According to ancient historians, most of the Jewish families sitting on that Galilean hillside listening to Jesus teach would spend every day of their lives on the edge of hunger and starvation. Some days were better than others, but they never escaped hunger for long. By some estimations, as much as 85% of a Galilean’s wages/time went toward acquiring food. By comparison, the average US family spends 9.5% of their annual budget on food.
The gospel writer, John, records that there were 5,000 men seated there. With wives and children, the crowd would have been well over 10,000. As the day drew on, the disciples recognized they were facing a logistical dilemma. Where would these people find food? They didn’t have the money to feed them. They suggested to Jesus that he call it quits and let the crowd disperse to nearby towns to find food for themselves.
But Jesus instead found a boy with just five loaves and two fish. He blessed it and began breaking it and passing it out to the people. John records that every person there ate until they were filled. They all sat reclined on the hill with full bellies, satisfied. Nowhere else in the New Testament is that language used for another meal. Jesus had fed them to their fill. Many had probably never experienced enough food to have to stop eating.
It’s no surprise that the crowd responded by attempting to seize Jesus and make him king.
Bread and Games
Food and political power have long been linked. There is an old Latin phrase commonly translated as “bread and circus.” It refers to the equally old realization that the masses could be easily controlled with food and games. Many Roman emperors secured their political power by passing out bread in the streets and funding festivals of spectacle, week-long displays of entertainment in theaters and colosseum.
The roman poet, Juvenal, wrote around the year 100 AD:
“Long ago we sold our vote to no man, but the people have abdicated our duties; for the people once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions—everyone now obeys for and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
Jesus’s miraculous bread passed out on that Galilean mountainside echoed with symbolic images of Moses’s provision of manna in the wilderness. The crowd must have imagined what it would be like to have Jesus as their leader. Daily bread to their fill. Think of all the time they would save. Think of the money they could save. Think of the future it meant. They wouldn’t take no for an answer. Jesus the new Moses. Jesus king of the Jews.
Jesus had what all the Roman Emperors reached deep into their own storehouses to manufacture, the support of the crowd. How did he respond to this political opportunity? He slipped away. He disappeared. He wandered off.
Jesus was familiar with this bread and games business; after all, he had turned down these same impulses in his own time of hunger and temptation. Satan had urged him to turn those stones into bread and to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple so that all of Israel could witness the angels deliver him in a spectacular display of his power. Jesus saw through that temptation as he did the temptation of the crowd.
Bread and games may make for a compelling political campaign, but they were not the means of his kingdom.
Bread and games have long been a human temptation—as recent as Georgia’s newly passed election law which now forbids the incentive of free food for those waiting to vote, or as old as Esau who sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. The Corinthians gorged themselves before others could get to the communion table. The Israelites grumbled and complained about even the manna. And as those Roman emperors recognized, times of starvation and social anxiety are just the opportunity to exploit such human tendanceis.
The COVID Excuse
Everywhere I go, people keep talking about how challenging the past year was. They aren’t wrong. I know several families who lost loved ones, I’ve seen the toll on my own family members, and as a pastor, it was one of the most challenging times to try and serve a congregation. But I’m more worried about the months ahead than those now behind us.
In Neil Postman’s famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, he compared two dystopian views of the future, arguing that the one we worry least about is probably the more insidious. Postman compared two novels, George Orwell’s 1984 in which an authoritarian government oppresses and controls society through power, and Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World in which citizens are instead controlled by pleasure and appetite—bread and games. Postman wrote:
”What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture… In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”
This past year has had plenty of bread and games. Like most Americans, we baked more loaves of Sourdough in the last 12 months than we had in the 12 years previous. And like most Americans, I had the extra COVID pounds to prove it. Or consider that in the past twelve months, online streaming has increased by 50%, with 30% of Americans adding new streaming subscriptions to what they already owned.
For most Americans, this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic looked a lot more like food and games than it did the end of the world as we know it.
But something has changed. COVID offered us an easy excuse for everything. Secretly it felt pretty good to have an out for absolutely anything you didn’t want to do—an excuse with a thin veneer of morality. COVID made us deeply self-focused. We got to decide—what we did, what we would risk, what we thought, who we believed, on and on.
Plus, we’ve long known that objects at rest stay there. As Emma Brockes wrote in The Guardian, “the less you do, the less you want to do.” She concluded:
“It’s a free pass that will, in the next 12 months, presumably come somewhat to an end. We will have to shape up. It will no longer be permissible to do all the things we were, on the sly, kind of doing anyway but before the pandemic were inclined to feel bad about. I guess this is a good thing; if the sense of a return to business as usual shames me into tidying up, showering more often and making slightly more effort to get my children off their iPads, it’s probably all for the better. But I needn’t kid myself: neither that these behaviours were new, nor that, when it suits me, I won’t be looking back and guiltily using the pandemic to excuse some echo of them for years to come.”
I’m not so convinced we can do it. I’m not so convinced we can go back. That kind of self-interest is hard to turn off.
Church has Changed
Most pastors are now accepting that church attendance will never be the same. According to one recent study, “Among those holding in-person worship in January, 31% said attendance remained less than half of what it was a year before, while 37% reported attendance between 50% and 70%.”
Churches have responded by making church services available where people are—at home on their couches. All of the church experts are telling us that online streaming is the future of the church. We must rethink church in light of this new world we find ourselves in.
Give the people what they want.
For A Fully Belly
When the crowd finally managed to track Jesus down in Capernaum, they wanted an explanation. “Why did you leave?” “How did you get here?”
Jesus didn’t answer their questions but instead explained, “you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” To paraphrase Jesus’s response, “You’re not here for me, you’re here to get more food. You’re here for the bread and the games.”
Jesus went on to explain that he wasn’t just the source of heavenly bread; he was the bread. It wasn’t just about what Jesus could do for them; it was about Jesus being with them. He pushed them to the point of being offended. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
Their obsession with food and spectacle caused them to see the world, and God, through a consumeristic expectation. They were so self-interested in their pursuit that many left Jesus that day, convinced he wasn’t what they were looking for.
They tasted his miracles, filled their bellies with his divine bread, and yet walked away when he offered his own life as well. Talk of flesh and blood made them squeamish. Sounded strange and somehow risky. Let’s get back to the fish and bread. When he didn’t, they left. They had their own bread to find for the next day.
The risk of your spiritual pursuit slipping into a kind of consumerism that seeks to fill your belly and catch a good show can not be overstated. It cost many in that crowd Jesus.
This Spiritual Complacency
My concerns are not just church attendance or holding on to some nostalgic idea of what the church once was. I’m concerned about your soul. I’m concerned that you are filling yourself with a cheap imitation of Christ. When Christ becomes a means before an end, you will soon leave him too.
I’m concerned the gospel is becoming just more online content. That faith is now a brand witnessed to only in your Instagram bio. I’m concerned that if we allow our faith to become a show, we watch online whenever it fits best into our schedule, that the next generation may choose a different show altogether. If faith is about finding what works best for you, what will you say when your kids explain they’ve found something that works better for them.
Huxley was right. The greater risk we face is not our religious rights being taken away but our squandering them in triviality and self-indulgence. The real test we face is our own spiritual complacency.
“For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
John Piper writes in A Hunger for God:
”The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night… And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable.”
Fasting for Hunger
We are one month away from Pentecost Sunday. It’s the day the church remembers the Holy Spirit being poured out on those first followers. It’s also that ancient feast that celebrated the first harvest of grain—that first possibility of bread.
I’ve committed myself and asked my congregation to join me in fasting between now and Pentecost. Perhaps a day a week or a particular meal. I wonder if you might do the same.
We fast so that our experience of physical hunger might create in us a spiritual hunger. We deny ourselves bread and games so that we might receive the Spirit and that better bread from heaven.
I do believe the pandemic was a risk to have been taken seriously, but the spiritual complacency we now face is one much greater. Let us not lose Jesus for the sake of a full belly and a funny show.
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”