26 July 2105
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 12B (RCL)
2 Samuel 11:1-15
Is it good to be king? In a disarmingly simple story, 2 Samuel shows us everything wrong with monarchy. The passage begins, “In the spring of the year, when kings go out to war.” War is the liturgy of the royal cult. But David stays at home, and enjoys the leisure of an afternoon nap while his generals are out at war. After bringing the ark into Jerusalem and distributing food (including the meat of sacrifice) to everyone in Israel, man and woman, and thereby claiming all women as his own, David enacts this claim. And to finish off the story, David sends by Uriah’s own hand orders to Joab to have Uriah killed. Uriah respects the royal authority enough not to read the letter he is carrying. He is faithful where David is deceitful.
Jesus, on the other hand, escapes up the mountain when he perceives the people want to come and make him king by force. The story of the feeding of 5000 in John differs from the accounts in the other Gospels in some striking ways. First off, it precedes the crossing of the sea, while in Matthew, Mark and Luke, it is preceded by the sea crossing. Secondly, it happens on the mountainside, rather than in the desert. And John is the only account that includes the young boy.
In the Bread of Life Discourses which will follow, Jesus will compare the bread that he gives with the manna in the wilderness, but the fact is that the feeding takes place on the mountainside. After the feeding, when Jesus perceives that the crowd wants to make him king, he escapes further up the mountain. This topography is reminiscent of a different meal. In Exodus 24, Moses invites the seventy elders of Israel up to the mountain side for a covenant meal (while the rest of the people stay on the plain). After the meal, Moses goes up to the mountain peak to receive the tables of the law. Moses directed certain young men to offer both holocausts and peace offerings (animals sacrificed to be eaten), and he took the blood and splashed half of it on the altar, and the other half over the people. This has resonances with Jesus’ language about drinking the blood of the son of man, in addition to eating his flesh (in the Old Testament, the blood is reserved exclusively for God, as it is the life of the animal).
John also tells us that the Passover of the Jews was near (and yet this event takes place on mountainside in Galilee, not Jerusalem). John is portraying the feeding of the 5000 as the covenant ratification meal on the mountainside, rather than as the manna in the wilderness. If this is true, several things stand out. All 5000 people (actually men — the crowd was larger than 5000) come up on the mountainside, rather than just the seventy elders of Israel. John conflates this meal with the Passover, as the Bread of Life discourses and the crucifixion of Jesus on the Day of Preparation will make clear. It is also the eucharist of the Church. The identification of Jesus with Moses is made clear by the perception of the people that he is indeed the prophet coming into the world.
Odd details: the young boy who has the five loaves and two fish. Does this lad correspond to the certain young men Moses sent to make sacrifices? In the LXX of Exodus 24:5, the word is neaniskos; in John 6:9, the word is paidarion. In John 6:5 & 6, Jesus appears to be grandstanding, asking Philip how they are to feed this crowd, while he himself knows what he is going to do. I think John is suggesting that what transpires is, in fact, the divine plan. Also, Philip and Andrew play important roles in this story. Philip is the first disciple to recognize that Jesus is “the one about whom Moses and the Prophets wrote.” “Philip” is a Greek name, as is Andrew. It took a Greek to recognize this. Philip and Andrew are also the disciples who come to Jesus in Jerusalem to tell him certain Greeks want to see him. Is the young boy Greek? Since all 5000+ people come up on the mountainside to ratify the covenant, this crowd must surely include those unfit to be at such a meal. The new covenant includes them all.
In Exodus, after the meal, Moses goes up the mountain to receive the tables of the law. Jesus goes up the mountain to escape being made king. Like the people under the judges, these people desire a king, to fix the dispensation, to keep receiving the bread, to have God’s presence fixed down to a human institution. On the mountain, Moses receives a theophany. In this story, the disciples encounter the great I AM who comes walking to them across the see (he makes his pathways on the sea).
The young boy is unnamed which allows us to insert ourselves into the story in his role. In Mark, Jesus has to ask the disciples what they have. In this case, the young boy (presumably) offers what he has to Jesus through Andrew. Our paltry offering, blessed by Jesus, becomes the food of the meal that ratifies the new covenant. This is not just about feeding hungry people; it is about sealing God’s salvation of the world.