Thanksgiving and the Boy Who Began the Feeding of Thousands
John 6, 1-21
What are we thankful for? What do we celebrate? Are we thankful for the privileges only we enjoy? Are we celebrating what we have that others do not have access to? There is in some of our churches a teaching that is contrary to Jesus’ teaching. It’s called the “prosperity gospel.” It is a belief that when you love God and give to God through the church, you will become prosperous. For some, it is a beautiful promise that gives hope for the future at a time when they have so little. For some it is a culture that validates and cultivates materialism and greed. When did God’s blessings mean material blessings? When did Jesus’ promise of fullness mean material wealth?
One of the things we discuss in our course Christians Ethics is the question, was Jesus and God anti-rich? Like I said earlier, Jesus preached “Blessed are the poor…” (Luke 6, 20) Jesus does not say “Blessed are the poor, and then the rich.” It is not in the gospels. Again, when Jesus encounters the young rich man who asks him “What must I do to have eternal life?” His answer was “go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; then come and follow me.” (Matthew 19, 16-22) Finally, in the text on Lazarus and the rich man, you will find that it is the rich man who is insignificant and nameless while it is Lazarus, the poor man, who has a name and is favored by God, In fact, God says to the nameless rich man, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here and you are in agony….” (Luke 16, 19-31) There are many more texts that emphasize that the love for money is evil, and yet the ‘prosperity gospel’ makes us believe that God promises material wealth to those who are faithful.
I get a lot of criticism when I speak about Jesus being anti-rich. And so let me explain further. A central theme in the Old Testament and our faith is the Exodus where God heard the cries of the slaves. God says in Exodus 3, 7, “I have observed the misery of my people… I have heard their cry…. I know their sufferings… I have come down to deliver them… We often speak about the Hebrew or the Israelites as the “chosen” people of God. Have we ever asked why they were chosen? Elizabeth Gravador Dominguez, an Old Testament professor at UTS who taught for over 30 years pronounces, that ‘God is the God of the slaves, and the people of God are those who need God the most.’ God did not choose the Hebrew because they were obedient, faithful or promising. God did not choose them because they were his favorite. God heard their cries and took their side because they were slaves. This is at the essence of Jesus’ option or bias for the poor. Like God, Jesus takes the side of those who need God the most. I really don’t know if God and Jesus hate the rich or the powerful. What I want say is God and Jesus always took side of the poor.
Who is rich? The middle class in the Philippines think they are rich because they can afford homes and cars. But the very moment somebody in the family gets seriously ill with cancer or loses his or her job and is unemployed for just half a year or even less, the middle class who used to believe they were secure and well-off would begin to sell off their hard-earned possessions and would begin to feel like beggars who survive through the compassion of those who have better lives. Many of us are not rich.
Who is rich? The rich that I am talking about are people who have the responsibility of choosing to profit more for themselves or of giving just wages to laborers; have the option to secure the future of their companies and their families or to invest in the education and healthcare of struggling communities; they have the privilege of building beautiful structures and playgrounds to cater to the few who can afford them or of helping families create safe and resilient homes and environments in the face of climate change. We are surrounded by the poor who are suffering from the choices of the rich. And even if some of us like to pretend to be rich and wish we were like them, we are not.
I have already proposed three understandings in relation to thanksgiving. First, the blessings of God are not material or wealth. Second, God’s reign or the Kingdom of God is a critique to all persons, structures and cultures that create inequality where the riches of the rich and powerful are built on the deprivation and oppression of the poor. Third, the God we serve is the God of the slaves and the Jesus we follow always took the side of the poor.
What then does it mean to have thanksgiving as a community? What does giving thanks and celebrating mean? In a world where there is hunger and poverty alongside wealth and greed, what is the challenge before us? Is it enough to just be thankful to God for allthat we enjoy?
Jesus’ stories of feeding are found in three gospels: Matthew, Mark and John. My favorite is the one in John. John 6, 1-21, is about a nameless young boy and five thousand hungry people. Actually, the five thousand is comprised only of men, and so there were many more. The story is familiar to us, a large crowd was following Jesus because they had heard that he was healing. They wanted to see miracles and, perhaps, needed hope. Under the Roman Empire and under the puppet king of Israel, Herod, the people experienced hunger, poverty and violence, not unlike what the poor of the world experience in our times. But this story is not about a king. It is about a young boy who had five loaves and two fishes. It is about a young boy who offers everything he has so that those who are hungry can eat something. It is about a boy giving all that he had and trusting that he will be given just enough when the food was distributed. What followed was what we call a miracle. Some people believe that Jesus multiplied the food like a magician. But some people say that when a young boy offered to share all that he had, the others followed and there was more than enough for everyone. After everyone had eaten, they gathered the leftovers and they filled up 12 baskets.
Who would have thought that a young boy who had so little can give everything he had? Who would have thought that simple and humble gifts can be enough to feed five thousand people? Who would have thought that if everyone offered everything they had, there would be so much leftover? In this story, common people, many of them poor and hungry, shared and experienced fullness. Jesus taught them that in breaking the bread and sharing them with others, all can experience fullness. It seems simple, but is it?
Today, in this country, there are 5.5 million child laborers, aged 5-17, working in hazardous environments. 1 out of 5 children, even as I speak, are working to put food on the table. Forty-three (43) percent of jobs in the economy or 16.2 million out of 37.8 million workers, are contractual employees which means that they are paid low, have no job security and have no benefits. For example, 9 out of 10 workers at SM Malls are contractual. Six thousand hectares of sugar land or what is known to be Hacienda Luisita remains with the Cojuangcos, the family of the president, even after the Supreme Court has decided in favor of the peasant farmers. When we read the feeding of the five thousand, we simplify it and call it a miracle. But perhaps it is not simple. Perhaps we must call it ‘radical generosity.’ Rev. Dr. Everett Mendoza says, and I quote, “Nothing less than a radical transfer of wealth and power can change the situation. The Christian faith claims that God though rich became poor in Christ that the poor might become rich. The world’s richest must become poor so that the poor of the world may live.” My son said it more simply when he uttered a prayer when he was just five years old. He said, “God, sana wala nang mahirap. At sana wala nang mayaman.” (God, I wish there were no poor people and I wish there were no rich people either.)
This Thanksgiving, I wish to leave with you two challenges: First, to be faithful to the God who heard the cries of the slaves and to follow Jesus who always took the side of the poor by advocating, supporting and serving those who need God the most among our Filipino brothers and sisters today. Second, to honor the good news in Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand in John, we must intentionally and concretely participate in the creation of a community, society and nation where there is fullness of life and celebration for ALL.