31 July 2011/Proper 13A - Isaiah 55: 1-5, Matthew 14: 13-21
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter's at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
We keep skipping over the good stuff this year. At the beginning of Chapter 14 in Matthew, we have the story of Herod’s banquet wherein John the Baptizer lost his head for speaking truth to power – Herod was messing around with his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. Said John, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” News of the beheading reaches Jesus. So it is he goes off in a boat to a deserted place “by himself.”
Which on the Sea of Galilee is nigh on impossible! From the shore one can see around the whole of the lake. Wherever you are, you can see where Jesus goes, and so the crowd follows. So much for some quiet time, contemplative prayer and to deal with his own grief at the news of John’s demise.
Once the people are there, he returns to doing what he does best – healing them. Little known fact: at the southern end of the sea was a spa with healing springs – like those you find in West Virginia, southern Indiana and the like. People came from all over the ancient world to these spas, paying good money to bathe in the healing waters. Hotels and restaurants had sprung up all around Tiberius to meet the needs of those who were coming to the springs. Now there is this itinerant preacher, teacher and who knows what else, healing people for free. It’s not good for the local economy those in the moneyed classes are murmuring.
But that’s not all! He’s feeding people for free as well! Even the disciples are shocked at this news. They want him, Jesus, to send the people away to “buy food for themselves.” That’s how it works around here – there are plenty of places to catch a meal, buy some bread and fish. Jesus has other plans. He has been reading Isaiah 55 and taking it seriously. Why he was probably even reading the book of Exodus and taking that seriously as well.
The 55th chapter of Isaiah is a marvelous piece of text, and it is a shame we get such a small number of verses to chew on. In it the prophet-poet challenges all the basic assumptions of life in this world – which at the time meant life in the captivity of Babylon, which looked, smelled, tasted and felt an awful lot like life back in Egypt, and to Jesus and his “crowd” it must of sounded a lot like life under the domination of the Roman Empire (not yet Holy!).
Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the opening verse was thought to inspire missionizing and colonizing Asia since it appears to begin with a Chinese word, “Ho!” As it turns out that “ho” is not in the Hebrew text, and a lot of modern day problems may have been avoided had our translators not put it in there. But we digress!
“Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and he who has no money, come, buy and eat. Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
That is, in the old-fashioned vernacular, “Come and get it!” The poet announces, on God’s behalf, a return to manna season – a bracketed time in the life of Israel when everyone got enough, no one got too much, and if you tried to store it, it soured. That is, there was a time when everyone had enough and no one had too much. We can argue over the specifics of that no doubt, but take a look around and ask yourself, “Are we in manna season? Or, are we in ‘Needing all the cash and credit we can get our hands on just to feed ourselves’ season?” Once that’s figured out, just try to imagine what it sounds like to those who are credit-bound and in hock up to their necks in the current Empire to hear that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus is offering free milk, free wine, eat what is good and “delight yourselves in fatness!” So sorry Jenny Craig, it is fatness that the Lord is offering this week!
Then comes the pivotal question in Isaiah 55: Why do we bust our tails for that which does not satisfy? And why do we spend our money on that which is not bread? There is so much we can do on those two questions alone that we will have to leave it to one another to ponder those over the next few days, weeks and months!
The implication, of course, is that the dominant economy does not control the bread supply – that is the “real bread” supply. Only God and His Son can provide bread that satisfies all your hunger, and drink that satisfies all your thirst. Understanding, of course, that we really hunger and thirst for more than just food – and at the same time there are those among us, more and more every day, who hunger for just that.
As Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and gives away the bread and fish, resulting in copious leftovers for those who come to our doors Monday through Saturday, we are to recall Isaiah 55, Manna Season and of course the Eucharist – the banquet of Thanksgiving for all that God provides daily. This all has something to do with his teaching us to pray for bread which is given daily.
So we can assume the crowd to be made up primarily of those who cannot afford to go to the spas, the hotels and restaurants of Tiberius. We can assume they are indeed hungry since they will walk half way around the Sea to hear Jesus and be healed by Jesus. We can assume that Jesus recognizes that he is not going to get a moments peace to himself until everyone is given provision for the day, and until the economic gulf between those at the spa and those in his crowd is breached and healed. While under the brutal yoke of Rome, people at the other end of the lake are taking care of only their own needs, spending lots of money to do so.
Jesus offers a meal that no money can buy. No one can offer any amount of money for it because it is priceless. How frustrating must that be for the folks in town and at the spas? How wonderful must it be for those in the crowd to get this free meal by the sea? To be healed for free? Where do we go to be fed? What do we feed on? Where do we go to healed and made whole? Do we really trust in bread that is given daily? If not now, when?