Saturday Night Theologian
30 July 2006

2 Kings 4:42-44

In 1729, Jonathan Swift, after considering the dire straits of the poor in Ireland, offered a "Modest Proposal" for their relief.

It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants: who as they grow up either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.

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I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

Swift's "Proposal" was satirical, of course. It was intended to call the desperate situation of the Irish poor to the mind of the relatively well-to-do English, many of whom were as unconcerned about the Irish children as they might have been about the Irish dogs. If there wasn't enough food to go around, why not just eat the excess children, Swift asks? After all, the reality of the situation was that many of those children would die of starvation anyway, and few of the English would have cared, according to Swift's assessment. Unfortunately, the situation is much the same today in the United States, except perhaps it is worse in some ways. It continues to be true that the typical American shows little concern for the poor around the world. Sure, periodic outpourings of generosity occur, such as support for the victims of the tsunami in Southeast Asia or the victims of the earthquake in Pakistan, but the daily, grinding poverty that takes the lives of hundreds or thousands every day in Africa especially, though also in parts of Asia and Latin America, passes almost without notice. The prophet Elisha in today's reading from 2 Kings takes food that has been offered to him as a man of God and miraculously multiples it so that it is enough to feed a hundred. In the face of ongoing hunger, where even in the U.S. one in ten households do not have enough to eat, what are we as Christians doing to meet this need? When our political leaders run on platforms of cutting taxes, and thus cutting food support for the poor, and we continue to elect them, both they and we are to blame for poverty in the U.S. When our representatives and senators spend something like forty times as much on the military and warfare than on direct foreign aid, their priorities are askew, and our are, too, when we support them. Hunger stalks the world like a ravenous wolf, devouring the very young, the very old, and the weakest among us. We need more Elishas to multiply the food that we have in our hands and share it with them.

Psalm 145:10-18

As the ongoing tragedy in Lebanon continues, I feel the greatest sympathy for the civilians on both sides of this conflict, in Israel and Lebanon, who are suffering for the sins of others. Lebanon is a beautiful and diverse country, known in biblical times for its vast cedar forests and the wealth it derived from trade (as part of Phoenicia). In more recent times it was known as being the most diverse country in the Middle East in terms of religious background. According to the U.S. State Department's statistics, about 40% of the citizens of voting age are Christians, divided among Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox (Jacobites), Assyrians (Nestorians), Copts, and various other groups representing the evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions. About 52% of the people are Muslims, and they are about equally divided between Sunnis and Shiites. For years Beirut was considered the Paris of the Middle East, a beautiful, diverse, peaceful city in which people of different backgrounds lived together in relative harmony. Of course, that hasn't been the case for two or three decades now, and recent, tentative steps in that direction have now been beaten back by the latest conflict. Still, there is hope for the people of Lebanon, if the warmongers on both sides of the conflict, and all their political supporters around the world, will realize that peace is better for all concerned than war. The psalmist says, "The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down." May God raise up the fallen people of Lebanon, and restore peace and tranquility to the land, a peace that they will share with their neighbors Israel and Palestine.

Ephesians 3:14-21

In the 1970s there was a show on TV for a few years called Love, American Style. Every episode consisted of a series of short sketches, played by a variety of actors, that dealt with "love" in a humorous way. Much of the comedy was based on the changing sexual morés, the sexual revolution, changing gender roles, and a new awareness of sexuality in the wake of books by Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson. While the show certainly dealt with sex in a new and comical way, it is questionable how much the show had to do with love. In today's reading from Ephesians, Paul is presented as praying that the recipients of the letter may "know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." In Greek, the word translated "of Christ" in the phrase "love of Christ" can be taken either as a subjective or an objective genitive, as it also can in English. Does the passage refer to the love that Christ has for people (subjective)? If so, we can draw the lesson that if we want to know how to love, we need to observe Christ in his dealings with his disciples and other followers, and even more in his dealings with the common people, his opponents, and even his persecutors. If, on the other hand, the passage refers to the love that believers have for Christ (objective), we can apply the passage by noting that loving Christ is more important for Christians than simply attaining knowledge about him. Too much time in spent in churches today cranking out people who know all about Jesus but whose lives don't reflect a commitment to following his teachings. People who get all bent out of shape about those whose picture of Christ is inaccurate (e.g., the image found in The Da Vinci Code) but care little or nothing about supposedly orthodox believers who have no concern for the poor and suffering around the world have their priorities all wrong. So is the genitive subjective or objective? Maybe it's intentionally ambiguous! Certainly one can draw meaningful lessons from either case, and in the end, that matters more than finally determining the "correct" interpretation.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

John 6:1-21

An old story tells of two shoe salesmen who were sent by their company to a region in Africa where everyone went barefoot. One salesman dejectedly informed his superiors, "We might as well forget these people. No one here wears shoes." The other salesman elatedly informed the company, "Send as many shoes as you can as quickly as you can. Everyone here needs shoes!" How we view a problem makes a world of difference in our ability to solve the problem. Jesus' disciples were faced with a big problem. They were surrounded by thousands of people with a common problem: they were all hungry. Philip saw the problem and despaired. "Two hundred denarii (six months' wages) would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." He saw that the solution to the problem required a massive outlay of cash, and he knew the little band of itinerants didn't have that much money, so he pretty much gave up. Andrew, on the other hand, knew the problem as well as Philip, but he reacted differently. Finding a boy who had five barley loaves and a couple of fish with him, he brought him to Jesus as part of the solution. He knew the boy didn't have enough to feed everyone, but he figured at least it was a step in the direction of a solution to the problem. He didn't know how right he was. Jesus miraculously multiplied both the bread and the fish, and Philip's (and the boy's) small contribution ended up being not just the first step toward a solution, but the entire basis for the ultimate solution: feeding everyone there. People with positive attitudes accomplish more than people with negative attitudes. They might not succeed in finding a workable solution to every problem, but they'll find more solutions than people who give up when the problem looks overwhelming. Lao Tzu said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. If Christians will remember the wisdom of Lao Tzu, we will be well on the way to solving even the most intractable problems we face.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.