The last several years of my life have been gripped and guided by the gospel story in Mark commonly known as The Feeding of the Multitude, or incorrectly named The Feeding of the 5,000 (5,000 men but easily 20 or 30,000 people). It has shaped my faith and practice in a number of ways and was the inspiration behind the creation of this website and ministry. So naturally, as I pondered the current coronavirus pandemic and our responses to it, I began to wonder how this story might speak to our current condition. After all, it portrays Jesus providing leadership in a public health crisis, albeit a crisis of food insecurity rather than a virus.
Most of us have never experienced anything like this and are figuring it out as we go along. What and who will guide us? Do the old gospel stories have wisdom for contemporary problems like our current crisis? I think so…Listening to the text and context of the ancient story of Jesus’ miracle among the multitude with fresh attention, several themes presented themselves that I want to offer to you as you consider your own response to current events.
[If you’re not familiar with the story, or if it’s been awhile since you’ve read it, I encourage you to spend some time with Mark’s version in Mark 6:30-44 and meditate on how it may speak to your life.]
First, the wisdom of withdrawal. The story begins not with the crowd or bread or fish but with a retreat. It begins with Jesus’ invitation to come with him “to a quiet place and get some rest.” So the disciples hopped on the boat for some good old fashioned social distancing. In this case, the invitation was related to the need of Jesus and his companions to get some R & R before moving on to the next phase of ministry, but it’s worth noting that Jesus wasn’t above taking time away to rest, heal, and shelter/pray in place.
Yes, Jesus took bold and risky actions for the sake of his message. Ultimately, he would give the “last full measure of devotion.” But Jesus was strategic about his sacrifice. He took life-threatening risks only with a sense of divine leading and timing. When the time was not right, he avoided violent and dangerous situations, like when he fled his hometown (Lk. 4:30) and avoided Judea (Jn. 7:1).
It’s important to address a misnomer going around. It is not more spiritual to attend church or shop at the mall rather than heeding the advice and orders of our public institutions. I have to admit that I’m disturbed by the pastors who boast about refusing to close their church or move their services online because they won’t be “ruled by fear.” It seems they won’t be ruled by facts, either. Or by concern for the elderly and most vulnerable neighbors whose lives are literally in danger.
Jesus flatly rejected the demonic idea that we should take part in dangerous and dramatic demonstrations of “faith” to prove our identity. We don’t need to “throw ourselves off this temple” to confirm that we are chosen and beloved children of God (see Matt. 4). I don’t know their motivation, but in my semi-humble opinion, it doesn’t match the spirit of Jesus.
I invite you to consider that we could actually be working against God through these attitudes and behaviors, if God is moving through scientists, health care professionals, civic leaders, and all of us in our communities to bring an end to this pandemic and restore health and strength.
I’m reminded of Martin Luther, who when asked if Christians should flee the plague, advised a middle way of caring for neighbors and stopping the spread through medicine and withdrawal. Ignoring “intelligence and medicine,” he argued, would be “testing God not trusting God.”
Learning from Jesus, we can embrace the wisdom of withdrawal. We can take full advantage of our time in quarantine, whether we spend that time in solitude or huddled up with family. We can take time to rest, reflect, read, pray, play, clean, craft, and create. We can embrace the time and space as a gift from the One who asks us to remember the ever-forgotten Sabbath and is always inviting us to see the beauty, goodness, and abundance of life.
It’s fun to see people’s creativity as they find ways to stay sane, have fun, and educate their children at home. I’m inspired by folks who are making the most of their time by trying new recipes, reading whole books, calling family members, taking naps, volunteering to deliver food, or binging on quality Netflix content like Tiger King. (Lord, have mercy on those who aren’t able to be at home because of their essential service.)
Secondly, the story reminds us about the importance of what spiritual guides across history have called the “discernment of spirits.” Put simply, Jesus was selective about which voices he let influence him. He didn’t value all voices equally. He practiced calm consultation.
The disciples saw the massive need among the crowd and responded with anxiety and fear. They told a story about scarcity: too much need and not enough resources. In contrast, Jesus lived from a spirit of abundance and lived for the commonwealth of God. He believed there could be and would be enough. So, he heard them out but he didn’t let their anxiety and scarcity define his response.
There are a lot of voices clamoring for our attention right now, especially if you are on social media or follow the news at all. There are biting put-downs about our neighbors and critiques of our local and national leaders. There are people claiming it’s all a “liberal hoax” and that COVID-19 is nothing more than a “glorified flu.” I’m not suggesting that you abstain completely from social media but remember that you do have the power to choose who you let influence your moods and responses. When we practice discernment, we select which voices to value and let take up residence in our minds and which to lay aside or reject as misguided and harmful. I’ve had to remind myself at several points to “watch my inputs.”
Jesus was able to embody a “non-anxious presence” in a situation of swirling anxiety and opinionated friends. He listened to his companions and took an honest assessment of the situation, then discerned within, behind, and below the situation to listen for the “still, small voice” that he had given authority over his life.
When we consider our own comments with others, and our presence on social media, it’s worth asking if we are adding to the noise and thickening the anxiety or if we are offering something worthwhile to the conversation. That may be a creative idea, a helpful noticing with thoughtful critique, timely quotes, or it may simply be words of encouragement or a funny meme.
As an Ohioan, I’ve appreciated the leadership of my state’s governor, Mike DeWine. He has been a leader when the country needed one. By all evidence, DeWine has faced the facts of the situation honestly and calmly, taking decisive action to prevent harm and save lives. I think a big reason he has been able to provide this leadership is because he has some wise folks around him that he listens to. He practices calm consultation with his cabinet, especially the Health Director De. Amy Acton. Doc Acton has been a non- anxious presence during the regular “wine with DeWine” briefings both behind the scenes and in front of the cameras. She has a way of explaining in simple terms the science of what’s going on and encouraging a courageous and compassionate response from Ohioans. Her example is a good reminder that the presence someone embodies during a crisis is as important as their words.
Thirdly, this story calls us to respond in a spirit of solidarity and responsibility. The disciples, with their story of scarcity and their spirit of anxiety, come up with the only plausible answer: competition. “Send the people away,” they advised their teacher, “so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” In other words, there aren’t enough resources so let them figure it out and fight it out. Everyone for themselves! It’s sad to see this reaction at work in our current crisis. What if there isn’t enough food or wipes or toilet paper? We better get to the store now and buy everything! And we do, until the shelves are empty and our hearts are hardened and the grocers are exhausted.
Now, I hope I’ve made it clear that I’m not against wise preparation. It’s irresponsible, and immoral, not to take steps for public safety and purchase what’s needed to provide for your household. But we have to be careful that this instinct for survival doesn’t degenerate into the fight or flight reaction ingrained in our nature. It’s easy to say “I will go wherever I want whenever I want to do so, consequences for neighbors be damned.” It’s easy to say “I better grab these last three loaves of bread because there may not be enough.” I’m not here to judge but I am here to suggest that the ethic of Jesus and good old fashioned neighborliness calls us to something higher.
Jesus said to the disciples as he says to us: “No, they don’t need to go somewhere else. You give them something to eat.” Whether we are in a time of thriving prosperity or a threatening pandemic, we are still our brother’s and sister’s keeper. Jesus’ kingdom message insists, even in the face of a public health crisis, that abundance is possible… if we will share, if we will care, if we will advocate just policies, if we will live with open hands ready to give and receive.
We can see miracles of community and abundance, but it means converting our impulse for competition into a practice of collaboration. We hear it so often it has become trite, but it is both trite and profoundly true: we are all in this together. Pandemics like this one remind us that this is not only a mystical notion but a deeply physical and social reality. Martin Luther King said that we live in an “inescapable network of mutuality.” In this current moment we feel that at every level.
I’m so pleased and encouraged to see, in contrast to the acts of scarcity and competition, so many acts of solidarity and collaboration. Corporations are dedicating their first hour for the elderly to shop; they are giving generous bonuses to their employees. Governments are flexing rules on loan interest, evictions, and unemployment; they are actually passing legislation that provides relief and stimulus. Communities are forming online groups to meet needs and find ways to support local businesses. In my hometown, a group set up a “take one, give one (if you can)” 24/7 food pantry station in each township to fill gaps in food assistance programs. Food pantries and schools are finding ways to get food to kids and struggling families. Parents and teachers are partnering to create opportunities for ongoing, interactive education. The examples of community support, generosity, innovation, and mutual aid astound and inspire me.
The Washington Post published an article about groups of mutual aid forming in Canada called “caremonger” groups (instead of “fear monger”). These small groups are forming online to distribute food and supplies, offer words of support, and organize volunteers to meet needs. The writer of the article praises the movement while noting that these bonds often dissolve after a crisis ends and argues that public policy should build on these ideas to create a more inclusive, resilient society.
Is everything awesome? No. Is more action needed, and at greater scales? Yes. I am not advocating denial or arguing that individual acts of altruism should bear the burden of a global crisis. But, as in the story of Jesus feeding the multitude, I see something wonder-full and beautiful manifesting itself. And it makes me wonder what else is possible. Maybe, when the dust settles on this virus, we can remember what’s possible when we have the courage to commit to caring for our neighbors, supporting our community, and ensuring justice for our most vulnerable.
Perhaps Christ calls to us in the midst of our suffering and struggle, teaching us about a world that’s possible. As Tennyson wrote, and Jesus demonstrated, ” ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” What kind of world are we creating right now and what kind of world do we want to exist when this passes?
I will conclude with a poem that has spoken to me for living in these times. It speaks to each of these three themes.