King Herod the Great, whom we know as the wicked ruler at the time of the birth of Jesus, had several sons. One of them, Herod Antipas, was Tetrarch of Galilee from 4 B.C.E. until 39 C.E. He was the local designated ruler of Galilee during the entire life of Jesus, and he served under three different Roman Emperors.
Antipas first capitol city was centrally located in Sepphoris (SEF-uh-ris) on a hill that overlooked the surroundings fertile countryside of Galilee where grain, olives, and grapes were grown in abundance. Sepphoris was just a few miles from Jesus’ childhood home of Nazareth.
During Antipas’ reign, more and more of the small farmers and peasants were impoverished as the Tetrarch’s clients and patrons tool the surplus crops. Antipas then shipped the produce as patronage to Rome through the new, state-of-the-art port of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast. Through a system of debts and foreclosure, many were forced off their land into abject poverty and survived only by selling themselves into slavery.
This is familiar in the modern world where powerful corporations drive small farmers into bankruptcy (capitalism), or where collectivization confiscates privately held farms (communism). It’s all about the powerful versus the powerless. The results are the same.
In the year 14, a new Caesar came into power. In order to curry favor with his new Emperor, Antipas built a new capitol city in the middle of the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. He named the city after Emperor Tiberias and he even re-named the lake – The Sea of Tiberias.
By the early 20’s of the first century, Antipas began to exploit the lake in the same way that he’d done with the farmland. He created his own fishing fleet and exacted stiff tribute from small, independent fishermen. He and his patrons took control of the fish markets and only they could process and ship to Rome dried fish, salted fish, and the fish sauce that the Romans loved so much.
The old fishing towns and villages began to wither. Magdella – home of Jesus disciple Mary – had been the most important fishing center on the lake just before the advent of Tiberias, which was just a few miles to the south.
“And so it came to pass that it was precisely along the shores of the Sea of Galilee – from Tiberias through Magdala and Capernaum to Bethsaida…” that the heavy-handed oppressiveness of Rome began to be felt – in the hometowns not just of Mary Magdalene, but of Peter, Philip, Andrew, James and John, all fishermen. And it was just at that time that the prophet from the oppressed breadbasket area of Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth, appeared in the lake region and began to gather followers.
“But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” (Our translation says that he “cured the sick,” but the Greek literally means that “He served the weak…especially those of the lowest social status.”) This was not your average crowd of folk from all walks of life. These were the people on the margins – the bottom of the human food chain – displaced fishermen, net makers, boat-builders, and their starving wives and children.
Jesus had compassion on the 5000 men, plus women and children, and he served them. His heart ached for them for they were his people…his brothers and sisters.
When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves. “
Isn’t that the way the world treats the folk in the bottom? Get them out of our sight. Send them away. Let them eat cake. Let them take care of themselves. Just tell them to get jobs.
I’m just re-reading the history of the Native Americans, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It’s the story of the oppression, and in many cases the elimination, of native peoples. None other than Adolph Hitler studied the history of the United States’ treatment of Indians and the reservation system as a model for his concentration camps.
The disciples’ answer, the world’s answer, is absolutely ridiculous. Can you imagine 5000-10,000 hungry people walking into downtown Dayton to buy dinner – even if they had the money? Let alone thousands of hungry people descending on a few decrepit fishing villages with no money at all? Ridiculous?
Jesus said to them, “They need not to go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves of and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.”
The Empire/the current arrangement of the world says, “Send them away.” Jesus’solution, “Give them something to eat.”
Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.
The language here is Eucharistic language of take, bless, break, and give. Jesus took the loaves and fishes that the disciples had, he blessed it, broke it, and the disciples distributed it…and a miracle occurred. It was enough…and there was food left over.
New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan has written:
Antipas had multiplied the loaves in the valleys around Sepphoris (SEF-uh-ris), and he now intended to multiply the fishes in the waters around Tiberias – and for the kingdom of Rome. But a magnificently parabolic counter-story tells us how Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes – for the kingdom of God.
The Kingdom movement of Jesus intends to non-violently take back the lake and the land for God.
The Gospel writers were convinced that this story of the multiplication of loaves and fishes was so central to the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry that it’s repeated seven times in the four Gospels.
And that’s exactly why every Sunday we take, bless, break, and give bread – affirming once again the counter-story. The real miracle here is not about what happened to the loaves and fish – or even the bread and the wine. The miracle is what happens to the disciples of Jesus who are converted from “Send them away” to “Give them something to eat.” The altar bread and wine become bread for the world as we disciples are converted again and again and again.
The reality is that God’s world, God’s land and God’s seas have enough to provide for the feeding and care of all of God’s people. The problems of famine in the horn of Africa and the empty food banks across America and the growing divide between the wealthy and the poor is not that there isn’t enough food or other resources…but that too many disciples haven’t yet been converted! Too many are still saying “Send them away,” and not enough of us are looking around for what we have and putting our heads together to figure out how to get it to those in need.
And there’s still another thing that Jesus teaches here about a world reclaimed from Caesar for God. Not only is there enough bread, fish, wine to go around in God’s economy…but that the food is taken, blessed, broken and given from a common resource (five loaves/two fish). Or even more explicitly in the Last Supper and the Eucharist: there is a common loaf/ a common cup/ a common wealth/ a common good. We do not have before us individual loaves and separate glasses of wine. Life in God’s kingdom is about sharing together from the one bread/the one cup.
I look at what is going on / not going on in Washington / in Columbus / in the Miami Valley / in political parties / the White House. It is all about scoring points, winning, gaining, increasing power…and greed…always greed.
Go into all the world and preach the Gospel,“” said Jesus. We’ve got a lot of preaching to do! It’s not preaching from the pulpit. It’s preaching in our homes, among our children, in the workplace, the neighborhood, and even in the voting booth. Preach!
In the name of Jesus, preach!