A Lectionary Reflection on 2 Samuel 11:1-15 and John 6:1-21 for Proper 13B
“Faith is the hand that reaches into the pockets of God and takes out what you need.” So said a preacher at a worship gathering I attended as a student. Although I was wrestling with my own definition of faith, and trying out different expressions of faith, even as I studied for the Methodist ministry, when I heard those words, everything in me reacted with disgust. I couldn’t stop my mind re-interpreting his words to mean that faith simply teaches us to pick God’s pockets. Is that all there is to it? I thought. God as a divine candy machine into which I need only drop a few coins of faith to get whatever I might want?
Perhaps that’s how David had come to view his faith in the God whom he called his Shepherd. Life had been tough for him after he had been anointed Saul’s successor as king, but that was all past now. Now, he was on the throne. He had a palace and an army. He had wives and wealth. Everything was his – a gift, in his eyes, from God. Until the moment when he saw something he wanted that God had not given him: the beautiful Bathsheba, spied from the palace roof as she bathed. But, he was king, after all, which meant that God basically had given her to him if he wanted her – because God had given him the authority that could not be denied. So, he summoned her to his palace, knowing that her husband was away fighting his war, and satisfied his lust.
The Scriptures do not tell us how Bathsheba felt about this. Was she a victim of rape, or was he the prize she had hoped to snare by showing off her nudity in view of the palace? Did she love her husband, or was she grateful to have been wooed by another man? Whatever the case, the power dynamics were certainly in David’s favour, and he should have known better. But, Bathsheba fell pregnant and in response, the king set to work on a secret plan to hide their adultery. He summoned Uriah home, and tried his best to get the man to go home and sleep with his wife. But, either because Uriah did not want to be home, or because of an over-developed sense of duty, he stubbornly disrupted David’s plan. In the end there was only thing left to be done – Uriah would have to be taken out of the picture permanently.
It seems strange that David should have felt the need for all of this secrecy and covering of his tracks. He was king, after all. Before him, Saul had simply taken one of David’s wives away and given her to someone else. Surely David could have done the same thing for himself. Who would have challenged him? Perhaps, on some level, David was still trying to be, or be seen to be, the upright, godly man he liked to think of himself as. Yet, in his quest to satisfy his own self-interest without paying the price, he brought destruction on himself. His reign was never without strife after this, and ultimately the kingdom was divided as the royal family rivalries played out through the generations. David may have wanted to see faith as reaching into the pockets of God (or others, in God’s name), but, if so, he was very, very wrong.
Fast forward to a remote mountainside in Israel where a crowd had gathered to hear a preacher with a reputation for working miracles. Some of them had seen sick people healed. All of them wanted a better life, free from the oppressive Romans and the corrupt religious leaders. But, they were hungry, and that, Jesus must have thought, was not a good thing. So, he challenged his disciples (with a twinkle in his eye, if the Gospel is to be believed) to work out a way to feed the crowd. When they responded with confusion and panic, indicating that the best they could do was to persuade a boy to share his lunch, Jesus stepped in. There is so much that is enigmatic in this story, and that is clearly designed to make a point. If this child had had the foresight to bring food with him, surely others would have as well? Perhaps, they were afraid that if they let on that they had food, then others would expect them to share, and then they wouldn’t have enough for themselves – which would have been an ironic reaction considering the miracles they had already witnessed. But, whatever the physical properties of this miracle may have been, the Gospel writer is clear that this is a sign – a word unique to John that indicates an event that reveals something about Jesus to us. But, what are we meant to understand through this sign?
There is a long interplay in John’s Gospel in which Jesus is compared to Moses. It begins in John 5 when Jesus confronts the people with their unbelief, saying that they should believe in him because they believe in Moses who wrote about him (5:45-47). Then again at the festival in John 7, Jesus challenges the people on their failure to obey the law that Moses gave them. But, here, in chapter 6, the comparison of Jesus with Moses with most explicit. The message is clear – Jesus is not just a prophet like Moses. Jesus is the one who fulfills and supersedes everything that Moses was. As will become even clearer in the walking on water narrative to follow, Jesus is not just a prophet, but the God who spoke through the prophets.
It is significant that the account mentions twelve baskets of left-overs. As Moses fed the twelve tribes in the wilderness with manna, so Jesus feeds the crowds such that everyone (every tribe) has more than enough. Then, to drive the point home, as the disciples struggle on the sea in high winds and waves, Jesus reveals himself to them with the simple two word phrase, “I Am” (ego eimi), which is usually connected by scholars with the tetragrammaton of God’s Name in the Old Testament. The sense of Jesus coming to the fearful disciples and bringing them to safety through the stormy waters is also resonant of Moses liberation of his people through the Red Sea, but again, the implication is that this person is not just another like Moses, but is far greater than Moses – is, in fact, the God of Moses in the flesh.
And, as the Gospel writer makes clear at the end of the Gospel, all of this is written in order to bring to people to faith (John 20:31). But, what kind of faith is the writer seeking to inspire? There is a clear distinction throughout John’s Gospel between the faith that arises from the miracles, and the faith that is rooted in the man, Jesus. John is not interested in a faith that needs a constant stream of miracles to stay strong – a faith that seeks always to reach into the pockets of God and take out what it wants. This is not faith at all for John. This “faith” brings about destruction and separation. This “faith” believes in national or religious exceptionalism, and leads kings to feel justified in taking another man’s wife and arranging his death. This “faith” brings life to no one, and makes the world a place of misery, conflict, division, competing ideologies and violence.
Rather, the faith that John offers us is faith in a person: Jesus. It’s a complete re-orientation of our lives around the values and mission of Jesus, such that we begin to live and speak and prioritise as he did. It’s a faith that leads us to offer our tiny lunch box to feed a crowd, as absurd as that may seem. It’s the faith to walk away from the people who are ready and willing to make you their leader, because you know that what they want is not what you’ve been called to do. It’s faith that knows that self-interest never really satisfies us, but self-giving, love and generosity do. It’s a faith that the David’s of the world would see as useless, self-defeating and just plain stupid. But, it’s the only faith that can lead us to the simplicity that can save our economies and our planet. It’s the only faith that can stop the guns and violence. It’s the only faith that can ensure that every hungry mouth is fed, and that there is still plenty left over.
What good is faith? If it’s just a way to pick God’s pockets. It’s not much good at all. But, if it’s a way to teach us a whole new way of being – the Jesus way – it may just be – along with love, which is the same thing by a different name – the most valuable thing on earth.