Weaving scripture

Published on 09 Aug 2019
A loom

Teresa McCaffery reflects on some of the riches of scripture and how the Old Testament may help us understand familiar stories.

In the lectionary we are taken systematically through the Gospels, but we are also offered an Old Testament reading that seems to fit.  As in weaving cloth, warp and weft work together to make a fabric much more useful than the yarns alone, so the use of Old Testament with the New adds depth and strength to our understanding of scripture.

Today’s reading from Exodus had a Monday morning feel.  Moses is facing a large crowd of complaining Israelites.  The rather ascetic diet of manna is boring, and the Israelites regret following Moses out of Egypt, where there was always plenty of interesting food.  Moses turns to God with complaints of his own, exasperated at the fecklessness of the community. 

Standing up for the Gospel we hear of the feeding of the five thousand.

Simple interpretations spring easily to mind.  Jesus keeps the people orderly, sitting down in groups, and the food may be more interesting.  It seems obvious that food that is shared goes further than when each keeps to his own.  We should not forget that the blessing of Jesus had an impact too.  Examples spring to mind of people who tackled needs far outstripping any possibility that they could make a difference, only to have others join them until their organisation is feeding, or supplying clean water, to tens of thousands.

But the story of Moses adds massively to this.

He was a very angry young man.  He saw somebody being treated unjustly and killed the perpetrator.  No wonder he began to feel nervous when the crowd became angry.  It was also natural for him, as often to us as well, to pass the complaint upwards to God.

Jesus had something to be angry about as well.  The feeding of the five thousand happened because Jesus felt the need to retire to a quiet place to recover from the horrific news of the death of John the Baptist.  Everything about that incident speaks of depravity as well as injustice.  Jesus went away to think and grieve, where Moses reacted violently.  The people who followed Jesus must also have felt angry, and wanted to take some sort of action, but we all know what teaching Jesus offered them.

Stressed by the challenge of being expected to love instead of hate, the people were tired, and the apostles too, maybe they all just wanted to go home and cry, at the very least some food would come in handy.  Jesus took the food they gave Him and turned it into something infinitely more powerful than mere calories.  Fortified by this food the people became able to forgive, love, and walk the extra mile for those whose burdens they might be expected to carry.

Later, Jesus was also killed.  It seems obvious that the death of Jesus was worse than that of John the Baptist, not only because of who was killed, but also how he was killed.  John was killed in a wanton act of violence by a man who had totally lost control under the influence of wine and undue power.  His death was mercifully quick.  Jesus was subjected to due process of law, but in such a way as to cause maximum pain and humiliation.  John’s disciples would have gone on taking his advice, recognising immediately that his death was a ghastly accident which had no bearing on his worth as a person.  Every aspect of the treatment of Jesus was designed to discredit Him and His teaching.  “This is what happens to people who teach us to love our enemies” is their cry.  What made these upholders of the law so bitter?

Looking round the political world today we see some politicians whose behaviour reminds me, at least, of Herod.  Similarly, I can look at the legal representatives of a decent, civilised country perpetrating serious, protracted harm on sections of the community with the full protection and approval of those whose job it is to govern.  Which is worse?

I leave the debate with the words of Jesus:

                        Love your enemies

                                    Do good to those who hate you

                                                Forgive

                                                            Forgive

                                                                        Forgive