The bread that gives life to the world.
Eco-justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary:Year B—2014-2015
By Tom Mundahl
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B (2015)
2 Kings 4: 42-44
Psalm 145: 10-18
Ephesians 3: 14-21
John 6: 1-21
What images of hospitality do you carry with you? I think immediately of welcoming a new neighbor with a freshly-baked loaf of bread. Perhaps that vision comes from Russian literature filled with descriptions of peasants providing welcome to visitors with bread and salt. Not surprisingly, both of these pictures of neighborliness feature bread. Whether it is called “the staff of life” or “the Bread of Life,” it is central to both our culture and this week’s readings.
But not any loaf of bread will do. A few years ago, I visited the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis with an intergenerational learning group from the congregation I was serving. Our guide provided a vivid picture of Minneapolis becoming “the Mill City,” the most important flour-producing center of North America. That was made possible by the industrialization of milling dependent on “roller mills,” a new technology that robbed wheat of its germ plasm and key nutrients. It is no surprise that bread-baking soon mimicked flour production, resulting in breads easy to bake and store but lacking nutrition and taste. Can you imagine welcoming a new neighbor with Wonder Bread?
Home-baked bread is different. It not only represents a labor of love that authenticates hospitality; it also celebrates the gift of creation. Imagine the baker first deciding what kind of bread to make—the varieties seem endless. Then the baker must choose the right flour, in some cases grind it from the appropriate wheat berries, mix the flour with the leavening agent (whether actual levain or yeast), knead it, let it rise in the refrigerator overnight, re-knead it, let it rise, put the baking stone in the oven, preheat, lovingly place the loaf in the oven with the wooden peel, and, only then, bake the bread. Despite the detailed attention required, the baker engages in this discipline because she/he is continually amazed at the transformation of grain, water, salt, and natural leavening agents into a loaf of bread. Every time it comes out of the oven, it is pure gift.
This sense of generosity is echoed by Psalm 145. As the “overture”(James Luther Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 437) to the last five “hallel” songs of the Psalter, the poetry here attempts to capture the nature of God. “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:8). The result is one who “. . . upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down” (Psalm 145:14).
Because of God’s merciful justice, all creation expects and receives what it needs. In words that have become powerful portions of many table graces, the psalmist writes, “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing” (Psalm 145: 15-16). No clearer introduction to texts describing God’s nourishing the whole creation with the bread of life could be made.
The legitimacy of Elisha’s call to follow Elijah as leader of the prophetic movement is at the center of 2 Kings 4. Not only has Elisha helped to defeat the Moabites after their rebellion, he promises miraculous birth and revives the dead. However, most important in establishing leadership credentials is the maintenance of the “company of prophets,” a group that, because of its tension with royalty, cannot depend upon the king for its living (John Bright, A History of Israel, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971, p. 245).
Despite Elisha’s prior performance, even his servant Gehazi, described as a “young lad” (cf. John 6:9), expresses only skepticism: “How can I set this (20 barley loaves, thought to be food for 6 or 7) before a hundred people?” (2 Kings 4: 43). Just as Israel was fed in the wilderness by food that came from God, not the pharaoh, so here the “company of prophets” eats its fill. Significantly, as in the Exodus gift of manna, there is food left over, food for the Sabbath, always a celebration of the harmony of all creation (Exodus 16: 23).
The theme of God’s providing the gift of food and nourishment continues as we begin our multi-week consideration of the Bread of Life Discourse in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. At first, it appears that the evangelist John follows Mark, especially with the feeding followed by a sea crossing. But where Mark’s feeding is catalyzed by compassion, it appears that the Bread of Life Discourse begins as a ‘teaching moment.’ “Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples” (John 6:3). The drama of this chapter begins with Jesus as Moses-figure on the mountain, but assuming the seated position of the authoritative teacher. The power of mountain-top imagery heightens our concern for what will follow.
John makes that connection with the Exodus explicit, commenting that “the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near” (John 6:4), a festival that now requires a new interpretation on the ‘gentile side’ of the sea. Yet the very provision of food in the wilderness and the sea crossing cannot help but remind us of the past. Raymond Brown argues that the particular details of John 6:16-21, with Jesus “walking on the sea,” come from Psalm 77:19, a celebration of the defeat of chaos at the Exodus: “Your way was through the sea, your path through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” Also crucial to understanding our text is the tradition in certain strains of Judaism “that the Messiah or anointed Davidic king would come at Passover.” (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii), New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 255)
As he plays the role of teacher, Jesus asks Philip a question more appropriate for a contemporary MBA program, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” (John 6:5). It is not long before Philip admits defeat: this is impossible even to contemplate! Andrew adds, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” (John 6: 9). Of course, we have just heard the reading from 2 Kings 4:42-44, where twenty loaves fed one hundred, and where a young servant boy was also involved. This situation creates suspense for all who remember that story.
Jesus orders the crowd to sit down. The evangelist describes the natural setting as park-like—”there was a great deal of grass in the place (v. 10)”—a setting which Ellen Davis has suggested reminded them all of Psalm 23, where “green pastures” (Psalm 23:2) led to preparing a table (v. 5) (lecture at The Land Institute, Salina, KS, Sept. 27, 2014). And, after Jesus took the loaves, and gave thanks (εύχαριστήσας), he distributed the food and all ate as much as they wished.
Certainly the Eucharistic theme is crucial for a Gospel that does not contain a narrative of institution. As the leftovers were gathered up into twelve baskets, the evangelist makes it clear that nothing will be lost (John 6: 12). The concern for the “fragments” (κλάσματα) is echoed by the Didache’s eucharistic prayer: “We give thanks to you, our Father . . . . As this fragmented bread was scattered on the mountains, but was gathered up and became one, so let your church be gathered up from the four corners of the earth into your kingdom”(Brown, p. 248). Again, the abundance reminds us of the leftovers intended for the celebration of the Sabbath, a day of rest, harmony and justice for all creation. (cf. Exodus 16: 5)
The crowd fails to understand what has been happening. We are told that after this miraculous feeding some said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6: 12). Whether he was simply a reincarnation of Elisha or the New Moses, the crowd was eager to “take him by force to make him king” (John 6: 15). For them, like the Israelites following Moses, the temptation was to see this bread as no more than fuel to fill their “pie holes.” Jesus, apparently, could satisfy physical hunger on demand, no small feat in a world that knew hunger all too well. Seeing this provision of bread as little more than a new technique, the crowd assumed its provision could be “captured” and, with a little coercion, provide an unending food source.
John’s gospel makes it clear that there are two kinds of eating. There is the kind of eating in which we consume other life forms—plant or animal—which are absorbed into us so that we can survive. This is a necessary part of created goodness. “But there is also the kind of eating in which the other is not simply absorbed by me. Rather than absorbing others I remember and thus host them, invite and welcome them...and so am transformed from within” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith--A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: 2011, p. 157). Or, as Thomas Merton puts it, “The effect of our communion in the Body and Blood of Christ is that we are transformed into what we consume” (Bread in the Wilderness, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1971, p. 72).
The purpose of the Bread of Life Discourse is to show that Jesus is not simply a provider of bread in remote areas. “He is the full meaning of bread, the nurture “that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). “It is food or the healing, transformation, and fulfillment of life rather than its mere continuation. If physical bread enables physiological life, the “bread of life” inspires and empowers communion life” (Wirzba, p.155). And it is just this transformation that we will see as we follow the Discourse, transformation that will free those who share this bread to serve creation and build justice.
More than once, I have heard colleagues say that they are tired of the word “transformation,” a word that cannot be avoided in dealing with the Bread of Life Discourse. Perhaps we can add “transformation fatigue” to “compassion fatigue” as ailments of our craft and culture. All the more reason we need to hear once more the poetry of Paul’s prayer comprising this week’s Second Lesson.
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3: 18-19).
There is a new pattern or shape to life for “all things” (Ephesians 3:10). Perhaps to grasp it, all that is needed is a crust of well-crafted bread, remembering it comes from the Lord and Giver of life and is intended to fill the hunger of all in need.
Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN firstname.lastname@example.org