Sometimes people play up the dichotomy between “giving people Jesus” on the one hand and “feeding them or helping them physically” on the other. The clash between spiritual and physical or sacred and secular has been the subject of debates, books and countless conversations and fights. The subject is nuanced and has huge tensions, and when the tensions are relieved prematurely things can become terribly one-sided. So here is an example of the tension in clear view.
“Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” ” (Matthew 15:32, ESV)
These people are with Jesus. But Jesus has compassion for them. His compassion for them is activated by the fact that they don’t have food. He is concerned by their physical needs, also. They are with Jesus yet they are hungry. Body and soul; both are important. God loves us, all of us. The tension fosters life.
Scarcity and resources
One of the reasons why I think we want to escape the tension of this dichotomy is that once we admit that the body is also important we face the enormity of the task at hand. We are faced and confronted with our absolute lack of resources. This is echoed in the disciples asking,
“Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” ” (Matthew 15:33, ESV)
The disciples nail it when they voice their concern that there is not enough in this desert for so many people. In South Africa we feel that there are so much poverty in this wilderness of post-Apartheid, somehow we believe that there is not enough for all of us. It is at this point that Jesus lovingly changes the discourse from what we don’t have to what we actually do have.
“And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” ” (Matthew 15:34, ESV)
Jesus moves his disciples away from vague abstractions towards raw quantifiable stocktaking. Jesus asks “How many?” It seems that the dichotomy between spirit and body is brought in tension by asking these kinds of questions. It is the spirituality of asking “how many?”
– How many cars?
– How many houses?
– How many jackets?
– How many resources?
– How many rooms?
– How many educated brains?
The disciples answered, “Seven, and a few small fish.” Moving away from abstraction is difficult. They did ok with the loaves – seven, but relapsed to abstraction with the fish – “a few”.
Jesus moves them away from thinking what they don’t have towards what they do have. I find this hopeful. It is when we bring what we do have that Jesus works his miracles. But we have to start with the questions that move us away from our abstractions. We are also invited into a fullness of life that encapsulates body, mind, and soul. All of it.
As communities we are invited to bring what we have and then offer it to Jesus, He will make it into something beautiful.