The types of things that were talked about in church when I was growing up often had to do with personal morality - how I spent my time, how I thought, how I related to the people close to me. But in recent years, I’ve been made more and more aware of systems and how deeply they still affect me and the people close to me. For example, the reality of systemic racism was something that, in my privilege, I was not aware of for a long time. When I finally did begin to understand it, my entire lens for looking at the world changed. It made me aware of my privilege, and the more I learned the more I realized how pervasive and far-reaching systemic racism is; how everyone is adversely affected by it. I realized that we are all sick with the disease of systemic racism and we need to start doing something. Even if I were to choose to deny there is a problem and attempt to hide behind the privilege of my white skin, it wouldn’t change the fact that I’m sick as well and need a doctor.
I think the older I get, the more aware I become of the water I’m swimming in, and how all these systems that we operate in deeply affect our personal lives.
We talked about patriarchy two weekends ago and the way this system divides everyone into a binary, where one half is taught to repress their emotions and live in a trance state to retain power, and the other half learns to lie and manipulate the system in order to take back power. It’s become clearer and clearer to me how extensive and destructive the system of patriarchy has been to me and everyone I know.
The system I want to talk about here is capitalism.
Our text, from John 6, actually forces us to think about it. This particular system has taught me to live in a state of perpetual need (not just want...I perceive my wants as needs). It’s taught me that everything has a price and a value, and the more insidious part of it is that I’ve internalized this not only for objects but for myself. This translates to the belief that “my value is determined by the quality of my work or talent.” Every structure we live in, (including the church) has some sort of hierarchy that we can move up in if we work hard and play the game right, which usually involves more money, leverage, power, and freedom.
And all of it has begun to feel just completely overwhelming and toxic - like my system is finally rejecting it and I just want to vomit it all out. My default when I wake up in the morning is the assumption that I am not good enough; that I need to work harder, be better, earn my right to live. And while I’m doing that, repress all my emotions so I can appear to be in control.
I feel really lucky to have people in my life and authors I can read who have helped me start disentangling myself from these systems and narratives. Being a part of the Sanctuary community is one of the things that has really helped me, but I am struck especially by these stories about Jesus. As I was spending time with this story in particular this week, I was thinking how badly we need these Jesus stories. Everybody needs these stories - it’s like we’re all sick and being poisoned, and here is the antidote, imbedded in these 2,000 year old documents.
THE SCANDAL OF FREE FOOD
There is a theme throughout the Bible that I find really fascinating, and that is the giving out of free food. One particular detail shows up in all these accounts too: there’s always a lot of it.
It’s never rationed or measured. It’s always more than enough.
In the story of the Exodus, the Israelites find themselves in the wilderness and hungry, and God sends food from the sky. It’s a cool story, because there’s a detail included in it that nobody could save the food or pack it away, because it would go bad overnight. I was thinking about what a great opportunity for profit it could be to collect all the food and then sell it at a marked-up price (that IS capitalism in a nutshell), which is exactly what God does not allow for in this story. The food comes regularly, there’s more than enough for everybody, and then it goes bad. You eat till your full, and then trust that more will come tomorrow. Then there is of course Jesus’ famous Passover meal with his disciples, meant to commemorate and celebrate the Exodus, an event which Jesus adds new meaning to. And finally there is this final meal talked about in Revelation, where everyone will be with God, and the feast is described as a wedding feast - the type of Jewish wedding feast that lasts a really long time and food and wine keep coming.
In the middle of all that is this story from John 6, which the author very deliberately points out is also close to Passover. I love it because we get kind of an insider perspective with this story. Jesus almost seems to be messing with his disciples and lets them grapple with the problem of thousands of people coming out to the countryside with nothing to eat. One of his disciples, Philip, attacks this problem through the lens of capitalism and cost and value. He actually does the math! “Lets see…...for everyone to get a small portion of food, with the average person making about this much a week, we would have to save all our wages for 6 months, and even that would probably not buy what we need.” Jesus lets his disciples do the math and reach a point of helplessness and resignation before performing this miracle of multiplication. Everyone got “as much as they wanted.”
Again, not rationed, not portioned out, as much as they want.
For me, I couldn’t care less about the miracle. I’m not particularly interested in that discussion, or the historical accuracy of it all. I’m past the point of pretending to think that I can know anything with absolute certainty. What I am interested in is how Jesus rejects this entire system of value and cost and worth. And I am also interested in the way that the early church emphasized this as who Jesus was. The author of this gospel wants to make it very clear what Jesus thinks of capitalism.
There is nothing more threatening to that system than just giving valuable things away for free.
I can imagine someone saying, “doesn’t Jesus know it’s just going to make those poor people lazier? If they get used to free stuff, then they’re going to look to me to take care of them from my hard-earned wages!” There is also this suspicion that comes up when we are enmeshed in this system that if something is free, it can’t be good. There has to be something wrong with it. “Who is paying for this? Is this a conspiracy? Am I being poisoned!?” I certainly feel this suspicion sometimes. If someone gives their time or skills to me for free, or if they pass on something valuable, I often feel myself getting uncomfortable or suspicious.
GIVING WORTH TO THE WORTHLESS
This raises an important question though, because the author of John’s gospel deliberately includes a detail that the other Gospel writers don’t. They write that this is not just any bread, it is barley bread, which was essentially Wonder Bread. It was the cheap stuff. There’s definitely a special place in my heart for Wonder Bread, but it’s not what wealthy people get. Or people who highly prioritize expensive bread in their budget (guilty). Barley bread was what poor people ate, and it was what farmers used as animal feed often. Stale leftover Wonder Bread. Which makes it so interesting the amount of concern and care Jesus gives to not wasting any of it. He tells his disciples “gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” Here’s all this free barley bread, and yet Jesus treats it like it may as well be left-overs from Canlis. It’s like the kind of thing a dad would say: “Make sure you get all of it this dinner cost me a fortune!”
Only this dinner didn’t cost anything.
I can’t help but wonder what Jesus’ actions meant - what he was trying to convey. Maybe Jesus wants to show a different way of looking at the world. Maybe he saw something that nobody else could see - that what society views as valuable and worthwhile maybe doesn’t matter, and the things and the people that are ignored or forgotten are precious.
Jesus seems to be deliberately flipping their system of value.
Lately, I’ve been trying to allow myself to explore what it looks like to create songs and share them with people. That by itself has been hard, because we are taught by our culture that things that give us pleasure are indulgent. Music and art probably won’t result in a livable wage, so therefore the time you give to it is being wasted. I’m still dealing with that whole narrative, but then I discovered a new one: all the measures of success that pop out of nowhere once you are actually pursuing something. Part of me knows that all these measures and standards are fabricated and hold no meaning, and yet I’m so tempted to give them meaning. Where did this conviction come from that we have to earn our happiness, gain the approval of certain people, and make a certain amount of money before we feel ok about ourselves? We can accept this conviction as reality, just part of the water we are swimming in, or we can trace these beliefs back to the systems they were born from, which turn out to be just one way of thinking and living in the world. And we may even decide that it is the wrong way to think and live in the world.
JESUS IS NOT OUR PROJECTION
I appreciate this story from John, because I think the reactions of people around Jesus are very illuminating for looking at myself. There is first skepticism that there is any other system outside of the value system we’ve created. (ie. Jesus producing free food for thousands of people) Then when Jesus breaks through that skepticism, we see the desire to use him to serve their own political agenda. They see the correlation to Moses and the Exodus in what Jesus does, and they have their own political oppressors. So naturally…...they want to make Jesus their revolutionary leader.
But I think the final story really makes clear what is going on. The disciples are caught in a storm in the middle of this huge lake and they see something they can’t explain. Jesus doesn’t fit in any sort of framework for what is possible, so they are afraid. I think that really sums up everyone’s reaction to Jesus in this story. They have no framework for understanding him, which means that they are not in control, which means they feel vulnerable, which is terrifying. Fear is a natural reaction to the unknown. It’s why people stay in terrible jobs, abusive relationships, and bad living situations. It may be bad, but at least it’s familiar.
There is a particular dialogue that I find illuminating - one that comes after our reading. The crowds find Jesus again and some of them start talking to Jesus. They see what he did as valuable and so, naturally, they ask: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” This has value, and therefore requires work. “How do I earn this thing that you have?” So Jesus responds, more or less, “just believe me.” There is N\no task, no job, no way to earn it - just believe. And it’s crazy how quickly they flip. Suddenly, now that there is no value or cost associated with Jesus, they are skeptical. They go from wholeheartedly embracing Jesus to saying, “Prove it.” Prove that you are not lying to us, because this is too good to be true.
We are so used to applying worth to everything and everyone through cost that the experience of grace is a frightening unknown that feels too good to be true.
But then Jesus says something weird. He looks at them and says, “I am the bread.”
“Tear me apart and eat me.”
It doesn’t seem like they get it. I’m not sure I even get it. But it takes us to the last Passover meal he had with his disciples. It takes us to this thing that we do every Sunday to remind ourselves of an alternative vision of reality. Jesus seems to be saying, There is actually IS a cost, but I’m the one who is paying it. And I’m doing it in your place, giving you my place of privilege in return.
That changes things. When I am working in my cafe and a friend comes in who I want to treat to a free drink, I can say nonchalantly, “Oh I got this” as a way to say it’s free. There is a big difference between that, however, and my saying “Oh I got this” while I reach into my tip jar and take out the appropriate amount of money to pay for it. People go crazy if they see me making a sacrifice for them. Even for just a $2 drink! There is something about someone seeing me physically pull out my hard-earned tips to pay for their drink that just makes them crazy inside.Suddenly there is a cost and a value associated with it, and they can’t bear to have someone else shoulder that cost in their place.
I don’t know what is more difficult - the concept of giving something valuable away for free, or the concept of paying for something on someone else’s behalf. But it seems like Jesus is making us confront BOTH of those realities.
Everybody needs these stories of Jesus and this vision of reality. But if we are reading as Christians, somehow able to entertain the idea that when we look at Jesus, we are also getting a glimpse of what God is like, then it changes from just being a helpful tool, to being too good to be true. We cannot earn or work for our acceptance by God, but Jesus has earned it for us. There is no hierarchy, there is no one below or above us, and the system of worth and value and cost is meaningless. Opening myself up to this does something weird inside of me. I can tell when I’m firmly embedded in the philosophy of capitalism because I feel like there are limited resources, and I realize I’m not giving anything away. I’ll realize I haven’t given any money away for months, and I haven’t given my time away unless it’s somehow benefited me. My whole life is driven by transactions and balances of worth. But when I’m living out this alternative reality, something strange happens. It doesn’t feel like there are limited resources. I’m able to be more generous, but I also notice all the generosity that I receive. I find myself spending time with people I wouldn’t normally spend time with, who don’t really seem to have anything of worth to give me and yet I feel fuller and more human after being with them.
I wish I lived in this world more often. I don’t know why I don’t. For some reason, I keep returning to the lie that I must earn my worth, stash away my resources, and protect myself. And then I encounter Jesus, who invites me into a different world altogether. I think this is why we are meant to live in community - to remind each other that the reality we perceive is not always the reality we are living in. Perhaps the universe is much more generous, forgiving, and accepting than we realize.