After Jesus feeds four thousand people with the seven loaves of bread and some fish from his disciples, he gets in a boat with them for the next stop on their journey. On the way, he warns them to beware the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod. That yeast (or leaven) is translated to mean the “hardening of hearts.” It’s what we might call skepticism that leads to indifference. Here, we must never forget the words from Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel that “indifference and fear are the opposite of love.” Beware the tendency to become skeptical.
I’ve felt that tug toward skepticism lately. In this overwhelming election season where news about political campaigns and macro-level actions that are out of my hands make me feel like a helpless spectator, it’s easy to shrug my shoulders and rhetorically ask, “What’s the point?” But in those disheartening moments, I’ve tried to rise above it and tell skepticism to get behind me like the devil that it is so that my path can be clear to do something hopeful and good.
For the last few weeks I’ve been participating in a non-partisan letter-writing campaign that reaches out to registered voters who either haven’t voted before or are unlikely to given their voting record, all of whom are younger and/or People of Color. With a handwritten note, I tell the letter recipient my story about why voting is important to me, stuff it in an envelope, seal it, write their address, pop a stamp on it, and wait to send it later this month when all of the letters from this effort are mailed throughout the country. So far, I’ve written 60 letters to potential voters in three states, and I hope to adopt more.
The skeptic on my shoulder, tempting me toward indifference, tells me that my recipients might not receive their letter on time, not bother to open it, roll their eyes at what I have to say, or they could appreciate my note, but still not be motivated to vote. But the cynic on my other shoulder—you know, the one that nudges me toward hope by questioning the status quo and recognizing that what’s happening these days is not only not “normal” but also morally repugnant?—the cynic tells me to keep writing, stuffing, sealing, addressing, stamping and waiting for the big send date, because if even one of those letters reaches a person I’m trying to reach with my handwritten hopes and they are moved to action, then, in contrast with the macro-level stuff that shoves me to the sidelines with narcissistic nothingness, I will have done more than enough of something good.
When skepticism seizes us, we, like the disciples in the boat, need to take in Jesus’ barrage of questions, take hope, and get to work. Jesus asks his followers 12 questions (one for each of them): “Why are you talking about the fact that you don’t have any bread? Don’t you grasp what has happened? Don’t you understand? Are your hearts so resistant to what God is doing? Don’t you have eyes? Why can’t you see? Don’t you have ears? Why can’t you hear? Don’t you remember? When I broke five loaves of bread for those five thousand people, how many baskets full of leftovers did you gather? And when I broke seven loaves of bread for those four thousand people, how many baskets full of leftovers did you gather? And you still don’t understand?” The only questions they respond to are the ones that deal with basic math. When Jesus gets nothing from his blank-faced disciples about big questions, he has to break it down with something even their skepticism can compute to make the point. And then comes his follow-up question for all of us to ponder: “And you still don’t understand?”
God delivers people in bondage from slavery to freedom, provides for them in the wilderness, and invites them into a covenant relationship with the land, with each other and with God Godself so that their lives would always grow and thrive, and so that the common good would always be prioritized over individualistic gain, and we still don’t understand?
Jesus, the embodiment of God’s love is born to an unmarried peasant couple on the margins of society, raised in the social class of an overlooked family, baptized in the Jordan River on the outskirts of town by a guy who says that everyone, rich and poor alike, should change their lives to prepare the way for what God is doing, and then tempted in the wilderness for 40 days by the devil to just satisfy his own indulgence and take care of himself; yet, on an empty stomach in that wilderness, the homeless Nazarene named Jesus stood firm, saw through the devil’s manipulative lies, and started a ministry that would transform the world with compassion, justice, and abundant mercies, and we still don’t understand?
There were four thousand people and seven loaves of bread, so Jesus understood something about the abundant provisions of God’s goodness that we know, but that skepticism causes us to forget. We just need to remember.