Monday, April 21, 2014

A Tale Of Two Baskets

One of the most powerful testimonies in the Gospel accounts is the feeding of the multitude. Everyone knows the story but here it is again:

After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?" He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, "Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little." One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?" Jesus said, "Have the people sit down." Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, "Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost." So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, "This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!" (John 6:1-14)

What a sight that must have been for the disciples. Knowing they had only five loaves of bread and two fish and yet watching as thousands of people ate their fill and indeed had enough left over to fill twelve baskets. The basket passed from hand to hand and never ran out. I don't imagine the multitudes knew what was happening but the disciples certainly did. Who but the Son of God could feed so many with so little?

Our dominate religious institution also passes a basket around but what happens next is the opposite. Most Christians are cajoled, extorted and guilted into dropping cash or a check into a basket or plate. You do this publically so the ushers passing the plate and the people sitting around you can see if you make a deposit or not. Did he drop a couple of bucks in? Maybe a "tithe" envelope to make record keeping easier for tax purposes? Or the worst case scenario where you awkwardly pass the basket and put nothing into it, something that is really uncomfortable when you have ten people in your family and it takes a while for the plate to  get past everyone. Even those who give have mastered the art of the "subtle drop", putting something in so it is obvious that you gave but hiding what you gave. The spies of the Cold War era have nothing on religious Americans when it comes to smooth handoffs. This ritual is a weird phenomena, we want everyone to know we put something in the basket but don't want anyone to know how much or what percentage of our income (gross? net?) we give. It is American style "mind your own business" financial anonymity combined with our love of shows of public religious acts of generosity. Sort of like our talk about being a "Christian nation" that loves guns and warfare.

I got to thinking about this today and my conclusion was a pretty grim one.

Jesus passed the basket to feed a multitude. The church passes the basket to feed itself.

That basket on Sunday takes rather than gives. Sure you get some benefits from it, like having a convenient place for religious observation where little is expected from you other than showing up and paying up. On the other hand a lot of it goes to pay staff, maintain and pay for a building and upkeep, perhaps also paying to sustain a religious hierarchy at the denominational level, etc. When this happens at the governmental level, good red blooded conservative Christians are up in arms. When it happens in a religious setting we are fine with it.

It is time to change the system. Heck it is time to eliminate the manmade systems entirely.

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