Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of the American Dream. It’s the illusion of a utopian consumerist life that can be achieved when one has a big house in the safety of the suburbs, an SUV or two, money for a Disney vacation, fashionable clothes, a beautiful family (with approximately 2.5 kids and a dog) who attend all the best schools. I was recently informed that in 2015, the American Dream costs $130,000 a year to attain.
If you’re feeling left out, you’re in good company. Seven of eight American households don’t make enough to live this “ideal” life. And yet, that seems to be precisely the point. It’s a dream that is by and large unattainable. Even the folks who have that kind of money will tell you that hitting the mark didn’t give them fulfillment, but only made them hungry for more. It’s a dream that is sustained by politicians and marketeers who help further distort our desires and then use them to their own advantage. It’s a dream that is and has been built on the backs of black and poor Americans by those with power and wealth.*
Because we “all” want this dream, we quite often disregard the true economic and human cost of chasing the dream. In pursuit of this dream we will stretch ourselves, our checkbooks, and even the very earth upon which we depend to acquire the things that only seem to leave us with a hunger for more. In short, we live in a nation that is fueled by our insatiable hunger for an unattainable ideal and is sustained by all kinds of violence.
The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt. (Ps 14:2-3)
Reading the Scriptures for this coming Sunday, particularly the Old Testament lessons from 1 Samuel and the Psalms, it strikes me that there is really nothing new under the sun. The American Dream is, perhaps, just a repackaged version of the concerns expressed in these texts. Disordered desires. Violence. Power corrupted in order to hold onto power. Maybe that’s why the story of David and Bathsheba is so shocking when we read it. We wanted David to be the hero, the “man after God’s own heart.”
Yet here in this midst of “living the dream” as the shepherd-become-king, now accomplished enough to stay home bored while his soldiers are out at war, we find David greedy enough to get what he wants and powerful enough to fend off anybody who stands in his way. Ultimately, we find David up to his neck in the muck. There is no one who does good, not even one (Psalm 14:3).
Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! (Ps. 14:7)
For years I’ve read these prayerful cries of the Psalmists and prophets and assumed that the appeal for salvation was an appeal for rescue from outside enemies. Certainly Israel had plenty of need to make that prayer throughout its history. And yet, in the context of this entire Psalm, I realize now that this particular appeal for rescue is a plea for Israel to be saved from itself – its corruption, its violence, its sin.
When the Psalmist appeals for salvation, the place she looks is towards Zion. To look towards Zion means to look geographically towards that place where the ark, holding the Law, was located. It meant looking towards a way of life that was given as a gift in order to transform our distorted desires. It also meant looking towards a conceptual place out of which Israel hopefully and faithfully expected its Messiah would come.
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!
In the New Testament, particularly in the gospels, we see that deliverance emerge in the person and work of Jesus. He is the one who reveals to us what human life looks like when our desires are rightly ordered towards the love of God and our neighbors. Jesus is the one whose ministry pulls back the curtain to reveal a true kingdom dream to us.
This week’s particular gospel lesson does just this: the sharing of loaves and fishes reveals the possibility of a world of enough and more than enough (regardless of whether you think those loaves and fishes arrived by supernatural design or a super act of generosity and sharing). This week’s lesson reveals a God who sees God’s own people and has compassion on them. This Jesus proclaims of himself, “I Am,” and our imaginations skitter back to the deliverance of God’s people from the bondage of slavery in Exodus. This Jesus resists and withdraws when he recognizes the places where the people’s desires are yet distorted. (I am sure that there could be a fascinating word study comparing the ways that David “takes” Bathsheba and how the crowds try to “take” Jesus by force to make him king and how the disciples try to “take” him into the boat when they are afraid).
There are two places where my imagination is led by these texts about desires wrongly ordered and the hope for salvation. The first is the practice of daily examen that I learned from a stint with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps about 10 years ago. Ignatius of Loyola wrote that the purpose of the examen was to help an individual learn “to desire and elect only the thing which is more conducive to the end for which he was created: to praise, reverence, and serve our Lord.”
It’s not just King David who could do well to spend some time in reflection in the midst of life and before making decisions to act. The examen is a practice that helps search our hearts and order our lives after the values of the kingdom.
The second place these texts take me is to the Table. While John’s version of this story of the feeding of the 5,000 has less of the Eucharistic undertones than his Synoptic brethren’s stories, it is there nonetheless: the invitation to receive (not take) the bread of life that costs nothing and satisfies eternally.
Jesus’ life and ministry make a clear distinction between what is real and what is illusion; what is rightly desired and what is disordered. Jesus feeds his followers’ bellies, but also their imaginations by giving them a glimpse of a Table and a community that does not take $130,000 a year or the abuse of others’ bodies to sustain. In the end we find that Jesus gives his very body so that we can stop the madness that our disordered dreams would have us pursue.
Whether we stand in awe on the lakeshore or sit in fear in a boat on the lake, Jesus reveals to us that there is a grace that moves among us. It is not for our taking, but our gift to receive as we open our hearts and minds to the “love of Christ that is beyond all knowledge and so that we will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:19) It is this fullness (which is far beyond all that we can ask or imagine) that is the real Dream after which we chase.
*For a more complete unpacking of this idea, I highly recommend Ta-Nehisi Coate’s recently published book Between the World and Me.