What would Jesus do?
8Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9“Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
10Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them. 11Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
12When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
14After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
The Law of God, as passed down through Moses, is remarkable even if viewed from a narrow humanistic perspective, as if it were a mere legal document. It transcends all the norms and practices of the ancient world in its provisions for social justice, equitable use of property, and the welfare of all the people of the nation. The land was given to Israel by God, and the people, from the least to the greatest, were to consider themselves His tenants on the land, rather than landowners. Those who were in need were to be provided loans without interest, or gleanings from the fields of those with plenty. Every seventh year, all loans were to be forgiven, all indentured servants were to be released, and lands taken in security of loans were to be returned to their original owners according to the tribal distributions decreed by God. It was in this context that He provided the commandments that Jesus called the Greatest— Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 —which virtually equate love for God with love for neighbor. God promised them prosperity as long as they lived according to these commands.
He also promised them severe punishment if they disobeyed these commandments by oppressing the poor and helpless or ignoring their needs. After Israel spent much of its history doing just these things, God sent His indictments against them through the prophets:
23 Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them. 24 Therefore the Lord, the LORD Almighty, the Mighty One of Israel, declares:
“Ah, I will get relief from my foes and avenge myself on my enemies.
14 The LORD enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people:
“It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. 15 What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?” declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty.
20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.
21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.
22 Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks,
23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent.
1 Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, 2 to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.
3 What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?
When Jesus arrived, and was rejected in turn, and as God prepared yet another exile of Judah from His land, Jesus repeated these indictments (among many others) once again:
46“Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 47They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.”
23“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. “
Jesus showed love and compassion beyond human understanding toward the poor, the hungry, the sick, dying, lost, and outcast. He showed power beyond human comprehension in healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and raising the dead. Now, in John 6, we see Him finally getting the recognition He deserved. He only had to reach out, and all the suffering and affliction of humanity would end, replaced by His glory and power. In response to this awesome opportunity, Jesus….
Why? He answered very similar suggestions elsewhere—Luke 4:5-8 and John 7:2-7, for example. As before, all He had to do to end the unspeakable misery of poverty, hunger and disease according to the wishes of the people was—establish His Goverment among men, place God’s stamp of approval on human political power and earthly civilization, and agree to fit into our understanding—give up on ever freeing us from slavery to sin and death—exchange the Kingdom of God for Hell on Earth.
As a practical matter, everyone knows how the imaginary scenario mentioned at the end of part one would turn out. Jesus talked about what happens when you remove evil from an individual’s life but don’t put anything back to replace it (Luke 11:24-26)—the same things would happen to collections of individuals. You can’t fix human misery—the product of millenia of evil, abuse and neglect—by a new UN initiative, economic aid, new laws, trade incentives, international condemnation, intervention, or warfare. The cure for human misery and evil requires change in the hearts, minds, and souls of people
(Jeremiah 31:33, 2 Corinthians 5:17) .
One of Jesus’ best known parables is in Luke 15:11-32. The parable of the lost, or “prodigal”, son is not really the example of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness we might think. The son in the story does have to do something. He has to come to his senses, admit that what he has done was sinful, and prepare to humble himself before his father and accept the consequences according to his father’s judgment. Then he has to get up, and go home. After that, it doesn’t matter to his father that he only came to his senses after the money was gone, only that his son who was lost has been found!
But what if the story was a little different? Perhaps the son could just send a note to his father demanding some more money. Better yet, he could go home, and demand that his father give him a place in the family home, that his “friends” be allowed to come and go as they please, that the father respect his “privacy”, his need for “his own space”. What would the consequences to the household be? What would happen to all the other members of the family, the workers and servants who have acted faithfully and depend on the integrity and prosperity of the house for their sustenance?
The question often comes up—why does God allow us to suffer? The lesson we have to learn about suffering is harsh, and a lot of people—especially those who might have gotten more than their share of the suffering —aren’t going to want to hear this, but it can’t be avoided. Human suffering wasn’t God’s idea—it was ours. We all accepted it as the reasonable cost of doing business when we decided that we could run our lives, our governments, our world, and our relationships without God.
These great and necessary tasks—feeding the hungry, healing the sick, lifting up the impoverished and oppressed, and teaching the people of the world about God’s Love in Jesus Christ—are not separate. They are the same job, and none will succeed without the others. The beginning of the end of human suffering—including the “here and now” afflictions of poverty, disease, and malnutrition—is in His Love, acting through each of us.
None of us is invisible to God —from the smallest, sickly child in southern Africa to the head of state to the neighbor next door that we’ve never met — and we must not be invisible to each other. The solution is still within our grasp, if we admit the foolishness of our own ways, humble ourselves before His Judgment, accept His Son as King in our lives, and go home.