Do-It-Yourself Jesus

Mountain Wilderness

Do-It-Yourself Jesus  |  Matthew 14:13-21 

This is about the Do-It-Yourself Jesus. Put yourself in his place.

You just heard the news that the authorities pulled your cousin out of a jail cell and killed him, on a whim, for doing and saying things not unlike what you have been doing and saying. You are concerned, maybe even afraid, that the powers that be may want to do the same sort of thing to you.

Mountains with Clouds 4x2A whole group of people are following you around, wanting to hear what you say, waiting to see what you do. Right now, you are grieving, and you are tired.

So you decide to head out of town, keep a low profile for a little while and rest. When you get where you are going, in the edge of nowhere, the crowds still find you. You understand why Elvis shopped for furniture in the middle of the night.

Then you look at them, and you see people who need medical attention. Men are standing there with their whole families—grandparents, wives, children. Most of them are more afraid of the authorities than you are. All of them are hungry, and you don’t see a lot of medical supplies or food in anyone’s pockets.

What do you do?

In Matthew’s account, Jesus hears of the death of his cousin, John the Baptist, and withdraws to the wilderness. We aren’t told whether Jesus was afraid or prudent or simply grieving. A great crowd of people follow him there. Matthew records that Jesus went among them, talking, healing, until late in the day when the inner group of disciples suggested sending the multitude away to find food.

Their idea made perfect sense. They were in the wild, with few resources and limited means, and thousands of hungry people. It was like a modern day music festival, minus the music and the tents and the hotels and the entertainment and the food and the toilet facilities and the first aid stations.

The response Jesus gave them made no sense at all. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

It was ludicrous.

Some wag in the bunch had the nerve to point out that they had scrounged up a few loaves of bread and some fish. The disciples must have thought that the sight of such a pitiful pantry would shock some sense into Jesus.

Jesus simply worked with what they had, which was plainly not enough to go around, and kept passing it out until everyone was fed. They had more at the end than when they started. It was a miracle.

Many modern theologians say that upon seeing Jesus share his food, the people themselves had a change of heart and began to share food they had secretly stashed in their robes and pockets and bags. Whether Jesus fed that bunch of people by multiplying the bread or by changing their way of thinking, we cannot say with certainty. Either way, it was still a miracle.

Before anyone gets angry at the possibility that all Jesus did was change some minds, ask yourself which is harder to do—share your bread or change someone’s way of thinking. It may be that some of these modern day theologians are pointing at a greater miracle, one that lasted longer than a single meal.

Oh, and there was no sermon, at least not in Matthew’s account. That is something worth thinking about. Everything that Jesus did in this story dealt with a physical need: hunger, disease. The only prayer that is mentioned was one blessing the bread, and we don’t even get the words to that one.

Jesus thought that feeding people was a sermon. He knew that tending to their medical needs revealed the nature of God. No words could have explained the love of God half so well as what Jesus did.

• • •

I, JOHN, a novel, is available now. If you enjoyed reading any of today’s lectionary post, you may also enjoy an excerpt from the novel. The passage below is told from the perspective of John the Apostle, looking back on the feeding of the five thousand from many, many years later.

• • •

I didn’t really understand the fascination. We saw him walking on the water, but nobody asked about that, not often anyway. The other miracles – healing people, raising the dead – none of them carried as much panache as the feeding of the five thousand. Not that it was five thousand. That was a good round number, and it lets you know that there were a lot of people, but nobody counted them. I doubted Peter would have been able to count that high, not without help, and the rest of us were content to see that there were a lot of people.

It started with Andrew, of all people. We were near Jesus, which on that day was very much like being close to a rock star. There were the devoted fans, the vaguely interested, everything in between. It had been a long morning, and Andrew leaned over and whispered to me, “I’m hungry.”

Jesus heard him, of course. For all we knew, he may well have heard people having conversations in Jerusalem, or on the other side of the world.

“What was that?” he asked. “Did you say that the people were hungry?”

Jesus knew full well that Andrew did not. Andrew, to his great credit, came up with a clever response.

“They are hungry, Lord.”

I had to admire the beauty of a statement like that. It seemed like a response to the question, but of course it wasn’t. Jesus knew the difference.

“What do you have to give them?” he asked.

We all began to look around, to feel in our clothes for an extra piece of bread that might be living there. It was ludicrous. None of us had brought much of anything. Jesus turned to Philip.

“Where can you buy some bread to give to the people?” Jesus asked Philip. “Andrew pointed out that they are hungry.”

Andrew was silent. I was also silent, sensing that there may be no right answers at the moment.

Philip looked across the sea of faces. “We don’t have anywhere near enough money to feed them. Look how many there are!”

Andrew had been mulling the situation over in his mind.

“There is a boy over there who brought some fish and a few small loaves of bread, but that won’t go very far,” he told Jesus. I have never known whether Andrew was dimwitted or determined to goad Jesus with the information.

“Bring them,” Jesus replied. I have likewise never known whether Jesus was messing with Andrew.

Andrew made his way toward the boy who had the little basket of food. Just negotiating the crowd was not simple, and getting that boy to relinquish his food was not going to be easy. Andrew managed to kneel down beside him. Their voices were too low to make out, though I was pretty sure that Jesus heard the whole thing.

In a few minutes Andrew had, to my amazement, gained the boy’s trust enough to get hold of the fish and the bread. He came  back through the crowd clasping the little lunch basket to his chest with one hand and holding onto the boy with the other hand. Andrew did not easily trust people, let alone crowds of them.

He knelt down beside Jesus and gave him the basket. I managed to peek inside. Andrew had slightly overestimated the lunch, or perhaps the young man had already enjoyed a snack. At any rate, I only saw a couple of fish along with a few small loaves of bread, not large and hurriedly made. I could have eaten all of them myself.

Jesus took the basket and lifted it up. The crowd fell quiet, pockets of conversation dying as people realized Jesus was doing something. He gave thanks, looking up into the sky, which I have come to believe was for our benefit. We believed that God was in heaven, and that heaven was in the sky.

Jesus told us to ask the people for baskets, or cloths, anything in which we might share food.

There are only two fish, I remember thinking. If we go asking for baskets, what are we going to put in them?

Our doubts aside, the people began passing baskets forward. At the same time, more people began to bring out food that they had stashed, food that Andrew had not seen. When they saw Jesus sharing his food, or sharing the boy’s food, they began to share what they had.

There still was not going to be enough to go around, no matter how well the people shared with one another. That is when the weird moment began, the thing that I never tell people.

Jesus kept breaking up the same two fish and the same loaves of bread, over and over. He kept putting pieces into baskets, into makeshift cloth sacks. Anything the people sent him, he filled with fish and bread.

In retrospect, I don’t really know what Jesus did, or how that much food appeared. I suspect that whatever he was doing, there was a limit to what my mind could process, and I could only see him breaking up the two fish because that was what my mind had learned to expect.

Whatever really happened was something that my mind could not understand. How could I explain watching a piece of bread being broken from a loaf, only to see and in some odd way understand that the bread was still whole, still waiting for the same piece of crust to be broken off? I was seeing something that I could not comprehend, and so I chose to see what my mind could comprehend.

There was more food until no more was needed, and then it stopped.
When it was over, there was more bread and more fish than the crowd could eat. Jesus stepped up onto a boulder so that he could look out over the people more easily. He looked down at Andrew.

“Gather up the bread that is left, so that it will not go to waste.”

We went around and gathered up the extra bread, each of us filling whatever basket we found. When the baskets were completely full, it all stopped. No more leftovers. The people were content.

Andrew was quiet for the rest of the day. He was not alone.



Finding Shangri-La |  Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The perfect land of Shangri-La, made famous by James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, has become part of our modern world—perhaps not in reality, but as an ideal. Hilton based the name on the Tibetan paradise, Shambala. We apply the name to any unattainable ideal.

People seem to think that Christianity is about heaven—who gets there, how to get there, what it will be like. There are all sorts of details they will give you about the last days, the last judgment, and particularly about what heaven will be like. We hear a lot of talk about streets of gold, white robes (no jeans), and music. There is also a lot of talk about the kind of people who will get to heaven and the kind of people who won’t. (We take comfort in being able to point out the folk who will not be joining us.)

It is Shangri-La. It is the future that is better than the now.

Walking thru Field of GrassOddly enough, Jesus didn’t really talk about heaven that much. The Gospel of Matthew did record him talking about the kingdom of heaven, but that kingdom seems to have more to do with now and less to do with the future. Jesus kept saying, “The kingdom of heaven is…” but not, “The kingdom of heaven will be…”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus throws out a string of parables like pearls beside the people who came to hear him. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like yeast a woman hid in flour, like treasure hidden in a field. The kingdom of heaven is itself a pearl of great value, worth everything.

The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea. It pulls in everything.

Jesus does talk about sorting fish and pulling weeds, but we are not told that we’ll get to do any of the sorting. We like to think that we are the fish worth keeping, the whole reason the net is thrown out there to begin with. And we like to think that we are not going to get culled out, thrown out.

We’re the good stuff. Aren’t we?

We are getting in, but some of those other people are not. At least that’s what lots of Christian folks say.

Jesus says that heaven is not only real, it is really close, as in within us. It is mysterious, like a huge plant growing from a tiny seed. It works without being seen, like yeast in a pile of dough. It is hidden in plain sight, like a treasure in a field. And it is worth more than everything else we’ve been holding onto.

We like to think that other people are the weeds and we are wheat, but maybe we are the field full of both. We like to think that we are the fish worth keeping and that other people are the bad catch, but maybe each of us is a net full of all sorts of things, and it is the work of heaven to throw out the bad and to keep the good parts.

We think that heaven is tomorrow and one day, but maybe that kind of thinking just keeps us from seeing God today, here in this kingdom of heaven. Where our treasure is hidden in plain sight. Where everything we see is worth less than what we overlook. Where God is doing mysterious, creative, extravagant things all the time. Where what God is doing is bigger than we imagine it is, even bigger than we imagine it will be by and by.

You know. Here in this heaven. The one that Jesus keeps talking about.


Beautiful Weeds

Beautiful Weeds  |  Matthew 13:24-43

The story is supposed to be about the end of the world, or at least that is the way the church generally teaches it. In most pulpits, this Jesus story becomes more fire and brimstone, more warning of the judgment to come.

I think we’ve missed the point.

Beautiful weedsThis story is about God responding to people. Jesus told the crowd a story that started where they were—expecting judgment and condemnation from God—and taught them about patience and grace. Jesus even began by saying that this story was about the kingdom of God. He didn’t say it was about the judgment of God.

In other words, this is more about how it is than about how it will be.

In this kingdom, God is not in a hurry to snatch up the weeds. Growing the wheat is more important. At any rate, it seems it may take an angel to tell the difference—the disciples don’t get to do any sorting, and the wheat never has a say in the matter.

Maybe the weeds look like wheat. Maybe some of the wheat looks like weeds.

Maybe some of the wheat only thinks it is wheat, because it is surrounded by wheat. The good news is that it works the other way as well. Maybe some of the weeds only think they are weeds—we might turn out to be wheat after all.

Jesus is talking about mysterious things. Between the story of the wheat and the explanation, Jesus talks about tiny seeds growing into large trees and unseen leaven causing bread to rise. This kingdom, this God, is about the mysterious processes of creation and growth, not condemnation and destruction.

Interestingly, the lectionary pairs this passage with Genesis 28:10-19, the story of Jacob’s ladder, which gives us this verse:

Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until have done what I have promised you. (Genesis 28:15, New Revised Standard Version)

That’s not the promise of a vengeful, judgmental God, a God whom we have made in our own image. That’s the promise of a patient God, a faithful God, taking all the time it takes to grow us into God’s own image of us.

Gone to Seed

Gone to Seed  |  Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The lectionary leads us to the parable† of the sower, or the parable of the seeds. Why not just read the whole chapter of Matthew 13? It will do us no harm. No one would read the first verse of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” and stop reading, but we act as though we have an innate limitation to the number of verses of scripture we can endure.


Watering a GardenWhatever name we may give this passage, those of us who have spent any time at all around Christianity are familiar with the verses. Jesus talks about seed falling on a path, on rocky soil, among thorns, and on good soil. As we could have guessed without hearing the parable, the first three situations do not yield good results.

Three gospels contain a version of this parable—Mark, Matthew and Luke. All three of these gospels also contain versions of the explanation Jesus gives to his followers, who are not quick studies or bright students. The seeds and where they fall illustrate differing reactions to hearing the “word of the kingdom,” the gospel story itself.

The explanation comes across as a simple and rigid way of understanding the parable. While we like to comfort ourselves with the notion that we are the good soil—who wants to own up to being a thorn bush or a pile of rocks?—we also engage in a bit of Christianized schadenfreude, joy at the misfortune of others.

Oh, come on. Admit it. We do. There is something pleasant about pointing out the people whose minds are empty bird feeders and whose hearts are full of rocks, and we surely know better than to saunter into a briar patch.

That pleasure we take at the failures of others, mixed with the secret fear that we ourselves might stumble, goes a long way toward explaining why most of us don’t want to examine what Jesus is saying.

For instance, a friend once had the temerity to suggest to a group of church folk that the different soils might represent the differing states of our own hearts. Any of us might, she suggested, on any given day find that our hearts are like rocks, or we might end up impaled on the thorns of distraction. You can imagine the reception she got.

We don’t like being robbed of schadenfreude. And we don’t like people meddling with our preconceived notions of God, no matter who does it. Look where meddling got the prophets. Look where it got Jesus.

Here’s an even worse idea than the personal interpretation. Suppose that we, the folk who have heard the “word of the kingdom” and taken it to heart, are now the spiritual gardeners of this new Eden. As God casts the gospel story alongside the lives of people who have not heard it, suppose we are the ones responsible for preparing the soil. We are our neighbors’ gardeners. We are the rock finders, the weed pullers, the pruners of briars and thorns. We are the scarecrows.

Well that is no good, is it? That makes it sound as though we’re called to help the people around us. Yep, those people. The ones with stone hearts, brains like bird seed, and who are prickly all over. Now who gets to enjoy some schadenfreude, eh? Not us, not now. This thing was much more fun when we were spectators.Wild orchid 021

It explains why Jesus waited till he was seated in a boat, out on the water, before telling this parable. He k new the crowd on the shore. Maybe he didn’t want to be standing there when they figured out all of the implications.

You know how people can be. Welcome to your new garden.


† – Note on the word “Parable.” The word literally meant something like “thrown beside.” It was a story thrown out alongside a truth in order to illustrate the meaning. 

Great Expectations

Praying mantis

Great Expectations  |  Matthew 11:16-30

We expect great things. Sometimes we expect great things from ourselves. Mostly, we expect them from other people.

Sun Through Trees 014

We like to think that we are right, and we tend to suspect that other people are wrong, no matter who they are. Maybe they are well intentioned but misguided. At worst, well, one might want to keep the children away from them.

Here’s an oddity—we seem most inclined to disagree with the people who are most like us. The unknown—a new comet in the sky, a new species of primate in the Congo, a poisonous salamander along the Amazon—may cause fear or loathing or admiration, but never disagreement. To disagree, one must have some knowledge of the other’s position. To disagree vehemently requires intimacy.

To disagree self-righteously requires religion.

In Matthew 11, Jesus is talking about expectations and burdens. That’s the same thing, by the way—an expectation placed on someone’s shoulders transforms into a burden. We are good at placing the burden on other people, though some of us are quite good at putting burdens on our own shoulders.

In the story, John the Baptist is in prison for a prior disagreement with the regional ruler, Herod. It seems that neither of them had met the other’s expectations. Then John sends followers to see whether Jesus is living up to John’s expectations. One may forgive him such an inquiry—it would have been difficult to remain positive in John’s position.

John was a prophet. Ok, he was a pretty weird one out in the wilderness, but he was a prophet. And people expected great things of a prophet.

Jesus talks to a crowd of people about their expectations of John. It seems that the people of Jesus’ day were critical. They were doubtful and slow to believe anyone who spoke to them about God.

Imagine. And this in a day when nearly everyone believed in God. Or gods. Something.

Then Jesus does an odd thing—he starts talking to the crowd about knowing God and about carrying burdens, as if one thing has to do with the other. This is a crowd of the faithful. They are gathered to listen to Jesus talk about God, make public prayers, do a little teaching and preaching. They are familiar with John the Baptist. These are church folk, good synagogue-going folk.

Jesus looks at them, and he see them carrying the burdens of their own religious expectations. He offers to trade with them, to give them a lighter burden, a better set of expectations.

Lighten up, he tells them.

We burden ourselves. In religious life, we love to heave on burdens. Useless stuff. Guilt. Anxiety. The tools of societal control and individual failure. We expect ourselves to be more faithful, more decent, more caring, more involved, more giving, more of all of that to our friends and to our family and to all kinds and sorts of people, real and imagined, who might benefit from our behavior, at least in our own minds. It’s a wonder we can walk under the load. To prop ourselves up, we lean on the notion that we are right. About anything. Everything.

Then we hand out the burdens of our expectations to other people, most of all to brothers and sisters of faith. It’s no wonder people look askance at religion.

No? Then how do we expect a pastor or a priest to behave? Anything short of perfectly? How about other religious folk—teachers, choir singers? As we sit in our miasma of faithful love, what do we think of that family of misfits who arrive late and whose children fidget loudly and well throughout the service? Don’t pretend that we have no expectations of them. Don’t pretend we aren’t carrying burdens of our own making.

We gave up God. We started carrying religion. It’s easier to carry those ideas than it is to love a stranger.

Jesus makes an incredible offer to the people in that crowd. Come, he says, and I will give you a lighter burden to carry. Come, and I’ll give you rest for your souls. What do we do? We hand out weighty expectations, heavy judgment, and loads of guilt.

Further along in this gospel (23:4), Jesus says, “They tie up heavy and hard to bear burdens, and they lay them on the shoulders of the people; but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” He’s talking about us. If you’ve read this far in a reflection on faith, he was talking about you.

We expect other people to think the same way about God that we do. We expect them to live as we do. We certainly don’t care for a weirdo who wears odd clothes, lives in the desert, eats bugs, and above all has the temerity to make us think for ourselves. That’s what really got John the Baptist in trouble, you know. The clothes, the bugs, well, folks could go along with that. The re-thinking part? We don’t like that sort of thing.

We’d rather carry that weight than trade in our burdens.

What about us? Maybe going out in the desert and living on locusts and wild honey wasn’t such a bad idea. Eating bugs may be easier than living up to our own expectations. We might want to trade those in after all.