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Politics of Scripture

The Miraculous Power of Limitations

Jesus’s followers seek a “prophet” who serves human desires for control and vengeance: the power his followers think is essential in order to defeat their human oppressors. They forget that the prophet only ever serves the Divine will, which has a vision wider than the cosmos, concerned with re-establishing the harmony that was written into the fabric of creation from its very beginning.

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

John 6:1–21 (NRSV)

In John 6, Jesus is superhuman. He not only demonstrates that the laws of physics don’t apply to him by walking across the Sea of Galilee, he seems to have the ability to fabricate matter, taking the equivalent of one family’s lunch and multiplying it into enough food to feed a truly astonishing number of people: at least 5,000 people, if not more! As Jesus’s disciple Philip states, the costs of such an endeavour would be astronomical. Yet, not only does every single person receive enough food to have their fill, they even have leftovers! What an astonishing feat! In fact, the Gospel of John only records Jesus performing seven miracles, and this passage includes two of them, back to back! The point of this passage must surely be that Jesus channeled the absolute power of the Divine, and could perform miraculous feats of power whenever he willed it; thus, we should worship Jesus as the Son of God, for only God could wield such immense power. This is the message that the crowd receives, for immediately after eating, they declare him the messiah, the prophet who is to come and save Israel (6:14). After such an astonishing feat, who wouldn’t do the same?

We moderns are not immune: this interpretation of the miracle – feats of power are proof of Jesus’s majesty – is the way that I was taught this passage, and arguably it is still the main interpretative lens Christians apply. After all, images of power and awe litter this passage: the power to inspire and even dazzle people (6:2); the sheer size of the crowd, and its immense need, far surpassing the capacity of any human to meet (6:5–7); the power of generosity (6:8-9); the power to control a crowd (6:10); the power over matter (6:12–13); the power of nature (6:16–18); and finally, the power to walk on water (6:19–21). How can we not be dazzled by the explosion of power in this passage?

My, how we are all deceived.

We have been so distracted by the shininess, the glittering majesty of the miracles, that we miss Jesus’s response in verse 15: at the moment when he could claim the strength of the multitudes, building his following to even greater numbers, he instead retreats into solitude, laying aside the power offered him. He chooses to allow that moment – and the power inherent in it – to slip by. The point of the miracle lies not with the fact of Jesus’s power; instead, it lies with how Jesus understands power itself. Throughout his ministry, Jesus constantly demonstrates that – contrary to human visions of power – the Divine way of power brings justice to the oppressed and beauty to creation. This is not new: it is simply a recitation of the mission of the Israelite prophets.

Jesus’s followers dismiss this mission, however, and instead seek a “prophet” who serves human desires for control and vengeance: the power his followers think is essential in order to defeat their human oppressors. They forget that the prophet only ever serves the Divine will, which has a vision wider than the cosmos, concerned with re-establishing the harmony that was written into the fabric of creation from its very beginning. Jesus asserts that true power lies in humbly surrendering our individual desires to serve God’s desire for the entire creation. It is only with that surrender of power that we can finally understand how all of creation is interdependent, and how our survival depends on the survival of the rest of creation as well.

By focusing on the glitter of the display of power, we miss the miracle of a human completely in harmony with the Divine will. When creation is in harmony, all have enough. All are fed. All have exactly what they need. There is even abundance!

This is a communal vision, however: none may demand more space, more resources, than they actually need. This is an echo of another time that God fed humans directly. During the time of the forty year sojourn in the wilderness, the manna provided by God would only last a day and would rapidly rot thereafter (Exodus 16:20). As a result, these humans were literally incapable of hoarding, and were forced to rely entirely upon God to fulfill their needs.

Unfortunately, that lesson was lost. When the crowd finally catches up with Jesus (John 6:25), they remember the miracle of the manna, yet only as a sign of power. They choose to ignore the lesson about only taking what is necessary, about relying upon God to provide for their needs (6:30–31).

They cannot see the truth of Divine power, and instead are dazzled by a vision of power that exerts control, takes space, and imposes its will upon others. This is the antithesis of the Divine vision of power, which is the harmony between action and rest. This harmony is so ingrained in the Divine order that God demonstrates it at the beginning of creation: when the masterpiece of creation is complete, God just stops, rests, and gives space for the creation to simply exist (Genesis 2:2–3). Similarly, we only exist in harmony with the creation when we also rest as God did, and allow space for creation to just … be. It is only by giving space for others to exist that we can experience the miracle of creation in full bloom.

Yet, this experience isn’t out of reach for those of us in the midst of the false mundanity of the ordinary. I know that this is possible, because I have already experienced it myself.

I don’t remember any specific details from the first time I ever heard the blues: my age, the musician, the circumstances, even the song – it’s all lost to the haze of memory. Yet, I remember the feeling, a palpable sense that something truly sacred had entered my life. The song began gently, quietly, creating a delicate atmosphere of cool calm. Somehow, I just knew that this gentleness was intentional: I was being commanded to actually listen, and to surrender to the song the full control of my attention. I felt my entire body relax, and then I heard it: a single note from the slide guitar, a bullwhip cracking across the calm. I felt that note cascade throughout my body, rippling out to the tips of my fingers. It held such power, which was only driven home by the silence which followed.

As the song continued, I was held in thrall with this interplay of calm and tension, silence and sound. I was experiencing true masters of their craft, demonstrating that the power of music lies not in a flurry of notes and sound, but in the magic that happens when sound and silence play off each other in just the right way. When a musician allows space for these elements to interact, something holy can emerge.

Before that song played, I remember being consumed by something which felt truly important to me at that time. By the time the song eventually ended, I felt both at peace, and alive in a way I had never felt before.

I learned something vitally important that day: power isn’t dominance. Instead, true power lies in knowing the value of silence, of withholding, of creating space. In this, we see the inextricable bond between power and humility: the brute bluntness of force and strength can only mature, deepen into power through the discipline of surrendering to humility. Paradoxically, it is only when we accept that we aren’t all-powerful that we can begin to understand the mysteries of power.

We seem to show an astonishing genius at consistently missing this point, however. Our hunger for the pyrite of brute strength – and the force to bend others to our will – has grown to such an alarming extent that we now possess the ability to use the power of creation against itself by splitting an atom at the push of a button. In an instant, we could annihilate all life on earth. We have what could rightly be understood as the power of gods, with absolutely no sense of what we should really do with it. The fact that we’re all still here is a miracle indeed.

Yet, the existence of thermonuclear weapons is only a symptom of the underlying disease: our complete inability to grasp that the true miracle of our time does not lie in our technological capacity to control the mechanism of life, to such an extent that we can meet the physical needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) of every single human on earth should we choose to do so. Now, these are admittedly astonishing feats that speak to the power of human ingenuity, creativity, and perseverance. I am sitting in a room made comfortable by the wonder of air conditioning. I am not only alive, but thriving, due to the wonder of the numerous medicines I consume every single day. I am able to communicate with all of you not only due to the wonder of personal computing, but also the wonder of the internet and the entire infrastructure which makes it possible. These are wonders, signs of power even!

We now face a time, however, when we must finally begin to take stock of the cost of the wonders we rely upon in our modern world. The signs are not only all around us, they seem to be increasing in strength and force: devastating flooding in Europe; the intractable cycle of drought and wildfire destroying huge swathes of the Americas, Africa, and Australia; the collapse of ecosystems in every corner of the globe; and finally, the subsequent emergence of an epidemic of climate migration which define the 21st Century. We have upset the harmony of creation to such an extent that it is not a question of whether massive portions of our Earth will become dead zones, incapable of nurturing any life, but when.

We are only capable of having space in this creation when we allow the rest of creation to have space as well. Ecotheologian Sallie McFague terms this living a “kenotic life,” where we follow the divine act of kenosis (self-emptying in order to become entirely receptive to the will of God) by moving towards a form of life which is in far greater harmony with the entirety of creation. This, of course, requires that we finally wake up from the nightmare that is the myth of continuous economic growth, but also that we literally take up less space. One practical form this might take is a process known as “managed retreat.” This involves deciding to accept some limitations – such as, for example, moving away from beach areas and stop constantly trying to engineer a way to control the sea. There are other avenues as well, all of which have a common theme of “less”: flying less, driving less, consuming less petroleum, eating less meat and thus spewing far less methane into the atmosphere, etc., etc.

We know what we must do. The question is whether we will actually do it. Remember how I noted that the resource needs for the crowds in John 6:5–7 were more than one human could fulfill? That isn’t accurate anymore. There are now people on this earth with hoarded resources significant enough that they really could feed every person on earth. What do they choose to do instead? They want to take up space amongst the stars.

What a twisted understanding of “power” that is.

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