy--

the Kingdom of God is marked by abundance...

and compassion...

and fairness.

This symbolic, parabolic story is suggesting that--

in the Kingdom of God--

when we take what we have and give it to Jesus...

everyone has enough.

 

In the face of another humanitarian crisis in eastern Africa...

where more than twenty million face starvation...

we're reminded that, globally speaking, there is enough food to feed everyone.

When we do not hoard...

when we do not exploit...

when we look upon the hungry and the poor as kin...

when we act with compassion...

when resources are distributed fairly...

there is enough to go around.

No one need ever go hungry.

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