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Herb Montgomery | July 23, 2021
“This is telling. Very few things Christians have deemed greatly important appear in all four gospels. Even the virgin birth only shows up in one gospel, and is implied in both Matthew and Luke. Mark and John, on the other hand, thought Jesus followers did not even need to know about the virgin birth. But the gospels give us six versions of this story of resource-sharing so that there was enough for everyone, even with left overs. That speaks to me of how central resource-sharing was to the early Jesus movement.”
Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near. When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading. (John 6:1-20)
Among the canonical gospels, there are six versions of this story. Five are in the synoptics, originating in Mark’s version (Mark 6, Mark 8, Matthew 14, Matthew 15, and Luke 9). The sixth version is found here in John.
Most Jesus scholars see evidence that Matthew’s and Luke’s versions were copied from Mark’s telling of this story. John’s version is quite different than Mark’s, leading some scholars to believe that both versions may have had a common ancestor, a version that existed in the early oral tradition. We still don’t know today for sure, but it is clear that each version of the Jesus story contains the story of Jesus’ community sharing resources.
This is telling. Very few things Christians have deemed greatly important appear in all four gospels. Even the virgin birth only shows up in one gospel, and is implied in both Matthew and Luke. Mark and John, on the other hand, thought Jesus followers did not even need to know about the virgin birth.
But the gospels give us six versions of this story of resource-sharing so that there was enough for everyone, even with left overs. That speaks to me of how central resource-sharing was to the early Jesus movement.
Rooted in the economics of the Hebrew manna story, where those who gathered much shared with those who didn’t have as much (see Exodus 16), the ethic of resource-sharing was recorded as the first act Jesus followers took after Pentecost.
“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41-47, emphasis added.)
We read of this ethic a second time in the book of Acts in chapter 4:
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4.32-35, emphasis added.)
This social consciousness appears to be part of the fabric of what it meant to follow Jesus early on.
We find a different spin on this story in the gospel of John.
John takes this story with its emphasis on a young person who chose to share what he had and whose resources Jesus blessed to become enough for everyone in the community, and then transforms it into a story of Jesus doing miracle work. Rather than the story staying a story about people sharing what they have with one another, the author of John evolves it into a story about the supernatural power of Jesus.
Consider this phrase in John’s version of the story:
“After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”
John’s version becomes a prophetic warning against what we, looking back after the fact, see has become of the Jesus community and the imperial powers of the state that has sought to co-opt the Christian religion in repeated generations and repeated expressions. I think of how Christianity has been used by the Christian Right here in the U.S. to gain power to push racist, classist, sexist, and cis-heterosexist political policies in our era. I’m disgusted each time I think of how flags were carried by White Christians alongside their Trump flags as they violently stormed the U.S. capitol building on January 6, all because of a lie that somehow an election process that also installed Republicans in various elected positions on the same ballots was mysteriously “stollen.” As Miguel A. De La Torre wrote in his recent book Decolonizing Christianity, “We focus on the Trump presidency because probably no other president has wrapped himself so fervently in both the flag and the cross, merging the two with himself and the Republican Party.” (p. 15)
Since his life and death, Jesus has repeatedly been “taken” and used to by those who wished to have the power of a “king”. Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglass writes, “Unjust social relationality is not effectively sustained solely, if at all, through the use of brutal force.” She stresses that power, “particularly inequitable power, is not coercive or even repressive. Rather, it is productive. Power’s productive character begins with a ‘will to knowledge.’ That is, power itself generates the kind of knowledge it needs to be sustained. It enlists various communities of authority, such as the scientific and religious communities, to provide the knowledge base to legitimize the social, political, and institutional constructs of power itself.” (Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 72-73, emphasis added)
Various expressions of Christianity have likewise been complicit in seizing power. Powerful Christians have cooperated with harmful social and political structures that are rooted in distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and more.
In using Jesus to gain political power, both Christians and non-Christians reject the Jesus of this story who himself rejected attempts to seize power and isolated himself so he could not be found and used. Ched Myers rightly perceives, “The truth is, the ‘battle for the Bible’ [the battle over how one interprets the Bible] today has increasingly less to do with theological divisions and allegiances and more to do with political and economic allegiances.” (Ched Myers; Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, p. 10.) Senator and Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock stated similarly; speaking last year at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, Warnock said, “You are not following God when you allow your profit motive to silence your prophet motive.” That ‘profit motive” can be about money, but can also be about both money and political power.
As Jesus followers, we have to allow ourselves to be confronted by how we could be allowing or even participating in people taking the Jesus of these stories and using him today, instead of using the stories to support, or and bring liberation to those within our society deemed as “the least of these.”
1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
2. What would a Christianity whose emphasis is about resource-sharing in our world look like for you? What harmful fruit have you witnessed from Christianity’s political power grab in our society? Discuss with your group.
3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?
Thanks for checking in with us, today.
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week