Opinion

The lesson of the loaves and fishes — lost on the House Agriculture Committee

“Miracle of the Bread and Fish” painting by Giovanni Lanfranco, created between 1620 and 1623. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Ireland/Creative Commons

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, flanked by Vice Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., left, and Rep. John Faso, R-N.Y., announces the new farm bill, officially known as the 2018 Agriculture and Nutrition Act, at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 12, 2018. The bulk of the bill’s spending goes toward funding SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

 

(RNS) — There’s a popular parable in the Gospel in which Jesus, surrounded by a hungry multitude, asks his disciples to share with the masses what they have to eat. Although they produce only a few loaves of barley bread and a couple of fish, Jesus miraculously distributes enough food to feed thousands and still have 12 baskets left over.

There’s a lesson in this Bible story about sharing, but it’s clear that lesson has been lost on too many of our elected officials. Rather than a fair and moral distribution of our common resources to ensure everyone has enough, our current leaders continue to embrace economic inequality by taking from those already struggling to make ends meet so they can pile more riches on the wealthy and corporations.

In Washington, D.C., for example, the House Committee on Agriculture earlier this month released the 2018 farm bill, which was cobbled together by Republicans and calls for major funding reductions that would slash access to nutrition assistance for millions of families, impose unfair work requirements on people who already are struggling, and burden states with greater administrative costs.

The farm bill in part funds SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, which assists some 41 million people and keeps about 8.4 million out of abject poverty. But this oppressive proposal puts the well-being of those who need the most support from SNAP — children, senior citizens and people with disabilities — in jeopardy.

“Miracle of the Bread and Fish” painting by Giovanni Lanfranco, created between 1620 and 1623. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Ireland/Creative Commons

Moreover, President Trump signed an executive order two weeks ago that would have a detrimental impact on people who receive federal benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid. The order, titled “Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility,” contends that many federal programs created to help families have instead “delayed economic independence, perpetuated poverty, and weakened family bonds.”

Add to this lack of compassion for the least of us the new federal tax law Congress members and the president approved in December. It is another example of what the Bible admonishes us not to do. The law contains $1.5 trillion in tax breaks, 85 percent of which go to the richest Wall Street corporations and the wealthiest 1 percent of households. Many of those tax breaks are paid for by repealing parts of the Affordable Care Act, which will leave 13 million more people without health insurance and increase premiums for some families by over $2,000 a year.

At the same time, the tax law gives a hefty reward — a reduction in tax rates to 21 percent from 35 percent — to prescription drug and health insurance companies that have been making huge profits by gouging consumers over the past decade. UnitedHealth, for example — the country’s largest insurance company — will reap a $1.7 billion tax break annually.

Taxes are our collective investment in the things we all need — health care, roads, education, safety, etc. — to share in the nation’s prosperity. Large corporations making record profits are big beneficiaries of that prosperity and should be asked to pay their fair share of taxes to support it. But instead, thanks to the new tax law, that money will line the pockets of rich shareholders and executives.

This kind of hoarding of the nation’s abundance comes at a cost. The tax breaks for Wall Street and the rich will increase the deficit by $1.9 trillion over the next 10 years, according to the latest reports. President Trump’s budget proposes trillions more in cuts to health care, education, food stamps, disability services, housing and much more to address the growing deficit.

The parable of the loaves and fishes teaches us that there is enough for everyone and even some left over when we share. Unfortunately, the stewards that we have entrusted with distribution when it comes to taxes don’t share those values.

Politicians who approved this law, which takes from struggling families to give more loaves and fish to those already gorged and bloated with plenty, haven’t just created a fiscal deficit. They’ve exposed a moral one.

(The Rev. James H. Willis Sr. is president of the American Baptist Churches of Ohio, president of  Toledoans United for Social Action and pastor of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Toledo. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

“The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” by James Tissot, created between 1886 and 1894. Image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum/Creative Commons

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James H. Willis

33 Comments

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  • Republicans literally want children to starve to death in order right after giving away a ton of money to the uppermost wealthy and corporations.

    Louis the XVI would consider the 2018 tax plan too harsh on the poor.

  • If anyone has noticed as well, society including our government uses money as a means to control people too.

    We all hear how fees, tolls, sales taxes (for specific items) are there to penalize those who are not wealthy for control/behavior modification.

    If you look at currently streaming ideas, as well as those already implemented, such as taxes on mileage, paying monthly for the privilege of driving in certain lanes during rush hour, those overflow garbage bags where trash pickup is limited to a certain amount, sugar taxes, grocery bags, health care, etc and all it does is cause more hardship for everyone that does not have unlimited funds.

    In other words, it is a reinforcer of the wealthy being above the rest and exempt from whatever the “program” wants the rest of us to do. It causes poverty, limits opportunity, unless we comply. Using money as a deterrent, a behavior modifier. Even today there was a Boston Globe article about how the Mass transportation department was close to approving a move to charge a fee to everyone who drops off or picks up someone from Logan Airport. Thankfully it was nixed at the last minute,

    Poverty, over burdening people, behavior modification through money/spending is what the fishes and loaves were speaking to when all ate their fill from the bountiful grace given freely from God.

  • Quick, quiz me, brother James H. Willis.

    TRUE OR FALSE: “[Jesus’] parable of the loaves and fishes teaches us that there is enough for everyone and even some left over when we share.”

    FALSE.

  • NO, “poverty, over burdening people, behavior modification through money/spending is [NOT] what the fishes and loaves were speaking to”!

    The point of Jesus feeding the multitude with loaves & fish was:

    (1) So that they’d feel His “compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd to teach them” (Mark 6:34, cf. Mark 8:2). Instead, what happened was that “they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, but their heart was hardened” (Mark 6:52). And so, though “having eyes, they could not see; and having ears, they could not hear” (Mark 8:18).

    (2) So they’d come to believe that this Christ Jesus “is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die but live forever. The bread which He will give for the life of the world is not the Eucharist but rather His crucified sacrificial flesh” (John 6:50-51).

  • All the miracles Jesus performed on earth, including healing the sick, diseased, blind and lame, resurrecting some persons, and, as brought up by this article, feeding many persons from a few provisions, were a preview of the following:

    Throughout the upcoming millennial rule of Christ Jesus, or God’s son and King of his Father’s kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44), people worldwide on earth will be healed (Isaiah 33:25; 35:5,6) and resurrected from death back to life on earth (John 5:28, 29).

    There will also be no food shortages, nor poverty, nor homelessness, and everyone on earth will be blessed and have plenty of food to eat (Psalm 72:16).

  • Not sure how any of that addresses the current wide spread food insecurity. Die so you can be fed? Not exactly optimistic. Join our club and maybe you’ll get something to eat? Stick before the carrot approach.

  • The “miracle” of the loaves and fishes: just another myth started by Mark and copied by M, L, and J. Mark 6: 31-44

    Said myth fails rigorous historic testing. e.g. http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb003.html

    from Professor Gerd Luedemann

    “Luedemann [Jesus, 45] offers the following historical judgment of the account in Mark 6:

    The formation of this story derives from the needs of the community. Its historical value is nil. Anyone is free to accept the table fellowship of Jesus and his followers as a starting point for the rise of this story. But that is rather different from the feeding of the 5000. ”

    from Professor John P. Meier, Theology Department at Notre Dame:

    “Meier [Marginal Jew II,966] suggests that the Gospel stories of Jesus feeding a multitude preserves a tradition about “some especially memorable communal meal of bread and fish” but does not think it possible to offer a judgment on whether anything miraculous was involved in the meal event. See pp. 950-967 for his complete discussion.”

  • Whether one wants to take the parable of the loaves and fishes literally or metaphorically really makes no difference; the message is the same. It matters not if one believes in Jesus the Savior or rejects him completely as myth and the fake sky god of deluded believers makes no difference; the message is the same.

    Jesus called upon the gathered to share. Voluntarily. He didn’t dip into their purses and redistribute because he was in charge and so, like, you know, could. That’s the difference. Jesus also shared his own ‘resources’ voluntarily. That’s the difference. Unlike the Federal government, he didn’t fleece the faithful and redistribute by whim. He also offered free health care, but it was his to offer, and not taken from someone else to redistribute.

    But then … it’s hard to understand why, in this country, we have so many poor without enough to eat. It’s hard, nay, impossible (for some of us, at least) to begrudge a kid a school lunch or a breakfast. Does it really matter if his parents are lazy, good-for-nothing welfare mooches (probably godless Democrats, doncher know)? What does that have to do with the kid?

    I find it difficult to begrudge a single mother working a minwage job some help with food stamps.

    If the churches shoveled a little less money overseas on their ‘missions’, maybe they could do a better job with some voluntary re-distribution of funds and resources. But then … would the congregations go along with that? It’s fine to feed the starving Ethiopians, but do we really want to waste church resources on homeland welfare mooches? I mean, like, really … would Jesus do that? And isn’t this, after all, a ‘Christian’ nation? Why would a ‘Christian’ nation want to feed its own poor? I mean, like, what would Jesus think of *that*? (He’d probably require drug tests before handing out the loaves and fishes, but that’s another story).

    And so it falls to the government to do this, and since the government is doing this, as expected (it being a government operation) it’s inefficient and fraught with fraud, waste, and abuse.

    Sure, there’s abuses of the system. I’ve seen it myself, and I could tell you some tales that would get your blood boiling. But then … I have also seen the struggling single moms, the kids whose only decent meal(s) are going to be at the schools. If the churches and other ‘resources’ can’t or won’t handle it, then who will? If those churches and other ‘resources’ who depend on voluntary donations and which *do* try to help, don’t have enough to help enough … then who will?

    Apparently, not the GOP.

  • These policies may not be in keeping with the teachings of Jesus, but they are overwhelmingly supported by American evangelicals. They’ve chosen who and what they want to support, and it sure isn’t the Jewish carpenter.

  • You mistake the purpose of social welfare benefits. It is not charity. It is done to prevent the political and social damaging effects created by unchecked poverty. To keep them from becoming public health hazards and hazards to our democratic system. Starvation, desperate poverty, unchecked but treatable medical conditions, these all harm society as a whole and lead to things like violent revolution.

    It is not charity out of the goodness of our hearts. It’s tumbril insurance.

  • Well, although it appears to be mean and cheap, and quite possibly is mean and cheap, it’s a long way from ‘starving kids to death,’ so yeah … it really is hyperbole.

  • Well, it matters not to me if the entire Congress is loaded up in tumbrils and carted off to the guillotines. I’d call that a pretty good House cleaning, if you get my drift. Beyond that, though, as for a ‘violent revolution’, well, that’s why we have AR-15’s, you see. They come in handy no matter one is a ‘revolutionary’ seeking ‘justice’ (whatever that means), or a ‘counter-revolutionary’, bent on maintaining the status quo. I think I’d be a ‘counter-revolutionary.’ One, I’m not hungry enough to revolt, and two, that whole Che revolutionary thing (typical modern example) doesn’t do much for me: “To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary. These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail. This is a revolution! And a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate. We must create the pedagogy of the paredón.”

    “Archaic bourgeois detail.” You gotta admit, Our Che could turn a phrase. But now, it’s time for my morning snack.

  • Boy howdy, ain’t that the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. “Denial” can be tacit or implicit. Pete’s denials were implicit. The denial by the 81% is a little more tacit, but it’s still denial. Cock a doodle doo!

  • “Well, it matters not to me if the entire Congress is loaded up in tumbrils and carted off to the guillotines”

    I am sure Alexander Kerensky thought the same thing. 🙂

    But truth of the matter is extreme poverty, starvation, rampant public health hazards are corrosive to our entire way of life. Some of us like a functioning and free society. Your post indicates otherwise. Oh well.

    I suspect I am being trolled and are too stiff to realize it. 🙂

  • Well, you do come across as being a bit stiff, but no, you are not being ‘trolled.’ I just don’t agree with you. Meanwhile, tell the audience what you mean by ‘functioning and free.’

  • Nope. Being trolled.

    But to add, rampant unchecked poverty also makes a population less likely to support democratic government and institutions. Both fascism and communism got their appeal by promising food and survival in exchange for loyalty and the willingness to commit atrocity on order. Having a convenient enemy to attack and blame the troubles on. Its telling that both ideologies got a huge boost in the Great Depression. Especially in the US.

    Again, not even close to the idea of charity. Welfare is social protection. Democracy insurance. A legitimate government interest and use of its resources. As opposed to corporate welfare and supply side taxation theory.

    A government that represents its people represents all of it. Including our poorest.

  • IDK To me this story has the most meaning when looked at with a view of the relationship between Jesus and a nameless faceless boy with a lunch. There is no account of this but when Jesus told his disciples to go see among the people what food there was he already knew who they would find and what he had, in my imagination. Maybe he was even looking at him knowing he was listening when he gave his instructions. A multitude of people being fed is just the back drop to the bigger story. I think that when the boy gave up his lunch he learned something about himself. When he sees his lunch is the only one found he learns something about people.
    There is another part to this story that usually is not connected to the telling. Later Jesus sends these people away because the only reason they’re following him is for the food he’s giveing them. If there is anything true about my idea of how the first part happened then I think that same boy is within eye sight of Jesus when he does this.
    I think the life lesson this little boy would have learned through this experience would have been. Give greedy people what they want and they will love you like fried chicken and apple pie. Give needy people what they want and they will love you like a carton of Kools and nothing to do. Use what they want to meet a greater need and they will wonder what anyone ever saw in you in the first place.
    In this case the story doesn’t really tell me what crowd I should associate myself with. It tells me what kind of individual I should drive to be.

  • It’s amazing how these folk don’t seem to recall the impetus behind the “food stamp” program. It wasn’t just about feeding the poor … although it does that, and was intended to help in that regard. It was also intended to bolster food prices, by widening the market for many different kinds of food.  

    You see, the old way of trying to bolster farm-commodity prices, which until then had been for the government to buy surpluses and then distribute them, had worked to a degree, but it only was effective when there was a surplus of something. If a crop/product had an off year, there was no help, and farmers lost — a lot. Food stamps injected money into the markets for goods, and served to maintain more level farm-commodity pricing. And it had the effect of spreading that spending across many commodities, not just the half-dozen each year that had a surplus. 

    In sum, food stamps served an important service to the economy, and arguably the program still does. Its chief beneficiaries are agricultural suppliers … farmers and any other person or company that trades in ag products. 

    What’s happened is that — like most “entitlements” — the program has triggered sanctimonious reactions in people. For instance, lots of folks get offended when SNAP recipients buy shrimp in the grocery store instead of other things like rice and beans. Somehow, it’s “bad” when this happens. SNAP recipients aren’t “good enough,” it seems, to merit eating shrimp; they should instead be forced to eat only beans and rice. 

    Or something like that. I guess. I mean, it must matter to these people … for some reason … although I can’t figure what it is. 

    What’s left out of all this is that it’s actually good — for fisheries and related businesses — for some SNAP money to be spent on shrimp instead of only on rice and beans. The basic idea is to (literally) spread spending to a larger segment of the economy. If people want the poor only to eat rice and beans, we could go back to distributing surplus commodities and hope there’s extra rice and beans every year. 

  • No, when “Jesus sends these people away because the only reason they’re following him is for the food he’s giving them … the life lesson [here isn’t:] … Give greedy people what they want and they will love you … Give needy people what they want and they will love you … [But] use what they want to meet a greater need and they will wonder what anyone ever saw in you in the first place.”

    Like I reminded YoikesAndAway, the point of Jesus feeding the multitude with loaves & fish was:

    (1) So that they’d feel His “compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd to teach them” (Mark 6:34, cf. Mark 8:2). Instead, what happened was that “they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, but their heart was hardened” (Mark 6:52). And so, though “having eyes, they could not see; and having ears, they could not hear” (Mark 8:18).

    (2) So they’d come to believe that this Christ Jesus “is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die but live forever. The bread which He will give for the life of the world is not the Eucharist but rather His crucified sacrificial flesh” (John 6:50-51).

  • No, in “the parable of the loaves and fishes literally or metaphorically … the message is [NOT that] Jesus called upon the gathered to share [and] shared his own ‘resources’ voluntarily.”

    Like I reminded YoikesAndAway & G J, the point of Jesus feeding the multitude with loaves & fish was:

    (1) So that they’d feel His “compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd to teach them” (Mark 6:34, cf. Mark 8:2). Instead, what happened was that “they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, but their heart was hardened” (Mark 6:52). And so, though “having eyes, they could not see; and having ears, they could not hear” (Mark 8:18).

    (2) So they’d come to believe that this Christ Jesus “is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die but live forever. The bread which He will give for the life of the world is not the Eucharist but rather His crucified sacrificial flesh” (John 6:50-51).

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