Jesus isn’t in danger of becoming a commodity. Jesus is a commodity. He is bought and sold on the closed market of religious ideology. Only the specially trained brokers and traders decide what he’s really worth or who might receive shipments. At the close of business each day, someone arbitrarily decides, the memes are posted, and we told this is who Jesus is today. However, I’m not speaking about our own day and time. Jesus is a marketable product shipped for sale around the world each day. This is the religious landscape we inhabit. No, the story I want to tell isn’t solely about the phenomena of turning Jesus into whatever we want him to be whenever we want him to do something for us.
Despite what we believe, we didn’t create this modern narrative. There is a different story, where this idea of a commercialized Savior took hold, grew, and spread during the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry. If we want to understand why we see Jesus as a religious totem, a cosmic snow globe to shake and solve our problems on demand, John’s gospel provides a window on the origins of the misunderstandings at the heart of how we view Jesus today.
Jesus has done the unthinkable. With no resources, budget, or long term plan to “do it again”, he’s fed 5000 people. The people who witnessed the unimaginable act of love are dumbfounded. They do not know how to respond to the gift or the man who made it possible. The question words flood their minds. Why would anyone give anything so valuable away for free? Why would someone with the ability to feed people not monetize that skill for his personal, financial, or even political gain?
Somewhere down the line, the “how” question is asked. How did he do it? How did Jesus take nothing and make something? Was it a magic trick? Was it a miracle? When I read John’s gospel, it is as if the “how” is taken for granted. This may be because they witnessed the miracle first hand. In the first century, “how” wasn’t a big deal. One might argue these crowds were used to miracles and miracle workers. It is the “why” or the implied “why” questions which seem more important. Why did you do this, what does this mean for the bigger picture, and what are you going to do about the bigger picture? Surely, if someone can turn multiply a tiny number of loaves and fishes, political, social, and economic liberation ought to be easy.
Having bread, the ability to eat, equals freedom. If you can eat you can move, you can fight back, you have strength. This is why one person in the crowd draws the obvious parallel between Moses’ role in feeding the Israelites manna from heaven and the liberation of Israel itself. Here’s where things start to go awry. Jesus is talking about freedom; a liberation on multiple levels. We, like those ancient Israelites, have a one track mind when it comes to liberation. Some assembly may be required but we want Jesus to provide all the tools. If we decide the assembly is complete, we walk away, under the allusion we are free while never realizing we’re worshiping things instead of believing in a God.
As the conversation unfolds, it’s clear to Jesus (and the reader) that the people interacting with him are looking for a formula. Now that they’ve got Jesus, they want to press him. “Release the formula for the spiritual widget,” they ask. Tell us what we must do, what is required of us. Boil it down to something, nice, simple, smooth and easy; like a product on a shelf. Give us the recipe to your bread, that’s all we want, and we’ll believe in you.
Now, it’s really gone off the tracks. Jesus’ actions are linked to their belief in his identity, mission, and purpose. We’re not going to believe in you unless you give us what we want, unless you give us a product we like and think we need. They will not believe in Jesus unless he does something they determine is worthy of their belief. We would never do that, would we? The United Methodist Church or its people would never set a challenge for Jesus, a hoop to jump through, and say our faith in Jesus (and our institution) is dependent on how Jesus meets our expectations of what we think we deserve? Do this Jesus, or else? Or else, we might schism, people might get mad and leave, and many might become righteously indignant. Or else these ideas built on your teachings may be so corrupted as to be unrecognizable from the movement you intended?
At the climax of “A Few Good Men”, Colonel Nathan Jessup (played by Jack Nicholson) is being cross-examined by the brash Navy lawyer, Lt. Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise). In their final heated exchange, Lt. Kaffee is waiting for Col. Jessup to answer a question. Once Jessup begins to answer, he closes his remarks with these words, “I don’t give a damn what you think you’re entitled to.” Like Lt. Kaffee, we want the truth. I’m not sure we can handle the truth.
In the back of my mind, when Jesus is pressed by the product shoppers for one more “more miraculous sign”, I can hear Colonel Jessup’s words in Jesus’ mouth. “I don’t give a damn what miraculous sign you think you’re entitled to.” We’re so busy looking for signs and being amazed by testimonies that we’ve forgotten how to believe in the beauty of belief itself.