IX Pentecost, Year A
The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Thus says the Lord:
“Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
I am speaking the truth in Christ– I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit– I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Like Prohibition and Myth, Ritual (which is human anti-mimetic attempt at control) channels our mimesis. While Prohibition only defines scapegoats, points them out as potential, by differentiating them, Ritual actualizes this by channeling mimesis into a socially controlled activity which eventuates in the death(s) of a victim(s). Ritual has been and will always be tied to death. Ritual channels the death mechanism. Or as Walter Wink might say, ritual is a fallen power.
Ritual’s origins in victimage, it’s strategic role in cultural formation and its tremendous capacity to channel the power of death all point to the fallen character of ritual.
We have commented on Jesus’ (and Matthew’s) strategic use of a love hermeneutic (the Love Commandment). Because there can never be a law against love, there will never be a love that has limits. Jesus’ command to live a Torah centered life takes the command, that is the religious imperative, the law, and makes it an imperative to love. Law is redeemed in Jesus for Love is the Law (“there’s a new sheriff in town”).
The story of the feeding of the multitudes has many important elements that are important to focus on in our interpretation. There are the allusive references to the messianic banquet of Isaiah 25; there is as well, the universality of the eschatological banquet, it is given to ‘the crowds’, the masses, given to all without discrimination. These are observations with important social and political implications and it is necessary not to run by them too quickly.
But the feeding of the crowds also says something important about ritual and the redemption of ritual. In our story today Jesus utterly deprives ritual of its power through a ritual. We would not be amiss here to see allusions to the Last Supper because of the familiar formula ‘took, blest, broke, gave.’ This Ritual claims ritual as its own thus transforming ritual, giving ritual a new power, the power of life, of life over death.
Just like all ritual, it is a series of specific acts, done in a specific sequence. Like all ritual, everyone participates, everyone in the community is important. In order for ritual to be effective the collective of interdividuals that make up the group must enact it. So it is here in our story today. The connection between the ritual that Jesus enacts here, and again in the Last Meal suggests that this four-fold action of Jesus’ was a repetitive activity (repetition is an important dimension of mimesis). In this repetition we remember him and we remember ourselves. This “re-membering” is an actual putting the pieces of our lives, our members, so to speak back together again. As we remember we are remembered both individually and collectively (interdividually) each time the act is repeated.
What constitutes this repetition? To take one’s life, bless it, break it and give it away to others. No one can take your life from you if you are already giving it away. Jesus’ ritual is about giving life. Giving your life away. Or as we have said, this can also be called positive mimesis. It is the type of life lived by those who share the messianic banquet in the kingdom of God. It is thus a truly celebratory ritual, to be able to engage the redemption of ritual every time we gather to break bread in Jesus’ name. And thus empowered we can then enact this ritual repetition in all of our daily relationships. Take, bless, break, give.
Matthew’s redaction of the story of the feeding of the multitudes tends to follow his usual tendencies. For redaction critical comments we recommend R.H. Gundry Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982).
In the Eucharist we are given the opportunity to not only recall our own negative mimesis as persecutors, we are also invited to join, to all share, in the act of a truly redemptive ritual. Together we practice that which we will live when we part. We practice taking a life, Jesus’ life, and then we go home and give our life away until we gather again to practice some more. We learn how to ‘take’ by not grasping; how to ‘bless’ with words of love. We learn how to ‘break’ through surrendering; we learn how to ‘give’ freely to all we encounter. Jesus gives us himself to practice with when we break bread together. In this four-fold act of taking, blessing, breaking and giving we are engaging his ritual of the Sacred Life.
Some Sermon Thoughts
The connection here between the feeding of the crowd and the Last Meal connects us right back to the Eucharist, of course. It makes an easy Eucharistic sermon, which will be more than enough for many of us.
But it may be that we need to make a clearer connection to the re-formation of ritual for our congregations, and this is much more challenging.
Depending on our traditions, we are more and less burdened with certain sacrificial interpretations of the Eucharistic Meal, many of which may be enshrined in our formal liturgies. This is no reason to cast aside our Eucharistic liturgies altogether, but is good reason to struggle toward a liturgy consonant with Jesus’ self-giving in the context of meal that intentionally omits the violence of the sacrificial system. There are two “four-fold” outlines to which we have easy reference. Take, bless, break, give is the one represented in this week’s readings and the telling of the Last Meal. Eucharistic liturgy usually makes reference to “oblation, anamnesis, institution, and epiclesis.” In neither of these outlines are the re-enactment of a substitutionary sacrifice present. That the church has re-introduced the sacrificial tone (“Alleluia! Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us!”) sets up the possibility of real teaching sermon. We have in our liturgy a real struggle between sacrificial and non-sacrificial ritual.
In the same way that we have in the Hebrew Scriptures texts in which God reveals not only God’s work of reconciliation but also our own capacity for violence attributed to the divine, we have also in our liturgy the same dual revelation. Alleluia! Jesus IS sacrificed for us, but we are the instigators of the sacrifice, not Jesus’ Father, not God. God redeems our sacrifice, by entering into it. We can use the remnants of sacrifice in our liturgy as teaching material, or we can move toward truly non-sacrificial liturgy.
(We’ll be offering more on liturgy in the future.)