- 2Samuel 11:1-15 and Psalm 14
- Ephesians 3:14-21
- John 6:1-21
This week’s lectionary texts offer a diverse biblical experience, ranging from the predatory sexual behaviour of David to the spiritual symbolism of Christ as the holy bread that comes down from heaven to give life to the world. One imagines that few congregations will hear a sermon about David’s murderous lust, but that there will be many sermons preached on the significance of the Eucharist and the divinity of Jesus?
First Reading: David as sacred hero and sexual predator
It comes as something of a shock for us to find that David (who is mostly presented as a heroic figure and someone close to God) is also remembered as man who would abuse his power to take women for his own sexual gratification, even arranging for the murder of his victim’s husband to cover up his adultery.
Indeed, the virtue of the secondary victim (Uriah the Hittite, a foreign mercenary serving as a senior officer in David’s army) is far superior to that of David. Uriah will not betray either his king nor his own troops. He is presented as a figure of classic virtue within the misogynist values of his own culture. David, on the other hand, is a corrupt and predatory ruler.
This story had its original meaning in the vivid narrative of David’s court history (2Sam 9-20 & 1Kings 1-2). That ancient story explored the internal tensions of the Davidic House, and Bathsheba had to figure in the account since she was the mother of David’s successor, Solomon. As the story unfolds she will emerge as a woman of power and influence in the court.
As portrayed in this narrative David is a complex and ambiguous character, although episodes and attitudes that offend modern readers may not have been understood as shameful in the circles that first composed the narrative.
In the case of David’s sexual abuse of Bathsheba, the Bible deals with the offence in a way that hardly soothes contemporary sensibilities. Rather than depose the male who has misused his power to gain sexual favors from a woman who he was expected to protect, David continues as king and eventually marries Bathsheba. However, the child born as a result of their intercourse is struck down by God and dies after a short illness.
As churches of all denominations are slowly facing our own histories of sexual abuse by clergy and others with power within our faith communities, this ancient story of David’s predatory sexual appetite sounds all too familiar.
This is surely one of those parts of the Bible where the acclamation, “[For/Hear] the word of the Lord,” is an invitation to wrestle with the meaning of the text rather than to accept it at face value. What does the Spirit say to the churches today through such a passage?
Indeed, how can such an account be read aloud in the liturgical celebration? Given the statistics on sexual abuse, how will such a story impact on victims and perpetrators?
Although not included in the collection, this story could well qualify for inclusion in Phyllis Trible’s powerful monograph, Texts of Terror.
Second Reading: Filled with the fullness of God
The passage from Ephesians 3 seems to express the reflections of a maturing and self-aware Christian tradition. While traditionally attributed to Paul, Ephesians has none of the urgency of preparing for the apocalyptic return of Jesus that we find in authentic texts from the first generation, and especially in Paul. Instead, we find a question more familiar to Christians in subsequent generations: namely, how do we experience the holy reality of God within ourselves?
The concept of glorifying God “in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations for ever and ever” seems a long way removed from Paul’s understanding of Christianity. Such a turn of phrase presupposes a more settled Christian community that expects itself to have a longstanding role in the divine purposes.
While most likely not written by Paul, this text still provides a 1C example of the natural trinitarianism found at the spiritual heart of lived Christian experience. Whatever historical reconstruction of Christian origins we find persuasive, this prayer captures the essence of Christianity as a way of living as people of faith. The passage is also profoundly trinitarian without any attempt to define and coerce. It simply celebrates the Christian experience of God: as Father of all, as Spirit, and as Christ within us.
Gospel: Jesus feeds five thousand
This is the first in a series of five Sundays that will draw on John 6 for the Gospel:
- John 6:1-21 – feeding of the 5,000 (vss. 1-15) and Jesus walking on water (vvs. 16-21)
- John 6:24-35 – controversy over the bread God gives
- John 6:35,41-51 – controversy over Jesus
- John 6:51-58 – eat my flesh, drink my blood
- John 6:56-69 – Jesus loses many disciples
Miracle of the multiplication
This Byzantine mosaic is preserved under a modern church today, but it was once part of a church which commemorated Jesus’ feeding of the 5000.
Behind the story about Jesus using five loaves and two small fish to feed a multitude in the wilderness lies the harsh reality of life under military occupation by a foreign empire. The Roman occupation was one of the basic facts of life for Jews in ancient Palestine: and it was a reality that challenged their sense of identity and destiny.
Occupation by foreign powers tends to have that effect, as can be observed in more recent experiences of occupation and exploitation. As we have seen in the emergence of militant fundamentalism in so many different religious communities, the “occupation” can be cultural or economic and need not involve a direct military presence. After an initial response of retreat and seeming decline, a repressed culture can sometimes resurge with a fresh vision and a renewed sense of identity.
Like their modern counterparts in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, many Jews during the Second Temple period looked forward to a time when the people of God would not suffer under the yoke of foreign domination. Many held to an apocalyptic form of eschatology that helped to explain the present predicament while also promising a better outcome through a sudden divine reversal of their circumstances, and some actively resisted by force of arms.
Jesus’ disciples and the earliest Christians more generally, would have included people who held each of these views.
While there was an upsurge of messianic expectation among Jewish people in this period, there were great variations in this expectation of a messiah. Groups such as the Qumran community by the Dead Sea expected both the traditional royal/military savior as well as a second priestly/religious one.
What all these ideas had in common was a divinely anointed figure sent to rescue Israel from oppression. The Messiah (Gk, christos) was not necessarily expected to perform miracles but, as Chapman (The Orphan Gospel, 1993:49ff) points out, the Messiah was expected to rescue God’s people from oppression. In many cases, this expectation took the form of a “second Moses” (cf Deuteronomy 18.15).
There were three possible signs by which people expected to tell that the new Moses had come amongst them (see the examples cited in Chapman, 1993:53f):
- victory over the turbulent waters
- giving of the Law
- miraculous feeding with “bread from heaven”
The following citation from a rabbinic commentary in the 4C CE captures these expectations nicely:
Rabbi Berekia said in the name of Rabbi Jicchaq:
As the first redeemer [Moses] so the last redeemer [the Christ].
As it is said of the first redeemer:
And Moses took his wife and his sons and had them ride on an ass (Exod. 4.20),
so the last redeemer, for it is said: Lowly, and riding on an ass (Zech. 9.9).
As the first redeemer caused manna to come down,
for it is said: Lo, I cause bread to rain down upon you from heaven (Exod. 16.4),
so the last redeemer will cause manna to come down,
for it is said: White bread will lie upon the earth (Ps 72.16, Midrash).
As the first redeemer caused the well to spring forth (Num. 20.11),
so the last redeemer will cause water to spring forth,
for it is said: And a fountain will break forth out of the house of Yahweh. (Joel 3.18).
This citation also illustrates the pesher interpretation of biblical texts which was so popular in ancient times. With such an approach to the sacred texts, phrases could be lifted out of context and seen as timeless aphorisms that spoke directly to the contemporary situation of the reader. It is helpful to keep this style of biblical interpretation in mind, when pondering the way in which the first Christians understood the Hebrew Bible and applied its phrases to aspects of the life of Jesus.
Related to such an approach to sacred tradition is the interest in symbolic numbers. Just as the number “666” sends a shiver down the spine of the Christian person, so the pious Jew of ancient times would respond to the symbolic power of numbers. Key numbers included five, seven and twelve.
The symbolism of the feeding miracle is especially developed in John 6 with its extended discourse by Jesus on himself as the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to all who eat it. Such a line of thought cannot be plausibly attributed to Jesus, but it does reveal the increasingly complex ways in which 1C Christians began to reflect on the meaning of Jesus.
While the symbolic significance of Jesus feeding the multitudes in the wilderness with miraculous bread is clear, the historicity of the account is problematic.
Although the miracle of the loaves is the only miracle to be reported in all four Gospels, the Jesus Seminar voted every occurence of this tradition BLACK; an entirely negative assessment. It did allow a GRAY vote for the proposition that “A group of at least 500 people participated in a visionary experience, which came to be regarded as an appearance of the risen Jesus. [1 Cor 15:6]”
Gerd Lüdemann (Jesus, 45) offers the following historical judgment of the account in Mark 6: “The formation of this story derives from the needs of the community. Its historical value is nil. Anyone is free to accept the table fellowship of Jesus and his followers as a starting point for the rise of this story. But that is rather different from the feeding of the 5000.”
Even John P. Meier shies away from the miraculous element of this tradition. In Marginal Jew (II,966) he suggests that the Gospel stories of Jesus feeding a multitude preserve a tradition about “some especially memorable communal meal of bread and fish” but does not think it possible to offer a judgment on whether anything miraculous was involved in the meal event. See pp. 950-967 for his complete discussion.
The distinctive features of John’s version of this well-known tradition have also attracted some comment, and these are reviewed at length by Raymond Brown (Gospel of John AB 29, 236-50). The following elements are peculiar to John’s version of the story:
- Passover timing of the miracle
- Identification of Philip and Andrew
- Some specific terms used: paidarion (“lad”), barley loaves, and opsarion (“dried fish”)
- Marked eucharistic features
- Pressure to proclaim Jesus as a king
The eucharistic features of the account in John are especially interesting, as they possibly involve parallels with the OT story of Elisha feeding a crowd with barley loaves:
A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the LORD, ‘They shall eat and have some left.'” He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD. (2Kings 4:42-44 NRSV)
Brown notes that there may also be some link to the tradition found in the Didache:
And with regard to the fragmented Bread:
“We thank you, our Father,
for the life and knowledge
which you have made known to us
through Jesus your servant.
To you be glory forever.
/4/ As this < … > lay scattered upon the mountains
and became one when it had been gathered,
so may your church be gathered into your kingdom
from the ends of the earth. (Did 9:3-4) [Hermenia]
Brown (p. 248) comments:
Besides the obvious parallels with John’s account in the use of klasma [“fragmented bread”], eucharistein [“give thanks”], synagein [“gather”] (the last of which is peculiar to John’s multiplication account), we should note that only John emphasizes that the multiplication took place on a mountain, and only John mentions the theme of Jesus as king (vs. 15).
Gospel: Jesus calms the stormy sea
For material relating to the calming of the sea in the second half of this week’s Gospel see:
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.