MAKE HIM A KING

It was a game. It was a game of cruelty. It was called basilinda. The word from Greek for “King.” The Romans had two kinds of games by this title. One was a harmless family game where lots were drawn and a child was made “king for a day” that allowed it to then give orders and rewards to other children playing.

The other was a parody of the being a King. It was played by soldiers who made up the death squad for a convicted criminal. A condemned man would be taken to torture before being executed if the soldiers were feeling particularly vindictive. The lots (made of knuckle bones) were tossed and the condemned man moved from place to place on the board. At one spot a prisoner might be slapped. Another spot might cause the the soldiers to kneel in mocking homage. One space required a robe be placed on the prisoner. Yet, another a crown of thorns. And eventually the prisoner would be advanced on the board to a final place. An image of a sword served as the finishing point where a non-Roman would be taken off to be crucified.

I know it sounds familiar. It is what is being described in the gospel accounts of the torture of Jesus of Nazareth before his own crucifixion. And yes, civilized Rome, with its genius of Law and Order bringing peace to a chaotic world allowed it to happen. Soldiers played the game. Prisoners watched. Pontius Pilate himself may have watched many men be treated this way. It sounds like something that responsible people could not let happen. And yet it did. It was not only in one place either. It did not happen to only one person. It was one of the perks of the job.

Once, during a Bible study discussion, a class member asked why would anyone describe that? Another student answered, to show how brutal civilization is.

I once stood on ancient flagstones in the old city of Jerusalem and saw the markings for this game. No, I do not claim to have stood where Jesus stood. The best dates given for these stones’ placement as pavement is the second century A.D. But, the game was far older.

It often eludes Christians on Good Friday that Jesus did not die in any special way. The gospel writers gave us the accounts of what could happen to any carpenter under Roman suspicion. What happened to Jesus was not cosmic child abuse. It was not murder of an innocent for the sake of the guilty. It was a murder that exposed the evil and violence that made the “Peace of Rome” and the “Sanctity of the Temple” possible. Jesus died for the very things he taught.

One cannot read the Beatitudes and ponder them very long without realizing the world will try to destroy anyone who puts them into practice. Eventually there will be conflict with what humans think will get them whatever it is they believe they want. The fourth gospel is clear that Jesus is not a sacrifice for sin. He is the paschal lamb that overcomes the sin of the world. He becomes a symbol of liberation. He is a liberation from the world’s ways. Then, he gives us the ways of heaven.

The season of the great fast of Lent is approaching. How often do we believe punishment should be the goal of justice? How angry do we get when we see evil being done and then catch ourselves wanting a greater evil to be done in response to it? Are we ready to give up such desires so that we may find ways to bless those who need blessing? Can we drop the focus on those who do evil? Can we begin to focus on being with the victims? With whom did Jesus die? Didn’t one of those get a promise of Paradise?

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FIVE THOUSAND FED BY FIVE THOUSAND?

I find it very important when a story is given to us in each of the four canonical gospels. Each time the story is nuanced. The stories of the Resurrection of Jesus are important to the writers and for some reason or reasons they are significantly different. The story of Jesus feeding a mass of people (Mark gives us two accounts) is interesting for the implications and warnings that surround it.

The feeding of the five thousand story is important to the early church. Why? Well, it can be argued that it is a miracle story. Jesus performs an amazing sign or wonder. And it is an amazing miracle when we consider it in all of the ways one can view it. Each writer puts it in context of the particular way he tells the story of the gospel. The story is important to the ministry of Jesus in history that the elements of story telling can be read together to think about it as an event. And an interpreter can try to understand its’ significance for the story of the church in the early centuries of Christianity. What amazes me is that all four writers are doing all of these things.

I wish to consider it as an event and to explain the miracle of the event itself. I do not view this event as a miracle that destroys the physical law of the conservation of mass and energy. I believe this event to be a miracle of the opening of the human heart.

Look at the action. We have loaves and fish. Where do they come from? My best guess is wherever loaves and preserved fish come from. I don’t mean that in a flippant sense. Think about how blandly ordinary the situation here is. Bread and fish. Typical food. Some of the writers identify a boy bringing these “five loaves and two fish.” One does not mention the boy at all and just names the gift. Curious. But, before the food is found or offered the Apostles protest Jesus’ instruction that they feed the crowd. The response, “we do not have that much money?” The Apostles see the problem. Who has the kind of resources needed to feed such a crowd? Surely no one there does. So it cannot be done.

The Apostles recognized the problem before Jesus asked. They were likely tired and hungry themselves. They asked Jesus to send the people away so the people could eat. Jesus tells them to feed the five thousand. Jesus asked the apparently impossible after the Apostles determine that it is indeed impossible. That is the point of their whole appeal to Jesus.

Now we should ask an important question. How did it come about that the boy had food? I can remember a childhood Sunday school lesson about a mother packing her son a lunch so he could go listen to Jesus preach. It sounded suspect to me. It sounded just like a mom packing lunch and sending a kid to school. Some brilliant writer was telling us this is what happened so we could relate to it. There is an interpretive insight here I will get back to later.

It is an impression the Apostles in the narrative give us that the people need to go buy food. Modern American church people will relate to this by knowing that the service on Sunday better end so we can get to a restaurant to buy food. But, consider this. People had plenty of common sense in first century Judea and Galilee. No one in their right mind would have gone into the wilderness without food and water. Jesus did it for forty days in a fast. But, otherwise people simply did not do that. It was not and is not a smart thing to do. So, here is a boy who has food because that is what a wise person would have done. I find the odds against one in five thousand persons bringing that much food.

What is happening here? The boy brings an offering to the Apostles. Whether he is alone or that his family with him decided to offer is unknown to us. Yet, Jesus receives the food and blesses the gift and begins to divide it. And suddenly there is enough food eaten with “twelve basket fulls leftover.” Let us now ask a question. Did the twelve apostles each carry a basket? Where did the baskets come from? Jesus did not suddenly create too much food and the baskets to hold the leftovers. Jesus opened the hearts of five thousand people to share the food they brought into the wilderness. Jesus knew in the midst of a place of scarcity plenty was being brought. And he realized he was the only person there who could see it. He had a God’s-eye view of the situation. It is strange how the ordinary can become miraculous.

When the fourth gospel tells the story there is a different understanding. The crowds return the next day. In fact, they pursue Jesus. When they catch up to him, Jesus explains the miracle of bread in the wilderness which is described in the book of Exodus in the Law of Moses. The writer of this gospel whom tradition calls John explains a mystical connection between the miracles of bread in the wilderness to embodying the life of Jesus himself with the example of Holy Communion.

This is a connection that the early church was to understand and when the churches in Corinth did not no less a person than St. Paul explained that the food of the common meal and Holy Communion were meant to be offered and shared. The mystery of the altar – the communion table – is the opening of the heart to Jesus and his way of the community of God. It is the same mystery as in the miracle of feeding five thousand people.

Years ago, I served at a church that had an annual Thanksgiving meal for the people served at our local food bank. Three hundred people came and ate with us. One person said to me afterwards. “We have two whole turkeys left we never even cut up. I thought we would run out of food?” I reminded her of the story of five loaves and two fish. She seemed taken aback. Did we just witness a miracle? Yes. But not like she was thinking. We briefly got a God’s-eye view of what was possible.