Needless to say, I was away from home on a Sunday. We decided to go to a friend’s church we had attended before. I won’t name the church and details have been altered to stave off embarrassment. But I bet you can guess the denomination.
The first thing I noticed how the congregation had dwindled. Where once there were a hundred seats, now the chairs had disappeared from the back. I walked across a sea of green carpet to get to our row.
The atmosphere was a mixture of comfort and “we mean well.” laced with the heady scent of “we’re trying to be relevant.” The music was a muted blend of choruses backed by a semi-conscious bass player and high-hat that was way to loud.
The text for the sermon was Mathew 14:13-21. The feeding of the 5,000. The children’s sermon was endearing. The children passed around to all of us a little paper cup-cake liner with two goldfish crackers and five oyster crackers. 5 loaves and two fishes. Cute right?
When the little ones trotted off to cut and paste class. I settled in for some exegesis of God’s word. I did not get it.
I was prepared to endure a sermon about God doing miracles in my life. I was prepared to ignore that impoverished definition of a miracle. I was prepared for a whole lot of application and very little observation and interpretation. After going to seminary, no sermon will be as good as New Testament class with professor so and so. I was not prepared for a sermon that completely reversed the meaning of the text.
The minister looked familiar. She had been promoted from pianist to fill the spot left by the last minister. Her sermon attributed the miracle of Jesus manifesting food out of nothing just as God had done in the wilderness, to the generosity of people who saw the little boy’s sacrifice and decided to share with others the food they had brought.
You read that right.
The minister said “I like to think that what fed all of those people was when they saw the faith of that little boy who gave the five loaves and two fishes, they started sharing everything they had and this is what fed the multitude.”
Oh sweet mercy.
My wife looked at me and I hastily wrote on the bulletin with my tiny golf pencil, “Is she saying what I think she’s saying?”
Obviously It isn’t about what we’d like to think or imagine. It’s about what the text says. Why can’t we get that through our collective noggins? Why go to all the trouble to deny the miracle? I did some digging and apparently this is a popular interpretation One Catholic writer puts it this way:
This easy-to-digest interpretation reflects the unfortunate modern desire to explain away the inexplicable. Some scholars refer to that particular explanation, which began circulating in the 19th century, as the “nice thought” interpretation, which has found its way into mainstream Christian spirituality and preaching. But this is one way not to interpret the passage. The “nice thought” interpretation reflects a tendency to downplay miracles in the midst of a story that is filled with the miraculous.
So the worst sermon idea ever started somewhere in the 19th century–If anyone can pinpoint the origin of this stupidity and heresy please do so in the comments–and like an urban legend has made it’s way into the commentaries and pulpits across the land. It is the “Man with the hook for a hand” of modern theology.
Is the reason for this travesty of exegesis simply a way to side-step the Jesus who is irritatingly divine with his supernatural hi-jinks? I wonder if there is something else going on. Here’s a recent Quaker theologian:
It is possible that the disciples begin handing out the bread and fish out of a pot somewhat like Harry potter’s trunk – the one where you just keep pulling stuff out of it. But I think the more likely scenario, and the one that actually offers more practical challenge to us is this.
The miracle here isn’t that there is a magic trunk full of bread, instead, I believe that the miracle was in the act of sharing abundantly in the face of scarcity. Jesus’ disciples are encouraged to share in the face of the illusion of not having enough, because Jesus knows that true abundance is rooted within the cooperation of an entire community of people.
When we relegate the word miracle to “any good thing” then we get stuff like this. A community cooperating isn’t a miracle. It’s a blessing. Miracles are not the same as blessings. So why? Here’s the punchline. The Quaker theologian quotes another theologian:
The only miracle here is the triumph of the economics of sharing with the community of consumption over against the economics of autonomous consumption in the anonymous marketplace
And there it is. The real reason Jesus’ miracle ex nihilo is relegated to community action is that it becomes a parable about the evils of capitalism and the joys of socialism. Notice the Quaker doesn’t deny Jesus could do the miracle. “It is possible” he says. But then that would be silly of Jesus. He’d be like doing magic or something. How gauche. What could motivate someone to side step the miracle even if they don’t deny miracles out right? Why because what’s more important than what actually happened is what we can do with it. “I like to imagine.” is code for “My pet interpretation will serve my political ends.”
What is at the heart of every pet interpretation is pride. I will use God’s word for what I surely know is the best use of it. And sloth. Surely people will be bored hearing again and again how the New Testament depicts Jesus doing the things God did in the Old Testament with the obvious lesson that “Jesus is God.” That’s boring. No instead they will want to hear all these new applications of the text.
Except that they don’t. The churches that sold their souls to bring in the crowds aren’t bringing in the crowds. If church is just another place to practice my economic and political theory then why get dressed on a Sunday?
Years ago John Shelby Spong told protestant churches that they must change or die in his book Christianity must Change or Die? Spong told mainline protestants to give up their literal interpretation of the Bible and embrace what exactly? Well social causes mostly. And how has that worked? Not so well.
Mainstream Protestant churches like Methodists, PCUSA etc are losing members faster than cable TV is losing subscribers.
After statistically analyzing the survey responses of over 2,200 congregants and the clergy members who serve them, we came to a counterintuitive discovery: Conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal view of the Bible, is a significant predictor of church growth while liberal theology leads to decline.
Of course once you’ve had your ears tickled, it’s hard to hear anything else. If the mainstream churches were to figure this out and change course, that would be a miracle.
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