Robert Williamson, Jr.

The Politics of Downward Mobility—John 6:1-21 (Robert Williamson)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

Jesus’s example in resisting the crowd’s desire to make him a king following his feeding of the five thousand is a challenge to a Church that so often pursues political power. It presents us with a vision of a Church characterized by ‘downward mobility’.

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 10 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. 11 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. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 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.’

15 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.

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.

The story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 is one of the most oft-told stories of Jesus’s life, appearing in all four of the Gospels.[1] It is so familiar, in fact, that readers may fail to recognize the particularity of John’s version of the story, which varies from the other Gospels’ versions in two significant ways, both of which come at the conclusion of the story. First, Jesus’s ability to provide for the people identifies him as a servant of God. When the crowd sees what Jesus has done with the fishes and loaves, they declare that he is “indeed the prophet who is coming into the world” (6:14). Second, once the crowd recognizes who he is, they seek to raise him to a position of political power. The text tells us that Jesus realized that “they were about to come and take him by force to make him king” (6:15).

And so, to avoid being king, he withdrew to the mountain by himself.

What a strange image in our own cultural moment in which so many Christians seem compelled to seek political power. In the U.S. it has long been the case that Christians have sought political power as a means to conform society to their particular understanding of “Christian values.” In recent months, the Christian impulse to political office has particularly focused on opposition to same-sex marriage in the wake of the Obergefell decision, which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the U.S. Recently the news has focused on the Issachar Training project, which has declared a goal of preparing 1,000 Christian pastors to run for political office in 2016 in order to take back the country in the name of Christian values.

And yet, in this story Jesus would not be king. Far from seeking political office, he fled into the mountains when the people tried to grant him political status.

The story contrasts Jesus’s way of transforming the world with the political will-to-power that would seek kingship. Rather than exerting his will through the power of government, Jesus’s transformation of the world fundamentally concerned bringing abundance to people in a time of scarcity. Faced with a crowd of hungry people who had followed him in the hope of being healed from sickness, he commanded his disciples to feed them with what appeared to be far too little—five loaves and two fish borrowed from a young boy. Yet the people ate, and there were twelve baskets left over. Jesus transformed the world by making food where there was no food.

It was then that the people understood who he was, declaring: “This is indeed the true prophet who is coming into the world” (6:14). Like the Revised Common Lectionary, which pairs this text with 2 Kings 4:42-44, the people recognize that Jesus’ miraculous capacity to feed them stands him in the line of the prophet Elisha, who likewise fed too many with too little.

In that story, set in a time of famine, Elisha takes twenty loaves of barley and some fresh ears of grain and commands his servant to feed a hundred people. When the servant objects that there is not enough, Elisha insists, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, they shall eat and have some left.” And indeed, when all have been served, there is some left over, according to the word of the Lord.

It is in this way that the people recognize that Jesus stands in the line of Elisha—the one who feeds not just 100 people with 20 loaves of bread, but 5,000 people with five loaves and a couple of fish. They recognize that Jesus belongs to God because bringing abundance into situations of desperate scarcity is integral to God’s manner of working. To bring plenty when there is only famine. To bring life when there is only death.

The true prophet is found where there is food for all, not where there is power for a few.

This text reminds me of a story told about Gordon Cosby, the founding pastor of the well-known Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. Each member of Cosby’s church was expected to discern a call to transform the world in one way or another. Yet Cosby insisted that any truly Christian call to transform the world was always to be “downwardly mobile.” That is, he believed the true call of Christ always moves the Christian toward the poor and the marginalized. It calls Christians toward places of hunger and scarcity as agents of abundance and hope. And, importantly for Cosby, the call of Christ leads away from personal power, gain, and glory. He was suspicious when one’s “calling” involved a big paycheck, or a book contract, or a position of political influence.

For, as Cosby knew, Jesus would not be king.


[1] See Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 14:13-21, and Luke 9:10-17.

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