Bread and Circuses

Deborah Beach Giordano
© July 30, 2018

John 6:2-15 ~ told by Deborah

Crowds followed Jesus everywhere he went because of the wondrous healings he performed.

After crossing the lake from Capernaum, Jesus went up on the mountain to spend a little quiet time with his disciples. But very soon the crowd caught up with them.

Seeing the mass of people heading their way, Jesus asked Philip, “Where will we buy bread to feed all these people?” (He wanted to see what Philip would say, but he already knew what he was going to do.)

Philip replied, “Six months’ wages wouldn’t buy enough bread for each of them to get a single bite!”

Andrew, another of his disciples, said, “There’s a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what difference can such a small amount make?”

Jesus said, “Have everyone sit down.” In the spring the fields are filled with soft, green grass, so the people made themselves comfortable; there were about five thousand of them.

Then Jesus took the loaves, and, after giving thanks, distributed them among the people, along with the fish, too; letting them take as much as they wanted.

When everyone had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up all that remains, so that nothing may be lost.” So they collected what was left of the five barley loaves, and the scraps filled twelve baskets.

When Jesus realized that the people were preparing to seize him and declare him king, he quietly made his way back up the mountain, alone.

Performance Art?

The author of the Gospel of John tells us that the crowds followed Jesus not because they were impressed by his teachings, but in order to witness the amazing healings he performed. Some of the people must have believed in him, but others undoubtedly came to be amused and entertained, certain that it was mere performance art, like a rope trick or sawing a lady in half.

The towns of first century Palestine were frequent hosts to “miracle workers.” Arriving to great fanfare, these travelers dazzled the naive and gullible with their showmanship, and then disappeared with the takings before their “cures” were revealed to have been faked; their potions, worthless.

Who can blame those who came to see this Galilean “healer,” anticipating comic relief or obvious chicanery, and who subsequently went away unimpressed or scornful? How could they be expected to separate Jesus from the charlatans and cheats who roamed the Roman roads?

For that matter, who can blame current-day doubters? Penn & Teller and other professional entertainers have demonstrated how “magic” is accomplished by trickery; advances in medicine and psychiatry have revealed the workings of psychosomatic illnesses, hysterical blindness and paralysis, mass hypnosis, and more. Everything — all of the healing wonders that Jesus is said to have performed — can be explained away. What makes Him so special?

Loaves and Fish

Ah, but then there’s the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Surely that is an action of an entirely different magnitude; a “work of power” that must have had divine origin. It couldn’t be faked. Here was a genuine, solid, physical miracle.

Reported in all four of the canonical Gospels, it is clear that something happened on that hillside; something remarkable; an event permanently inscribed in the memories of Jesus’ followers. And it definitely made an impression on those who were there. Thousands of people were fed in a single afternoon, despite the fact that no one had prepared meals for the crowd — nor, apparently, had the attendees thought to bring food for themselves.

What’s particularly interesting, as it is reported by John’s Gospel, is that this feeding frenzy convinced those who were there that Jesus ought to be acclaimed king. Apparently the idea of an endless supply of free food was enough to buy the crowd’s loyalty. 

Bread and Circuses

Roman politicians had passed laws to retain the votes of poorer citizens by giving out cheap food and entertainment; ”bread and circuses” became the most effective way to rise to power.
~ as reported by Juvenal (who was there)

But Jesus wasn’t interested in being the Lord of bread and circuses — and so he left that place and went off by himself, away from the crowd. Perhaps this sudden popularity was a kind of awakening for him, a realization of the dangers of this fickle, readily-purchased loyalty that can change in an instant; following first one leader and then another and back again, as abruptly and unpredictably as the winds that blow across the sea of Galilee.

I’m reminded of a story. 

An old, white-haired man entered the bar leading a massive black bear on a leash. Inserting a coin into the jukebox, the man turned to the bear and said, “Dance!” and the bear, very obligingly, danced. When the music ended, the man threw a large meatball to the bear who immediately swallowed it, and, as the next song started to play, again began to dance.

“How do you do that?” an astonished patron asked, “How can you make that huge animal dance like that, and not attack you?”

“It’s easy,” the bear’s owner replied, “Just don’t run out of meatballs.”

Purchased loyalty is no loyalty at all.

And it is bad for the soul.

The Rate of Exchange

Purchased loyalty entangles us in unhealthy, even destructive, relationships, regardless of which part we play. Sellers become entrenched in servitude; doing what they’re told, lest the goody-train be halted: “Do as I say, or no more meatballs for you.” Buyers may find themselves caught up in a dangerous brand of extortion; forced to pay and pay and pay, far beyond the initial agreement: “Keep feeding me, or I will attack you.” 

It’s never (well, rarely) quite as obvious as the man and the bear. These disordered exchanges can take the form of relationships that require exacting behavior, unceasing solicitude, abject apologies, and instant attention, in exchange for an always-conditional “friendship” —  utterly devoid of reciprocity. It all depends on what we are willing to accept “in trade.”

In the larger arena, purchased loyalty becomes a commodity: an item that is marketed, advertised, and sold to/bought by the highest bidder. There is no honor in it, no nobility of purpose, no trust or sincerity. Today it is bread and circuses, tomorrow it will be cakes and ale, and the day after that whatever new desire or imagined need strikes our fancy. And we sell our souls so readily, for such paltry returns — most often, for nothing more than empty promises.

Something for Nothing

There was no “exchange” in Jesus’ actions there on the hillside that day. He wasn’t buying the crowd’s loyalty or selling his status in order to rule over them. He gave without expectation of return. The abundant food was a sign and symbol of the abundant, unconditional generosity of God.

“Your heavenly Father makes the sun shine upon the evil and upon the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
~ Matthew 5:45

But the people didn’t understand — it seemed incomprehensible then, as it still does to us, today — this divine notion of “something for nothing.” 

No money changed hands when wondrous healings occurred, no admission fees were charged for Jesus’ lectures, no allegiance was demanded in exchange for a fish sandwich. Throughout his ministry the Lord Christ gave freely, abundantly, compassionately; requiring nothing in return. Imagine that!

He certainly could have used “bread and circuses” to rise to a position of authority; Jesus’ resume offers plenty of examples that could meet those qualifications. But he would not. When faced with a crowd of people willing to sell him their loyalty — to give away their sovereign power over their bodies and souls in exchange for free meals — the Lord ran away and hid himself.

Jesus was opposed to all attempts to “turn My Father’s house into a marketplace” (John 2:16), including our willingness to sell ourselves and our sacred souls — handing over our loyalty and our obedience in exchange for trifles; giving others the power to manipulate us, to command us, to tell us what to think, what to believe, what to do… And when to dance.

Ultimate Matters

While some of his disciples continued to follow Jesus faithfully, many others abandoned him, turned off by his teachings, finding them simply too hard to understand. Heavenly bread that is more important, more nourishing, than the bread on our tables (and in our stomachs)? An all-powerful Lord who doesn’t demand titles or tithes or tributes, but gives of Himself, generously, wildly, abundantly — even laying down his own life for ours? What madness! What’s in it for Him???

What was in it for Him? Nothing. The pattern of Jesus’ life was not transactional: it was not about buying and selling, there were no in-kind trades; the debts He redeemed and the gifts He gave were free and clear; they carried no obligations.

The Lord Christ was the sign and symbol and incarnation of Perfect Love. Eternally outflowing, abundant, unstinting; a showing-forth of the Divine nature, asking nothing in return, He came to teach us how to live — nothing more, nothing less.

And in those days there were doubters, cynics, and scoffers — just as there are, today; for who can imagine One who loves without conditions, One who gives without expectation of return? 

Imagine that.

Imagine being loved and sustained by God’s freely-given, boundless, limitless love and compassion. Now go forth, believing and behaving as if that Truth were true.

Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,


Suggested Spiritual Exercise

In what ways have you sold your loyalty, and to whom, in exchange for what? Who commands that you dance, and how? What must you do, lest the bear/s in your life cease dancing?

About inklingscommunity

I am a struggling Christian, committed pacifist, near-obsessive recycler, incurable animal lover, inveterate tree-hugger; a nature mystic, a socialized introvert, an advocate for the vulnerable, an opponent of exploiters.
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