I recalled this story as I looked at today’s readings because the giving of gift and what we do with gifts appears as a subtext in all of the stories. What is it about the receiving of gifts that is so difficult? Sure, there are specific gift giving occasions when one expects them that don’t seem to bother us much: days like Christmas, birthdays, and anniversaries. But what about unexpected gifts – how do we feel about them? If we are honest, they are a bit unsettling aren’t they? Unexpected gifts signal a shift in the dynamics of a relationship.
Unexpected gifts are often a sign of intimacy and connection between people. They can signify a deepening of a relationship and, while that can be wonderful, it does change the dynamics. Temporarily at least, when one receives an unexpected gift, they are in a vulnerable position vis a vis the giver of the gift. Gift giving creates an asymmetry in the relational dynamics and it’s hard to be the vulnerable one – and even harder to admit to feeling vulnerable. And this is where our reaction to being on the receiving end of a gift can take several turns.
One reaction is to start wondering what we have to do to reciprocate. Receiving a gift can make us feel obligated to give something back, right? Or it may make us wonder what we have to do to “deserve” it. It can feel like there are strings attached. Another reaction is to question the motives of the giver. Now we don’t always do that to their face, but the little voice in our head may be wondering about the meaning behind giving this gift. Yet another response is to accept the gift with an attitude of entitlement – of course I should get gifts, because I already deserve it. One way or another, these responses are attempts to rebalance the disquietude felt within us when we are on that vulnerable receiving end of a gracious gift given.
Our readings today speak of gifts and the reactions of those on the receiving end. Our Hebrew text from 2nd Samuel is a follow up to the terrible incident of David’s coveting Bathsheba to the point of having sexual relations with her causing her pregnancy and to cover up his sin, David arranges for the death of her husband Uriah the Hittite. Nathan the prophet is tasked with confronting David with his sin of covetousness. After giving David the analogy of the rich and poor man, Nathan speaks of how God has been so generous with David and how much he has been given. It is said in scripture that David had 300 wives and concubines … apparently he thought he needed one more! David had cultivated an attitude that he deserved what had been given and this entitled him to take whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. His response to having received so much was to take even more.
The writer of Ephesians speaks of us being given gifts for ministry to equip the saints. It is not uncommon for people to feel like they don’t have spiritual gifts. We’ve had this conversation in our Tuesday Bible study recently. But if we view all that we are and all that we have as gift, then we see that our talents and aptitudes have the capacity to build up the kingdom of God. We can often be dismissive in claiming our gifts which is another way of rebalancing the asymmetry of the relationship with God. If I can minimize or deny my gifts, I won’t be called upon to use them. In some ways, I think we fear using our gifts because we fear failure; but if we trust in God, we will often find that which looks like failure ends up being the very thing which God uses to touch others. In other words, the use of our gifts and the outcome thereof are not our works alone – it’s not all up to us!
This week’s Gospel reading is the “extended dance version” of the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 in John. This is the only miracle story which clearly is the same in all four Gospels, but John really expands the narrative. Why? John’s gospel lacks a narrative of the Last Supper insofar as the sharing of bread and wine at the meal – the institution of the Eucharist as we know it. John tells of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. I suppose we can be thankful we have more than just John’s gospel or we’d be washing feet every Sunday … talk about a gift that makes people uncomfortable! It is believed that John uses the Feeding of the 5,000 story to speak of the Eucharist rather than doing it in the context of the Last Supper. Last week you heard that Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it – the four acts of the Eucharist. Today we hear it is the next day and the crowd has figured out Jesus made his getaway to Capernaum. They follow him there and when they find him Jesus pointedly says they didn’t come because of signs but because they got a “free lunch” yesterday. He urges them to seek more than just food which perishes. Notice what their reaction is to the unexpected gift of both the free meal and his invitation – “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Or, “what do we have to do” in exchange for what you’ve offered. The crowd is disquieted by the asymmetry of their relationship to Jesus. His response is to believe in him – to give their hearts to his ministry and message. A simple request, but not so easy for them or us. The crowd still is uncomfortable with this answer and so demands a sign from him. Really? Um … yesterday 5,000 of you got fed off of five loaves and two fish … remember? Apparently, they quickly forget and now begin to question the credentials of the giver by telling him “Hey, that’s nice and all but Moses fed our ancestors with manna in the wilderness … what makes you different?” Jesus’ response is to remind them that God was the originator of that gift of manna, not Moses, and that Jesus not only gave them food in the wilderness yesterday, but he gives himself to them completely as the bread of life. He gives more than bread … he gives his very life for them and for us … and every time we gather at this table, Jesus gives himself again and again. This gift continues and is beyond any price.
That’s where it can get a bit uncomfortable for us. We cannot do anything to earn the gift of the Eucharist. Don’t get me wrong, the Eucharist does move us to action born out of our gratitude to take the gospel into the world in our words and deeds. But it isn’t something we can earn by being good little boys and girls or by any action of our own. It is not something we can control nor is it something to which we are entitled. It is free gift and grace and it will make us vulnerable and it will make us uncomfortable.
The only stance we have left is to receive this gift in complete humility. To let go of any pretense that we deserve it or earned it and place our vulnerable selves at the foot of this altar, in the presence of the living Bread which has come down from heaven to give life to us and to the whole world.