In the gospel we read 2 weeks ago, Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs on their first mis-sionary journey – and he gave them 2 bits of advice. (1) don’t take a lot of ‘stuff’ with you – and (2) if you’re not welcomed or rebuffed anywhere you go, do what you can but don’t hang around where you’re not wanted.
In today’s gospel there are also 2 related, but distinct, themes. The first of them occurred when huge crowds began to surround Jesus and his disciples as they are telling him about their first missionary experiences. But they get so harassed and so completely encircled that they can’t even eat in peace. So, recognizing that his disciples are exhausted after just having completed their arduous journeys, Jesus tells them to take a break. Let’s get out of here and go some place where we can find some peace and quiet and rest a while. Good idea – and that’s when all of them piled into a boat and headed for another destination. This first theme is good advice for all of us who find ourselves exhausted because we work hard and don’t take time to rest and relax.
The Genesis accounts of creation designate the seventh day for rest and Christians have traditionally reserved Sundays for worship and recharging our batteries. But nowadays too many of us use Sundays for something else, sometimes even work. Maybe that’s because most of us were taught from early childhood that the way for us to ‘get ahead’ is to work, work, and more work. In fact, some of us are so compulsive that we cannot rest, and we push ourselves to the limits of our endurance. Our ‘to do’ list is inexhaustible – we think that we are indispensable and also indestructible – and at the end of the day, we are completely worn out – run down – fatigued – frazzled. But we press on – undeterred by statistical evidence or better yet our own experience – both of which show that the quality of our work is clearly related to the energy we bring to it. Mark’s Jesus seems to have known about the relation between work and rest when he made the sensible proposal that his little group get away for a while. But the multitude managed to figure out not only where Jesus and his disciples were going – they were also waiting for them when they put ashore. So much for needed R&R, long before Robert Burns wrote “the best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley” [To a Mouse, st. 7],!
‘Self-care’ has lately been added to the lexicon of priestly and pastoral duties – and it’s advocates say that it enhances work, contributes to self-esteem, and is a predictor of success. It’s a phrase that reflects the recognition that clergy tend to get too caught up in their work – so much so that they fail to take proper care of themselves. Pastors think they cannot take time off to play bridge or go fishing or even see an occasional movie. I’m told that some are too busy kingdom-building to prepare sermons! As a result, they become vulnerable to illnesses psychological, pro-fessional, and physical. Bottom line: clergy can become workaholics whose lives give little cre-dence to the doctrine that salvation is sola gratia – by grace alone. Instead, they follow Pelagius – a 5th c. Irish monk who exaggerated our ability to do good works and taught that God’s grace is only to help us do them more easily. Although Pelagius’s teaching was condemned as heresy, it remains deeply imbedded in too many of us.
That point prefaces the 2nd theme in today’s gospel and qualifies the need for ‘self-care’ by reminding us that there are also others who need to be cared for. Had Jesus peremptorily dis-missed the crowd that surrounded him when his boat put ashore, his act might have addressed the first theme. He could have postponed or rescheduled teaching them – explaining that he and his disciples needed some down time for themselves – and promising to come back after they are re-freshed. But he doesn’t do that. Mark says, “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” – so here others take precedence over self. There are other times when Jesus chooses to go away and be alone, but this is not one of them. We can never know Mark’s intent, but I think he is suggesting here that Jesus is never so tired as to rest his sense of urgency for proclaiming the coming Kingdom. The eagerness of people to seek Jesus, even when he retreats to a remote place, shows that they had an appetite for what he had to offer them. So what was supposed to be a restful get-away was about to turn into ministry to 5000 people.
So much for R&R. Beyond that it was growing late and the crowd had another appetite. They were hungry. The missing part of today’s gospel is the miracle of feeding these 5,000. We know the story. The disciples want Jesus to tell the crowd to go find something to eat – but Jesus orders them to give the crowd something to eat. They tell him that buying bread would cost ca. 200 denarii.. 2 years ago 1 denarius was estimated to contain ca. 3.85 grams of silver, so a dena-rius equal to about $20 in US currency. The disciples had been forbidden to take any money with them – and 200 denarii X $20 is $4000 – an astronomical amount! So Jesus tells the 5000 people to sit down – the disciples turn up 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish – Jesus blesses them – all 5000 eat and are satisfied – and afterwards the disciples collect 12 full baskets of leftovers.
I reckon we could wish for a comparable miracle nowadays when 11.3% of the world’s population is hungry. 98% of these are in underdeveloped countries where over 1 billion people live on $1 a day or less. These families must go without lots of things – including food – and 805 million people consume less than 2100 calories a day. 30% of young children in 50% of devel-oping countries, are underweight and ca. 16,000 children die every day from malnutrition. Even in developed countries, 1 in 15 children die before age 5 and hunger is related to most of the deaths. Meanwhile, in 1917 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that almost 40% of American adults and nearly 20% of adolescents are obese – the highest rates ever record-ed for the US. 37% of men and 42% of women are over-weight. In addition, ca. 2 billion people lack access to clean water – and ca. 2.3 billion suffer from water-borne diseases like schistosomi-asis, an acute and chronic parasitic disease. To put an edge to that matter, 12% of us use 85% of the world’s potable water. These numbers might make the magnitude of world hunger easier to grasp, but what they really tell us is that our best efforts at charitable solutions are only a drop in the bucket. Statistics don’t solve problems – but they ought to spur us to work harder – so consi-der these numbers and the people they represent the next time you’re asked to support a project to reduce world hunger. “Knowledge and not doing are equal to not knowing at all” was the message in my fortune cookie – and it is!
In the NC population of 10.27 million people, 24% of our children – almost 1 in 5 – face hunger on a regular basis. NC ranks 8th highest in food insecurity. We are the 8th hungriest state in the US. 630,000 of our neighbors don’t have enough healthy and nutritious food to eat. The NC Department of Health and Human Services reported last January that 1.4 million of our citi-zens receive food stamps, yet 1 in 5 of our children still go hungry – and1in 4 are malnourished. Although we annually provide almost 1 million free school break-fasts and lunches, 1 in 3 of our children live in families below the poverty level and are at risk of being hungry. The numbers are overwhelming, OK; but when you put a human face to them they’re compelling. So I’ll just ask you to remember that each one of them represents a child of God and that my fortune cookie message was spot-on: “knowledge and not doing are equal to not knowing at all”.
“Let them eat cake” is an expression credited to Marie Antoinette when she was told dur-ing the Revolution that the French people had no bread to eat. The original French is ‘brioche’ not “gâteau” – a rich bread but not a cake – but that does nothing to diminish the infamy of her haughty comment; and for that and other crimes, she lost her head. In our time, antipathy and disdain for the hungry takes a different tack. Claims that new technologies and better husbandry of land and crops already produce plenty of food to feed all of us make us cynical about the limits of our charity because we know why our efforts to eliminate hunger are so puny – and why they have so little lasting effect! Carping and quibbling government bureaucrats exploit hunger for political gain – bread becomes a weapon for domination – food is plowed under in order to sus-tain or increase price-supports – it lies rotting in warehouses. Meanwhile, people are dying of hunger – and haunting photographs of bloated bellies and starving children fly in the face of reli-ance that God will provide not only food but its needed distribution.
So where is Jesus and his miracle to feed the mulitudes now? Should we trust God to provide food when so many of our sisters and brothers are malnourished and hungry – when they become sick and die for lack of food? Of course, God did supply once upon a time; but that ball is now in our court. That God will supply all our needs is not the point of stories like the feeding of the 5000. Nowhere does the NT suggest that the descendants of that multitude will never be hungry or go without food. In a later passage Mark relates that Jesus predicts what his followers can expect to happen in this life: “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed … such things are bound to happen – but the end is still to come….there will be earthquakes in many places – [and] there will be famines – these are the first birth-pangs of the new age.” Jesus’ point is clearly that we live in an imperfect world in which the Kingdom of God is ‘at hand’. It’s here, but it’s not yet completely here. Seeds have been planted, but the harvest lies in the future. So we are to keep faith and not lose heart even when our problems seem insoluble and adversity appears to be overwhelming.
Today’s gospel teaches us 2 important lessons – 1st, about the benefits of rest and recrea-tion – and 2nd, that it’s not our role to bring the Kingdom into this world. That work belongs en-tirely to God. For now, be angry at the sins that cause masses of our brothers and sisters to suffer poverty and hunger and the sicknesses and deaths it engenders – and be outraged at the apparent futility of what we do to alleviate the conditions that generate those results. Anger and outrage just might be reminders that whatever else happens in this unjust and imperfect world, we have the food we need to supply the energy to press on with our partial remedies. With 5 loaves and 2 fish Jesus “looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the people”. That was a blessing for a day those folks, but Jesus has given us a much greater blessing. When he had his last meal with his disciples, he again took bread – “and having said the blessing….he broke it and gave it to them [and said]: ‘Take this – this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after offering thanks to God, gave it to them …[saying] ‘This is my blood of the new covenant.’” you and I are offered that food at every mass – nourishment for both this life and the life to come. It’s energy for the present and a foretaste of the feast in God’s future. And it means to feed us here and now in both body and spirit – strengthening us to go into the world in peace to do the work God has given us to do – and equipping us to do what we can to feed the hungry and house the homeless. That’s a great responsibility and a great gift. Deo gratias – thanks be to God.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.