July 25, 2021. Reflection John 6:1-21
Given the age group of this community there would be few among us who have not heard many sermons/reflections or bible study discussions on this passage but as the line in an old hymn says “God has yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s word” 1 May that be true for us today.
I thought this morning I would look at the lectionary Gospel passage through a few different pairs of glasses to see how each of the lenses changes my/our perspective and understanding of the passage.
Having grown up in the church and having originally studied theology in the sixties it seems appropriate to begin by putting on my oldest pair of glasses – my traditional glasses theology in the sixties after all was pretty traditional. In considering this passage a tradition theology interpretation points out that the writer or writers of John’s gospel are telling the story in such a way as to speak to the knowledge and traditions of their readers. For example, Jesus’ actions are framed to link Jesus to the outstanding leaders of the of the Jewish tradition Feeding the 5000 connects Jesus in the minds of the readers to Moses in the wilderness supplying the manna and the water to the Israelites Elijah and the ongoing supply of oil, and also to Elisha feeding one hundred people with 20 loaves and some ears of fresh corn again until all had enough. The walking on the water story again referring back to Moses Joshua, Elijah and Elisha and their extraordinary power over the waters and sea and finally the people wanting to make Jesus their king is a public recognition and declaration that he Jesus is indeed seen as the true inheritor of David’s throne, and the Messiah who was promised. Remembering that the gospel of John was written at least sixty to seventy years after Jesus died there had been time for the writers to develop theological frameworks and to then take the original stories of the oral tradition and to place them into their frameworks thus allowing them to address the questions and issues confronting the people of their day. Bill Loader points out that – “John consistently takes stories from the tradition about Jesus and moulds them so that they now make statements about who Jesus is (for us). Using images of daily necessity, like bread, water, light, life, which were earlier used in the Torah, God’s Law, John is declaring that humanities deepest needs are to be found in him (Jesus). They are found in him, because for John Jesus is intimately linked to God, as God’s unique Son. In effect, to relate to Jesus is to relate to God. In this way John merges diverse traditions and images (relating to his time) into a single simplicity: our/humanity’s relationship with God.” 2
But in today’s world of Google, Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok and all the others that I know nothing about I am not sure that current generations find their deepest needs being met by Jesus or that the symbolism of John’s Gospel relates to our current crisis. So, we experience a disconnect with traditional theological understandings and our present day lives. The relevance of this story if they have even read it does not strike a connection with the symbols or issues of 21st century reality.
If I then reread the story this time wearing my intellectual or rational theology glasses and I recognise that these are the lenses used many western people in the 21st century. And perhaps this is because being an intellectual and rational human person is very much respected in western culture. Having a good education, not being an extremist, considering all points of view, recognising scientific progress, supporting the arts etc., is what we in the west call being “civilised” We have been slow to appreciate and to learn that the many other world cultures have different perspectives and priorities in living so that the value of intellectualism and rationalism today must be seen in perspective of many other important isms of our modern-day world.
But when the intellectual or rational mind, mine included, reads these stories they conclude that, as they are recorded, they are just not possible and that the feeding of the 5000 is really just a parable about the truth that there are sufficient resources in the world and that if we share them equitably there is not only enough to go around there will be some left over. As for walking on water – scientifically it is not possible for a human being to walk on water. It is just a fanciful way of saying Jesus was more than human which again is contrary to the intellect, rational, scientific way of thinking. It also gives along with other stories about Jesus the impression that God/Son of God can control the natural elements of the universe which is again, scientifically, not possible.
Reading now with glasses that I am more familiar with and more comfortable wearing – the feminist lenses the first question I ask myself in reading these passages is where are the women. In the NRSV version printed it states that there were 5000 in all in the crowd, in the inclusive language version it says 5000 families were fed but in the New English Bible which came out in the 70’s in the Matthew version of the story it quite clearly states that 5000 men were fed to say nothing of women and children. But there are other questions – we know that women travelled with Jesus and the male disciples and followers and it is more than likely that they were the ones procured the food and cooked it for them, probably did their washing and other tasks which men in that culture did not do. Do we really think the disciples would consider going to procure food for so many without taking some women with them, do you not think it is quite likely that given there were at least 5000 men or families and only 12 disciples that some of the women followers were not co-opted to assist in the distribution and gathering of the left overs? After all, serving men was part of their responsibility – (Jesus’ healing Peter’s mother-in-law). And who do we think packed the lunch of 5 loaves and two fishes -yes depending on his age the boy could have bought it at the market but I suspect it was made for him by his mother. So yes, we may conclude that the women were there even if they did not rate a mention or their contribution acknowledged. Has much changed I wondered after watching Annabel Crabb last Tuesday night on the ABC. I acknowledge what Garry pointed out last week that my feminist glasses are those of a white western, privileged woman and I cannot speak on behalf women from the diverse cultures of the world and even if not wearing underwear can I honestly reflect from the perspective of the lemon sellers of Buenos Aires. That said I have observed in my 77 years that there are few cultures in which women are not assigned the task of preparing, cooking, serving and cleaning up meals.
Then there are glasses with lenses which look at the story from the perspective of indigenous people. Not only Australian indigenous peoples but indigenous peoples of North and South America, Africa, Asia India, Taiwan, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and others. But theses glasses do not belong to me so I will listen, read, learn and apply insights that they might share with me/us as they explore the scriptures through their eyes and their understanding of the holy. And I believe that when we are confronted by global interpretations of the Christian faith through the eyes of the indigenous and other cultures we will then have to confront that much of western traditional interpretations of the faith have been written from the perspective of colonisers Let me end this perspective with a quote from Chung Hyun Kyung a Korean woman theologian who gave a reflection on Christianity from a Asian woman’s perspective at the WCC in Canberra in 1991 “ Her speech created a furore and she was accused of syncretism, that is, combining Christian teachings and practices with elements of other traditions. Her retort, however, was:
If they ask me, “Are you a syncretist?” I say, “You are right, I am a syncretist, but so are you.” My response is that I know I am a syncretist, but you don’t know you are a syncretist because you have hegemonic power … non-Christian cultures, when they try to interpret the gospel out of their life experience, they are syncretists! But they are just being true to their identity, history and culture.
In the same interview, she challenged the Western values imposed on the Third World:
“I think in order to really heal the world we need the ‘wisdom of darkness.’ This can be the Third World, dark people, women, or our ‘shadows,’ … all the things we do not want to confront within ourselves, so we project them onto others and call them terrorists. So, I think that we need ‘endarkenment’ for a while, not enlightenment, to heal the world.” Wikipedia 3
Here we are 30 years later and we have still not addressed her challenge.
Finally, I want to look at this story through the lenses of eco-theology or creation theology. For the last three to four centuries we have increasing we have looked at scripture, the holy and spirit life through an anthropomorphic magnifying glass and in so doing we have seriously neglected the perspective of the rest of creation – if it was good for humankind, it was good for the planet has been support in most circumstances and by most churches – Reformation theology not only emphasised the importance of the individual responsibility and endeavour and has laid the foundation for our scientific and capitalist world systems There have always been a few exceptional voices speaking out against mainstream thought and we should be encouraged that in our times these voices are increasing significantly.
When I read the feeding of the 5000 through the lens of eco or creation theology I am first struck by the simplicity of the of the meal, bread and fish, and the abundance of open space grass they were able to sit on as they shared the meal. A bit nostalgic perhaps considering what is going on today. In our reality here in Australia a meal of bread and fish comes at great cost to the creation. Read the Richard Flannery’s book Toxic or the article in yesterday’s The Age-Good Weekend (24/07/2021) and when it comes to fish and our environment, not only is it fish farming but the overfishing and the methods of fishing that confront us and that is without considering toxic pollution and plastics in our waters or the warming of our oceans Not much better when we think of bread even if we bake our own. Think of the huge farming conglomerates that use ever increasing amount toxic fertilizer to increase yield and the subsequent killing off birds and insects and the polluting of our rivers with the fertilizer run off. And when it comes to sharing of our food resources, we have neither the will nor the mechanisms to share our resources globally unless someone is making a profit. Our foreign aid budget is in serial decline, plus our unwillingness to share what we have with refugees and our head in the sand approach to climate change are some indicators of just how deep the crisis is.
The story of Jesus walking on the water is designed to signify his link to God as Creator of the natural world. In today’s Proverbs passage we read that the Almighty and the skilled artisan Sophia set the horizons of earth, established the boundaries of the seas and the limits of the shoreline.4 But we are experiencing, through our lack of care of creation the seas breaking their established boundaries and we have punched holes in the celestial boundaries of the planet through the over burning of fossil fuels. We are daily destroying the work of the Almighty and the skilled Artisan Sophia. Do we really believe that there won’t be consequences for our action or do are we naïve or foolish enough to believe as some do that God will step in and fix it all for us.
But it is not enough to reflect on scripture and tradition from an eco -theological or as some call it a creation perspective if we are not also prepared to make changes to our lifestyles to support it. That includes not only considering the resources we use, the food we eat but also raising our voices in protest. Individual and collective voices are key to whether our planet can in the future continue to support life. We have been given a warning, a short gift of grace. Do we have the courage to make use of it?
The Contemporary Reading5 today was written with regard to feminism where Hansel at home sending up flares signified the patriarchy and the two Gretals being the women searching for a more equal feminist world. However if we change Hansel to signifying the traditional established churches and theologies or what Teilhard de Chardin called in the 50’s enfeebled religion. And the two Gretals are those searching for and creating new theological understandings and insights for our times. And while they carry with them new ideas and seeds for the future, they have of course forgotten their bread crumbs.
I think at the end of the journey through the forest they will encounter neither the witch or the great good Mother Goddess but instead and in keeping with our green and growing theme they will find a theological landscape dominated by large and well-established theological trees and bushes some of which dominate the landscape blocking sunlight and nutrients. There will be some newer growth which is establishing well, such as liberation theologies and feminist theologies and some new ones which are struggling and there will be seeds in the soil awaiting the right theological climate before pushing green shoots through to the light. But, the theological climate is changing and perhaps some of the more establish species will not survive or they will hybrid into new ones. What our searchers will need are gardening gloves, rakes hoes and spades. For there is much weeding, pruning and planting to be done for a healthy, diverse and relevant theological landscape to flourish that is appropriate to our times.