Over the next few Sundays, we focus on chapter 6 of John’s gospel, the famous section on the Eucharist. Today, however, I would like to revisit the theme of God’s freedom that we have been looking at for a while. In particular, I want to look at the line in today’s gospel where it says, the crowds tried to make him king by force but he slipped away. This line reminds me of two things.
First, when I was in primary school, we had to learn all these old songs. I cannot remember exactly what it was for – I think we visited retirement homes or some of them visited us – but I remember many of the songs. One of them – Don’t fence me in – seems to capture Jesus’s escape from the crowd.
The second thing this line reminds me of was one of my first classes on scripture in the seminary. I remember the teacher describing the architecture of the Jewish Temple, and suggesting that the architects were not only very aware of the sacred scriptures, but also theologically profound in their own way. Why did he say this?
You might remember that the question of the building of the Temple appears in the second book of Samuel. David wants to build the Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, and is initially given the ok by the prophet Nathan, but later God tells him no. There are a number of reasons given, but one of them is along the lines of: don’t fence me in.
When we read this text, we can see a theological tension between two positions. There is a theology of stability indicated by David’s desire to build a temple, and really the whole idea of covenant. But there is also a theology of freedom indicated by the Ark of the Covenant which can move wherever, and is not fixed to a single location.
Our teacher told us that when the temple was built, the architects tried to maintain and reveal this tension. They did this by placing the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, the very heart of the Temple. It was screened off by a curtain such that only the High Priest could enter. However, to show God’s freedom, the beams that were underneath the Ark and were used to carry it around, poked out of the curtains. This was the architects’ way of expressing God’s Word “Don’t fence me in.”
Perhaps even more profoundly, if we return to the original text, we can see hints of a more far-reaching solution. God links himself to David’s family. There is a personal covenant made in respect of David’s ancestors. Thus, there is both stability and mobility. God is forever with his people but he can also move with them. We saw this a couple of weeks ago when we considered God going ahead of his people into exile, when God leaves the Temple ahead of its destruction in the vision of the prophet Ezekiel. It is fulfilled even more profoundly in the person of Christ, the freedom of God and human freedom forever linked in his person.
It’s worth thinking about this tension in our own faith. God is truly our God in that God has handed over his Son to us. But God is also truly God – someone we can never fence in. We must keep coming back to this if we are to avoid the problems we hear about in our gospel.
The first problem is the sense of despair. What is one person against such a huge problem? What does my tiny offering actually do? This, however, needs to be read correctly. The boy’s small offering, though small, is probably everything the boy has. Thus, his gift is total. Just like in the story of the widow who gives more than she can, we cannot hold back from God. And when we are generous, God is never outdone. We therefore need to understand this story right: one’s offering is always small when compared to the task, but it can never be small in relation to our own means. We do have to respond to God with all of our lives. We can’t fence God out in this way, keeping God at arm’s length.
The second problem we find in our reading is a sense of possessiveness when it comes to God’s generosity. When Jesus works the miracle, the people understandably want that power for themselves. They seek to institute that power for themselves by making him their king, and in a sense only their king. To which Jesus responds, once more, Don’t fence me in.
Again, we see this message repeated throughout the gospels. The parable of the hired labourers is about this. Also, the fact that Jesus is called to the people of Israel first, but not exclusively is like this. If we want to look further afield, we can find the same pattern throughout the Old Testament. God gives himself completely, but not in a way that restricts his generosity. We can receive God’s gift but we cannot stop God making the same gift to others. And indeed we ourselves are supposed to become part of God’s total gift. God wants to take our gift – big for us, little in the world’s eyes – and do remarkable things with it.
Let’s pray once more then to start with God. In our prayers, in our actions, let’s never forget that God is always exceeding us in generosity and ready to take our offering and turn it into the life of his Son. As happens at every Mass.