Saturday, February 13, 2010

My Heart Is Moved With Pity For The Crowd.

Saturday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
1 Kings 12:26-32; 13:33-34

Jeroboam thought to himself:
“The kingdom will return to David’s house.
If now this people go up to offer sacrifices
in the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem,
the hearts of this people will return to their master,
Rehoboam, king of Judah,
and they will kill me.”
After taking counsel, the king made two calves of gold
and said to the people:
“You have been going up to Jerusalem long enough.
Here is your God, O Israel,
who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”
And he put one in Bethel, the other in Dan.
This led to sin, because the people
frequented those calves in Bethel and in Dan.
He also built temples on the high places and made priests
 from among the people who were not Levites.
Jeroboam established a feast in the eighth month
on the fifteenth day of the month
to duplicate in Bethel the pilgrimage feast of Judah,
with sacrifices to the calves he had made;
and he stationed in Bethel
priests of the high places he had built.

Jeroboam did not give up his evil ways after this,
but again made priests for the high places
from among the common people.
Whoever desired it was consecrated
and became a priest of the high places.
This was a sin on the part of the house of Jeroboam
for which it was to be cut off and destroyed from the earth.
Today is our last reading from the First Book of Kings for a while.

While Solomon's former courtier, Jeroboam, ruled over 10 of the tribes of Israel, Solomon's son, Rehoboam, ruled over Judah (including Simeon) which contained Jerusalem and the Temple. For Jeroboam this meant that the people in Jeroboam's territory might still continue to go to Jerusalem to worship and could be won over to give their allegiance to Rehoboam, who would, in turn, get rid of Jeroboam. Jeroboam did not have confidence in the divine promise given to him through the prophet Ahijah (see yesterday’s Reading and 1 Kings 11:38) and thus took action that led to his losing God’s blessing on his kingship.

He made two calves and built two shrines, one in Bethel and the other in Dan, to house them. Pagan gods of the Arameans and Canaanites were often represented as standing on calves or bulls as symbols of their strength and fertility. To the people he said: “You have been going up to Jerusalem long enough. Here (in these images) is your God, O Israel, who brought you from the land of Egypt.”

Jeroboam's intention was not to adopt another god, but to use the symbol of Baal-hadad to represent the Israelites’ invisible God. Such representations were never used; Yahweh could not properly be represented by a human-made image. In doing so, Jeroboam was reducing Yahwism to the level of the surrounding religions. It was very similar to what Aaron did when the people waited impatiently for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai and made the golden calf. Like Aaron, Jeroboam attempted to combine the pagan calf symbol with the worship of the Lord, although he apparently attempted no physical representation of the Lord – no "god" stood on the backs of his bulls (as in the case of the Canaanites).

Bethel and Dan had long been places of worship. Dan was located in the far north of the kingdom near the source of the River Jordan. In the time of the Judges, there was a similar paganised form of worship practised here. Bethel was situated about 20 km (12 miles) north of Jerusalem, close to the border of Ephraim but within the territory of Benjamin. It held an important place in the history of Israel’s worship of Yahweh. The two sites marked the limits of the new northern kingdom and the clear implication was that it was not necessary to go beyond them to worship the Lord.

“This led to sin,” says the writer. This tactic of Jeroboam violated the second part of the First Commandment (the carving of idols for worship) and it inevitably led to the violation of the first part (“You shall not have other gods besides me”). What is worse, although Jeroboam intended the worship of Yahweh (but not in Jerusalem), it opened the way for full pagan practices to come into Israel’s religious rites. This happened especially under King Ahab.

Jeroboam also built temples in high places. When they entered Canaan, the Israelites often followed the Canaanite tradition (and other cultural traditions too) of locating altars on high hills. These were probably former places to worship Baal. It is clear that the Israelites were forbidden to take over pagan altars and high places and use them for the worship of the Lord. Altars were to be built only at divinely sanctioned sites. It is not clear whether a multiplicity of altars was totally forbidden provided the above conditions were met. It seems, however, that these conditions were not followed even in the time of Solomon, and pagan high places were being used for the worship of the Lord. These practices would lead in time to a falling away from the true worship of Yahweh and involve the mixing of different religious practices, which was strongly condemned.

For all of these innovations, Jeroboam began to provide priests to minister at the shrines. But these priests were from the common people and not from the tribe of Levi which was the Mosaic tradition. It is likely that Levite priests in his kingdom had migrated to Jerusalem (and the Temple) because non-Levites had been promoted as priests for the worship in Dan and Bethel or because they declined to function at these shrines.

Jeroboam also instituted a feast to correspond to the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles for which the people would normally travel to Jerusalem. Now they could celebrate the feast in Bethel. Priests from the shrines in the high places were appointed to officiate at Bethel.

Finally, Jeroboam himself offered sacrifices and overstepped his privileges as king by assuming the role of priest.

It is clear that Jeroboam did all of this not out of religious conviction but simply to protect his throne. His motives were political and not religious. He had to keep his people away from Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah. But precisely for that reason and for neglecting clear warnings he was given [not in our readings], Jeroboam incurred the wrath of God and was ultimately destroyed.

The end of our commitment to Jesus Christ is to join with him in the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. It is to bring us closer to God and to each other, to lead us to an ever deeper understanding of what is true and good, which should be a source of justice and peace and unity. But it can so often become, as we well know, a source of terrible divisions, hatred, violence and destruction.

It is also the case that religion when lived on the very highest level can be a source of division and hostility to those who feel threatened by it. Jesus said very provocatively that he had come to bring not peace but the sword and the division of families. But this a very different issue from the abuse of religion and we need to distinguish both. As Christians we cannot isolate ourselves from the important concerns of our communities.

Religion is false when it leads to hatred and destruction. Religion is true when it leads to unity and the creation of more good.  But in either case, religion will never be free from divisions because all true religion is a sign of contradiction and a challenge to conventional thinking.

+++    +++   +++    +++   
Psalm 106
Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
We have sinned, we and our fathers;
we have committed crimes; we have done wrong.
Our fathers in Egypt
considered not your wonders.
Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
They made a calf in Horeb
and adored a molten image;
They exchanged their glory
for the image of a grass-eating bullock.
Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
They forgot the God who had saved them,
who had done great deeds in Egypt,
Wondrous deeds in the land of Ham,
terrible things at the Red Sea.
Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
+++    +++    +++    +++   

Mark 8:1-10
In those days when there again was
a great crowd without anything to eat,
Jesus summoned the disciples and said,
“My heart is moved with pity for the crowd,
because they have been with me now for three days
and have nothing to eat.
If I send them away hungry to their homes,
they will collapse on the way,
and some of them have come a great distance.”
His disciples answered him,
"Where can anyone get enough bread
to satisfy them here in this deserted place?”
Still he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?”
They replied, “Seven.”
He ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground.
Then, taking the seven loaves he gave thanks, broke them,
and gave them to his disciples to distribute,
and they distributed them to the crowd.
They also had a few fish.
He said the blessing over them
and ordered them distributed also.
They ate and were satisfied.
They picked up the fragments left over–seven baskets.
There were about four thousand people.
He dismissed the crowd and got into the boat with his disciples
and came to the region of Dalmanutha.
Today we have the second of two multiplication stories found in Mark. The first with 5,000 people was in a predominantly Jewish area while this one with 4,000 people is in mainly Gentile territory. Jesus is reaching out to both groups. The people have nothing to eat and are hungry. The meaning is both physical and spiritual.

Once again we see Mark indicating the emotional response of Jesus. He is filled with compassion for the people in their need. “I feel compassion for all these people… If I send them off home hungry they will collapse on the way… Some have come a great distance."

They will collapse “on the way”, on the road. Jesus is the Way, the Road. To walk the road of Jesus, we need a certain kind of nourishment. This is what Jesus came to give.

The disciples, interpreting Jesus literally, as they usually do, ask: “Where could anyone get bread to feed these people in a deserted place like this?” In the presence of Jesus, the question answers itself but the disciples have not yet clicked. In Mark’s gospel they are often shown to be without an understanding of just who their Master is. That is because they represent us.

The disciples are asked what they can supply. Seven loaves and a few fish is all they have.

There is a strong eucharistic element in this, as in the former story. The people are told to sit down. "He took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks (eucharistheas in the Greek), he broke them and handed them to his disciples to distribute. And they distributed them among the crowd."

Again we note that Jesus himself does not give out the food the people need. It comes from him but his distributed by his disciples. The same is today. It is our task to feed the hungry – both physically and spiritually. All were filled – 4,000 people altogether – and even so there were seven (a perfect number) baskets left over. A sign of God’s abundance shared with his people.

Again, as before, “He sent them away and, immediately, getting into the boat with his disciples, went to the region of Dalmanutha”, back to Jewish territory. Jesus was leaving no room for any misinterpretations of what he had done. The disciples too are quickly removed from the scene. There was to be no self-congratulation or glorying in their connections with Jesus the wonder worker. Through the miracle the teaching had been given and that was it.

Lord, teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to labour and seek no reward
save that of knowing that I do your holy will.

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