A large crowd has been following Jesus and apparently they haven’t eaten in some time. When Jesus raises the question about feeding this great multitude Philip seems overwhelmed by the need – and the need is great: “Six months wages could not buy enough food.”
But then Andrew comes at it from a different point of view. He points out that while they don’t have much, they do have a little: “There is a boy here who has five barely loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”
One could read Andrew’s question the way we read Philip’s answer. Or one could read Andrew’s question in a more positive, hopeful vein as I do: Well, the need is great but we do have something.
And Jesus does indeed do something doesn’t he? He turns the little into much. Out of their scarcity comes an abundance, so much abundance that there are 12 baskets of leftovers.
John makes it clear that this is a sign of the kingdom of God, a sign of God’s will and way in the world. John says, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This indeed is the prophet who is come into the world.’” From the perspective of John’s Gospel this is a sign of what God wants to do and can do with our little.
Let’s think about this. What sort of miracle would it take to feed the hungry of the world? Are there any signs pointing to what God wants to do and can do in our world today?
Can better economic laws and policies provide food and justice for the impoverished and disadvantaged in our country and in the larger world? There is no question that can help, but that will not solve all our problems and or alleviate all poverty and inequality.
But it would help and we should all do what we can in that regard – to push for more just and fair economic practices and laws.
What about a change of hearts? What if more people were to experience a kind of personal conversion that liberates them from the love of money? What if more people were set free from their desire for possessions, power, prominence, and prestige and were compelled to be more hospitable and generous?
That would certainly help wouldn’t it? But would that completely solve the problem? We need both of these components working together. We need a change of hearts and a change of systems. These are two sides of the same coin.
Certainly our economic distributive systems are flawed, just as our minds and hearts are flawed. So both our hearts and minds - our personal selves, as well as our social, economic, and political systems, must be transformed. It can’t be just one or the other, it must be both. It can’t be just personal conversion and it can’t be just social justice. It has to be both.
This means that if we are going to live into the gospel, if we are going to live into God’s kin-dom, if we are going to live into the flow of God’s eternal life, if we are going to be part of God’s will and way in the world, then God has to change our hearts and minds and we have to work with God to change the systems of injustice and inequality in which we all live and in which we are all complicit. For whatever God is able to do – in our own personal lives and in the systems we are part of – will not happen without our cooperation and participation.
The two inseparable components here are personal conversion and social justice. Both pieces are absolutely necessary if we ever hope to create a more equitable and just world. Our motives, desires, attitudes, wants, and dreams have to change and then energy must be expended and risks taken to change systems of inequity, inequality, and injustice into more just and holistic systems.
This means that we have to speak and act on our faith.
Let’s says a Christian group known for its racism and participation in racist structures and systems of oppression finally, after years of complicity confesses its racism. Is that enough? And let’s say this same Christian group, which supported slavery and the Jim Crow laws, does nothing to make amends or restitution. Let’s say this same Christian group does nothing to correct conditions that have resulted from their past involvement in racism. Has that Christian group repented of their racism? What do you think? Remember what John the Baptist of the Synoptic tradition told the Jewish religious teachers and leaders who came out to be baptized in the Jordan. He scolded them, “Who warned you to flee the judgment to come? Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance.” Repentance without fruit is not authentic repentance.
One of the eight core principles that guides the Center for Action and Contemplation founded by Richard Rohr is this: We do not think ourselves into a new way of living, but we live ourselves into a new way of thinking. You can substitute “believing” for “thinking” and it means virtually the same thing: We do not believe our way into a new way of living, but live our way into a new way of believing.
Rohr seems to intuit what James says his little epistle, “Faith without works is dead. James asks, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters if you say you have faith but do not have works?” Can faith save you?” Read “save” here as liberate, change, transform. Can faith liberate you? Can faith transform you? As we live the gospel, as we engage in the works of Christ, faith will thrive and flourish.
If we lack faith, we need not sit around and wait for it. We can engage in the works of faith, and live as if we have it. We can live into our faith even while we ask God to increase our faith.
Alan Bean is the executive director of Friends of Justice, an organization that, among other things, is committed to building a moral consensus for ending mass incarceration and mass deportation. At one time he pastored in the Texas Panhandle community of Tulia, Texas.
On the morning of July 23, 1999, 47 alleged drug kingpins were arrested on the poor side of Tulia and charged with selling little baggies of powdered cocaine to a single undercover agent by the name of Tom Coleman. Coleman had no evidence to corroborate his stories, but on the basis of his testimony alone local juries handed down the stiffest sentences allowed by law. One young man received six 99-year sentences, to be served consecutively.
Then they learned that Tom Coleman had been arrested on theft charges in the middle of the 18 month undercover operation. And before taking the Tulia job, he had worked as a deputy in another West Texas town, leaving in the dead of the night owing local merchants $10,000. Bean called another West Texas sheriff who hired Coleman even further back. He said, “If I had people in jail on that man’s uncorroborated word, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”
Well, Alan and his wife Nancy were at a crossroads. They could pretend nothing happened and get on with their lives or they could take a prophet’s stand. They decided to stand. They started holding Sunday night meetings in their living room where the children, parents, and loved ones of the sting defendants gathered to sing gospel songs, dance, read letters from prison, and plot strategy.
They packaged the story for journalists. They reached out to advocacy groups across the nation. They got in touch with the governor’s office and made repeated trips to Austin to visit with legislators, handing out brochures that read: Moses, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus agree: no one should be convicted on the word of a single witness.
Gradually their efforts were rewarded. Two sisters in New York published a documentary on the story. Two international law firms saw the documentary and signed on to represent the defendants on a pro bono basis. ABC’s 20-20 sent a team to investigate. Even Bill O’Reilly covered the story on Fox.
Then came the backlash. Nancy was shunned at work by her fellow teachers. The brake lines were cut on their automobile. Their phones were tapped. Denominational officials told Alan that he was too radical to recommend to their churches. They were betrayed by friends.
After four years of struggle, a judge ruled that Tom Coleman lacked credibility under oath. All charges were dropped, prisoners were released from prison and eventually pardoned by the Governor. Tom Coleman was found guilty on aggravated perjury and the defendants and their lawyers received millions of dollars in reparation payments. A law was passed by the Texas Legislature demanding corroboration for single-witness testimony. The Department of Public Safety replaced unaccountable, and often corrupt, narcotics task forces. But Alan says that he and Nancy, his wife were too beat up to celebrate.
That’s living the gospel sisters and brothers. That’s following Jesus in the way of the cross. That’s what it means to embody the good news of liberation and be partners with God in the creation of a just world.
In our Gospel story, I think it is significant that it was a little boy who gave what little he had. He gave it freely and Jesus turned it into plenty.
I supposed there are lots of ways our little can be multiplied, but it is not going to happen without our giving and sharing in a spirt of gratitude. Instead of lamenting what we don’t have, let’s just give what we do have gratefully and see what God does with it. Of course, we can give a lot more than just our money can’t we? We can give our time and our abilities and our compassion and empathy.
We can make ourselves available to be living expressions of God’s grace and kindness and we can become agents of change. Of course, we can’t force change. We can’t force others to change; we can’t even force ourselves to change.
In our Gospel story some wanted to force Jesus to be king, so he withdrew from them. This alone should cause us to question the theology that says that Jesus is going to return in power and force everyone to submit to his Lordship. That is so not Jesus. That’s not how Jesus works. God doesn’t force anyone to do God’s will. What God wills is our good and that cannot be forced. God cannot force us to love deeply and give generously and live each day in gratitude and humility.
The language here in this story echoes the language of Holy Communion. Jesus takes the bread and gives thanks, and then he breaks it and shares with his disciples. He does the same with the cup. He takes it, gives thanks, pours it and shares it. Every time we share Communion together it should be a reminder of how to live the gospel. We take what we have, we give thanks, and we share it with others. And that’s how we live the gospel.
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Our good God, sometimes when we survey the need, when we see the inequity and inequality in our economic system and the economic systems of the world, the injustice in government and business, the greed and arrogance that is so prevalent at every level of society, it can be overwhelming. Help us, Lord, to not lose hope and faith. Help us to remember that we all are created in your image and have an inherent goodness and that goodness can be reclaimed. Help us to see in the midst of all this your Spirit at work in people’s lives. And may our church, and the church at large embody the gospel by being communities that can teach others how to give generously, share graciously, love deeply, and to live lives of gratitude and joy.