Losing the Way Part I:  Faith Bread and Water:  Proper 10, Year B

2 Samuel 6:1-5; 12b-19; Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 24; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

This week’s readings from 2 Samuel and Mark seem to be most concerned with history remembered.  David is still in the process of setting up his own capital City, and wants to bring the Ark of the Covenant there.  After Mark’s Jesus sent his followers out with no bread, no bag, and no money, Mark seems to feel a need to deal with John the Baptist, who has been languishing in Herod Antipas’s jail.  While these stories may be more accurately thought of as“legend transmitted,” they are definitely about verifiable, filmable fact – whether they actually happened as recorded or not.

If we read the whole episode of David’s establishment of the Ark in Jerusalem, some fascinating details come into focus (see 1 Samuel 5-7:2).  First, the Philistines had captured the Ark, but their own god Dagon kept falling on his face before it at night, and the people developed tumors, and a plague of mice descended on their land.  Accordingly, the Philistines could not get rid of it fast enough.  So they hooked up a couple of milk cows to a cart (after making sure their calves were safely penned up) and sent them off at a cross-roads without a driver to see if the cows would head for Israel on their own.  They did.  The people of Israel welcomed the Ark, and someone named Eleazar was ordained to take care of it.  Fast forward 20 years to David’s plan to move the Ark into his own City.  What gets left out of the reading is the death of one of the men escorting the Ark (who may have been Eleazar), and David’s reluctance to bring such a ritually dangerous object into the City.  When he does bring it in, there is even more dancing, and a protective sacrifice performed about every six paces.  Finally, there is a great feast, and “Then all of the people went back to their homes.”

But that’s not the end of the story.  Michal – Saul’s daughter, a marriage gift to David – objects to David’s profligate celebration along the whole route the Ark takes to its new tent.  David in turn reminds Michal that the celebration is in honor of Israel’s God, who anointed him king in place of Saul.  David’s retort has the effect of a curse.  Michal had no children, and none of Saul’s descendants was allowed to contaminate David’s lineage.  

When the stories from Mark and 2 Samuel are placed side-by-side, the case for Jesus as a descendent from an unblemished line leading back to King David is strengthened.  What we don’t realize, if we stick to the Elves’ curriculum, is that the story of the death of John the Baptist is bracketed by the sending out and the return to base of the disciples of John’s replacement.  In addition, the Elves have eliminated two crucial elements from Mark’s story:  “the feeding of the five thousand,” and the “miracle” of Jesus walking on the water.  Instead the Elves shift to the version in the Gospel of John for the next month (from Propers 12 to 16).  I suggest that the reason for this is the orthodox interpretation and belief attached to those stories.  We will explore this point in upcoming commentaries, along with the accompanying readings from pseudo-Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

Meanwhile, what was Mark attempting to show us with this pattern?  John the Baptist, whom Herod was half-inclined to follow, was murdered to appease Herod’s wife.  Some people spread the rumor that John was Elijah.  Some said that John had been raised from the dead, including – as Mark tells the story – Herod himself:  “John, the one I beheaded, has been raised!”  But Mark is very clear that John the Baptist was seriously dead.  In a foreshadowing of Jesus’s death, John’s disciples came and got his body and put it in a tomb.  Like a tomb carved from a rock, or established in a cave, the story of Jesus’s disciples encloses John’s death.

The alternative reading for this Sunday is Amos 7:7-15.  God shows him a wall made straight with a plumb line, and stands there with a plumb line in his hand.  Then the false priest Amaziah denounces Amos for prophesying against King Jeroboam.  Amos says he was “a dresser of Sycamore trees” when God chose him to prophesy.  This reading is a typical Elven non-sequitur unless we read on to Chapter 8.  Amos tells the priest that “you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.”  Why?  Because the priest in collaboration with the king has led the people into injustice:  “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them,” God says through Amos, “But let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:22-24).

In the reading for today, God stands with the plumb-line, measuring the righteousness (the integrity) of the wall that is the land of Israel.  John the Baptist, who tried on his own to point the people in the direction of God’s justice, is dead.  Jesus has sent his disciples out to do the work that he has been doing, but they don’t understand.

Unlike David dancing with all his might in celebration of bringing the Ark to Jerusalem, or the Elves’ implied parallelism of Salome’s deadly dance that resulted in the graphic death of John the Baptist, the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’s stroll on the water’s surface are not verifiable, filmable fact.  They are parables Mark tells about Jesus; they are powerful metaphors that illustrated who Jesus was, and what his teaching meant to first-century Jewish exiles from Roman imperialism.  They are just as relevant to 21st Century exiles from Christian hegemony, struggling with contemporary social imperialism.  They tell us how to follow Jesus’s Way into God’s Realm of distributive justice-compassion; how to transform our lives into a collaborative, realized eschatology:  the end of the way humanity has been doing things from the beginning.

Apparently that is not the message the Elves have in mind.  In the readings for Proper 10, right after Jesus has sent his followers out with nothing but a staff and sandals, John the Baptist is dead and entombed, along with his warnings.  Jesus’s followers have come back and reported what they have been doing, and Jesus has taken them to a private retreat on another part of the lake.  But the crowds saw where they went, and got there ahead of them.  Jesus realized that “they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he started teaching them at length.”  The reading ends there.  But what happens next is more important than Jesus teaching the crowd.  He attempts to show his followers how to share what they have with everyone instead of leaving the people on their own “without a shepherd.”  

Jesus’s followers suggest that Jesus send the people away so they can buy food for themselves.  Jesus tells them, “No way.  You feed them.”  Immediately, they make the usual economic objection:  “Are we to go out and buy half a year’s wages worth of bread and donate it for their meal?!”  A contemporary parallel might be, Jesus suggesting an extension of unemployment benefits.  “Are we to pay increased taxes so these dead-beats can spend their unemployment money on drugs?  Six months is plenty of time to find work if you really want it.”

Jesus asks the followers what they have with them.  “Five loaves and two fish.”  Jesus blesses the food, and suddenly everyone has enough and more than enough to eat.  With stunning hyperbole, Mark says the followers collected 12 baskets of leftovers, including some fish.  Perhaps less magically, Jesus’s 21st Century followers reluctantly extend unemployment benefits for an additional three years.  During that time, higher progressive taxes on the wealthy 1% of the population allow a single-payer health care system to be inaugurated.  Prices drop; people spend more money on food, clothing, and shelter; the economy turns around; everyone has what they need.

Mark complains throughout his gospel that Jesus’s followers don’t understand.  Even when Jesus comes walking on the water, they still don’t get it.  Mark parenthetically concludes, “they were being obstinate” (Mark 6:52b).  They knew very well what the truth was, but chose to ignore it.  “. . . [W]e prefer to emphasize a miraculous multiplication which we want but cannot obtain rather than a just distribution which we can obtain but do not want.”  John Dominic Crossan, First Light: Jesus and the Kingdom of God (Living the Questions 2009 Participant Guide, p. 24).

Why do we not want justice?

Mark’s parables are so powerful they appear in all four gospels and in all three lectionary years (Luke does not feature Jesus walking on the water).

        "Matthew’s Jesus is Moses, constantly withdrawing to mountain tops to commune with God, then leading the people through the Dead Sea waters.  Jesus walking on the water evokes God who “tramples on the sea” (Job 9:8), and“[whose] way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen . . . .”  Psalm 77:19.  The hidden realm of God leads us to liberation through uncharted waters, leaving no trace but righteousness (justice-compassion), which creates the path for our steps"  (Liberal Christian Commentary, Proper 14, Year A).

The Baptist worked on his own at the edges of the desert and along the banks of the Jordan River.  When he died, his version of God’s Kingdom died with him.  In John Dominic Crossan’s metaphor, John the Baptist was a monopoly.  Jesus announced at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, after John was arrested, “The time is up!  God’s imperial rule is closing in.  Change your ways, and put your trust in the good news” (Mark 1:15; The Five Gospels translation).  And what was the “good news”?  Not that Jesus had come to save us from hell in the next life, but that God’s imperial rule – God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion – had arrived fully realized in this life here and now.  Then Jesus proceeded to find followers who were willing to be sent out to do the same work Jesus was doing:  healings, exorcisms, and teaching that God’s kingdom had arrived.  All people needed to do was put their trust in that fact, and live their lives according to God’s rule, not Cesar’s.  Jesus started a franchise.  Everyone who joined Jesus on the Way was a full partner in the work.  When Jesus died, the work went on . . . or it would if we could learn to trust the process.

David lost his nerve when Uzzah (Eleazar?) was struck dead by God for touching the Ark.  All Uzzah had wanted to do was steady it because the oxen pulling the cart it was in had jarred it.  After the Philistines had entrusted the Ark to two cows, one might imagine that the priest who was ordained to take care of the Ark would know that God would not allow the Ark to come to any harm.  David is mad at God, but Uzzah was the one who was unable to trust the process.  David then was afraid that he himself or the people in his City would not survive such a requirement.  But once he realized that it was possible to participate in God’s kingdom, he brought the Ark (which of course represented the presence of God) into his own City.  As we have learned in these commentaries, a 21st Century, kenotic god is one whose presence is justice and life, and whose absence is injustice and death.  As we shall see as the Elves continue with David’s saga, all was well so long as David trusted God and maintained God’s justice.

The psalmist asks, “Will God be angry with us forever?”  Will we continue to sell out to the forces of Empire? of piety, war, victory? of retributive judgment and self-serving political expediency?  “ . . . Surely God’s salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.  Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness (justice-compassion) and peace will kiss each other.  Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness (justice-compassion) will look down from the sky.  The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.  Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.”