Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
So begins the reading from the Old Testament, verses taken from the book of the prophet Isaiah. Challenging words that pretty much sum up where we are now; that Isaiah was writing some 2,500 years ago to an audience living in very different times suggests that this is a human problem through and through – let us put the question the other way around. What satisfies us? What do we want? How are our desires met? Isaiah like all the prophets, like Teachers across the centuries, takes on the culture of his contemporaries and invites us to drink from different wells to satisfy our thirst.
We live in an age where our economy depends on growth and expansion to survive; capitalism cannot exist in any other way – two quarters without growth is the formal definition of recession – and then everyone gets jittery. But to keep expanding, our economy depends on our remaining in a permanent state of agitation and dissatisfaction, always hankering for the new or the different, never quite finding that which will give us what we want – like hamsters on a wheel, we spin around ceaselessly in our frenetic pursuit of happiness – which itself has become something of an industry.
The consequences are stark – we may have reached a level of physical security and technological sophistication unimaginable to those good people listening to the prophet Isaiah, but the impact of a free market economy spinning out of human control is devastating from an environmental perspective. And terrifying from a human perspective as the major digital technology companies, like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft vie to secure their dominance in capturing our attention and shaping our desires. The fuel that fires the engine of this empire that reaches across our world are the values of competition, rivalry, the accumulation of riches and the satisfaction of a never-ending display of desires.
The pandemic may have pressed the pause button across the world but there is little sign of an appetite for significant change; so what did Isaiah have to say in his time? What are the waters that will quench the thirst, fill the lack we so often experience? He begins quite simply:
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
His call for us to listen, to pay attention as being the bedrock of change is remarkably consistent in spiritual teachings across the world and through history. In our present age interest in the practice of mindfulness and other forms of meditation is an encouraging sign of people’s willingness to deepen their understanding of themselves, to turn away from contemporary expressions of satisfaction and success. To listen and to pay attention. There is growing interest in the contemplative, transformative practice of our Christian faith that is less about credal orthodoxy – right belief, but more about right living and right practice. The practices that are printed on the prayer sheet – dwelling in the word and the time of silent prayer, both come from that contemplative source and if you practice them regularly they will make a difference to yourself and the world around you.
Interestingly in the Gospels, Jesus is frequently described as withdrawing by himself to a deserted place. This happens sometimes as he wants to escape the adulation of the crowds, and at other times like today as a response to an event; today, he has just heard about the death of his mentor and relative, John the Baptist who has been beheaded by Herod – a timely warning about the dangers of speaking truth to power. What better example than Jesus to show us that times of withdrawal are essential to our well-being – even if we do not have to follow the extreme path of our very own Wulfric who went to live inside the Church vestry for some 25 years.
Today in the Gospel passage the crowds were persistent as they followed him on foot from the towns, responding to his fast spreading reputation as a teacher and a healer. The people were looking for something, for salvation, for freedom from Roman tyranny or for healing for an illness in their own lives or that of their families. Quite often in the Gospels, the crowds appear as those who are lost and to that extent, we can easily find our place in the crowds; as we wonder how things will get back to normal, what will normal might look like anyway and what is that we have learnt through this time (apart from baking with sourdough!) that we would like to see continue. Remember that letter I asked you to write to yourselves back in May, noting those things you have discovered during the lockdown? We are not quite there yet, but the time is fast approaching for returning to that letter.
Jesus came ashore and when he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them and cured their sick. His first move not one of irritation or resentment that his time had been interrupted, as he tried to make sense of John’s death, but compassion. His heart going out to them and when his disciples suggest the time has come for the crowd to go away as it is getting late and they will be hungry, Jesus tells them not to send them away, but arranges them to sit down on the grass. There follows the extraordinary feeding of the five thousand men besides women and children out of the unpromising start of just five loaves and two fish. I wonder what happened.
Do you remember that before he began his public ministry Jesus went out into the desert? There he was tempted. The first temptation was to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger. Jesus responded by saying one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Remembering this made me wonder if this miracle was not about an extraordinary expansion of the picnic basket – why should Jesus’ view have changed about this? Rather there is an even more miraculous opening of the hearts of the assembled people to each other and discovering that through sharing they can feed each other and meet their needs, with baskets left over. In so doing they discovered the truth that life is to be found from the words that come from the mouth of God and that God’s world is not a world of scarcity, where resources have to be carefully allocated, but an abundant world, overflowing in so many ways.
Back to the beginning and the words of Isaiah:
you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Revd Jonathan Morris