By Steve Schlossberg
The racy story of David and Bathsheba and the more obviously pious story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 have something in common. They’re both stories about desire. They’re both stories about what people want, and how much they want it. The first story is about a king who wants a woman, and wants to take her home and make her his lover. The second story is about a crowd of people who want a king, and who want to take Jesus back to Jerusalem and make him their leader.
Here’s the difference: King David wants something more than he’s been given. Those in the crowd want something less. That’s why, when Jesus perceives that they want to make him their king, he slips away and hides from them. It’s not because their expectations of him are too high. It’s because their expectations are too low.
All they wanted was a king. Oddly enough, given this morning’s first lesson, they wanted a king like David. They all knew the story of David and Bathsheba, they all knew that King David was an adulterer and a murderer, and they all knew that as a husband, as a father, and as a man he left a lot to be desired.
But as a king, David was without equal. When the people of Jesus’ day thought about the glory days of Israel, they thought of King David. It was David who pulled 12 tribes together into one nation, it was David who drove the enemies of Israel out of the Promised Land, secured their borders, kept the people safe, gave his people peace, gave his people justice, and made his people great.
A thousand years later, Israel was humiliated, beaten down and oppressed by the Romans, and those beaten-down people were looking for another champion like David to pull Israel together again, raise Israel up again and make Israel great again. And their idea of making everything great again was making everything the way it used to be.
They wanted a lot. It’s no small thing to wish that things were the way they used to be. It’s just that it’s not enough.
Jesus didn’t come to make things the way they used to be; he came to make all things new. And that was not only more than anyone expected, that was more than anyone wanted. The sign and the sacrament of that was in the bread that he multiplied for the people. When he gave the people bread, that was a sign and a sacrament of himself. And at the end of the day, when Jesus had fed the crowds and the crowds had eaten all they wanted — when they were fully satisfied, the story says — there were 12 basketfuls of bread left over.
He gave them more than they cared to eat. He gave them more than they were prepared to receive.
And that, in short, is the story of the gospel. When people looked at him, they saw what they wanted. When he looked at them, he saw what they needed, and he rushed to meet their needs. But in the end they rejected him because he disappointed their expectations. What they wanted was a king like David. What he turned out to be was someone more like Uriah, the faithful spouse and humble servant who slept on the doorstep of his master like a faithful dog and refused to go home to his wife, because his comrades in the field weren’t free to go home to their wives. When my comrades are free to indulge themselves, Uriah told David, then I will indulge myself. But until then, he said, I will deny myself. And because Uriah wouldn’t cooperate with his plans to cover up his self-indulgence, King David had Uriah put to death.
In the end, Jesus didn’t look like David. He looked like Uriah. But in the end, Uriah turned out to be greater than David. And there’s the irony of the gospel: in the end, people rejected Jesus because he looked like less than they were looking for, when he was actually more than they were looking for.
All they wanted was a king; he came to give them God. And that was not only more than anybody expected; that was more than anybody wanted. And so the end of the day, there were 12 basketfuls of bread left over, one for each of the tribes of Israel, because no one in Israel had an appetite for what he came to give them. They wanted something less. Prepared to receive little, they rejected much.
So it is with me. I see what I want. Anything less than that, I reject — anything less than that, and as a matter of fact, anything more.
Now that’s not the way I normally see it. The way I normally see it is that I want much, and God in his wisdom gives me less. My heart is a restless ocean churning with bottomless desire, and God, using an eyedropper, faithfully dribbles out exactly enough to meet my needs. As if God is a good Father, and a loving father, but sort of an old-fashioned father who grew up during the Great Depression, who had to work hard for everything he has, and who wants me to learn to work hard for everything I get, and who’s perfectly willing to see to my necessities, but who’s not willing to indulge my desires.
I think that’s how many Christians try to rationalize our disappointments with prayer. We pray to God and ask him to give us something, we don’t see him giving it, and so we explain that strange failure of his by saying, Well, he doesn’t always give us what we want. He just gives us what we need.
I think there’s some truth in that. What we really need is often something other than what we want. But why do we take it for granted that what we need is something less than what we want?
Like David’s, our desires do become bloated. We are people who tend to want bigger houses than we really need, and newer cars and newer phones and more screens, more toys, more entertainment and more lovers than we really need. We all know that there are a thousand things we want that we don’t really need. But do all those things really add up to more than we really need? Isn’t the real problem with all those things that they add up to less than what we need?
Our real need for a love better and truer than our own; our real need for acceptance, our bottomless need for forgiveness, which dwarfs our desire for justice; our driving need for purpose; our fundamental need to give as well as receive; our continuing need to receive as well as to give; our aching need to have the bloated things inside us drained, the withered things inside us rejuvenated, and the crippled things inside us, and between us, set right and rehabilitated — weighed against these, the frothing desires of our hearts are no more than a few drops in the ocean.
I think I often fail to see the answer to my prayers because the real answer to my prayers is not only something other than I’m asking for, it’s something more than I’m asking for. Not only do I not know my real needs as well as God does, I don’t even care about my real needs as much as God does. God gives much. I want less.
The crowd followed him into the wilderness that day, we’re told, because they’d seen the signs he’d done among the sick, the invalids in Galilee, who reached out to touch the fringe of Jesus’ robe for healing. But when the invalids reached out to touch the fringe of his robe, what were they reaching for? Were they reaching for what they needed? Or were they reaching for what they wanted?
Well, it probably never occurred to those ailing people to figure out the difference between their needs and their desires. The deepest needs of a person who’s ill, and the deepest desires of a person who’s ill — it’s impossible to tell them apart. He needs what he wants; he wants what he needs. And believe it or not, that’s the picture of us in the full bloom of our health.
In the beginning, our needs and our desires were meant to live together like newlyweds, as one flesh. We were made to love what we need, and to want what we need, and to want what we need with all our hearts. But somewhere along the way, something got broken, and now we find our needs and desires living together in the same house like divorcees, fighting over who gets the house, sleeping in separate beds.
What happens to our desires when they become detached from our needs? They ache. They bloat. Some of them become insatiable. But do they grow any deeper? Or do they just grow shallower?
I don’t believe God denies us the desires of our hearts. I do believe he wants to deepen them. Even the wanton desires of our hearts — especially the wanton desires of our hearts. It’s not that our wanton desires have nothing to do with what we really need. In their feeble way they really are reaching out for what we need. It’s just they haven’t the strength to grasp what we really need. They’re not big enough. They’re not deep enough. They’re not even wild enough. The truth is that our wildest and most wanton desires stagger and grope their way through the world, not like a pride of lusty young lions hunting for fresh meat, but like a small crowd of invalids, hobbling each on one leg, each rattling a little tin cup.
We need more than we want. He is here today to give it. Are we prepared to receive it? Probably not. But take heart: He does more than multiply loaves and fish. He takes up small desires, weak desires, crippled desires, even seriously mistaken desires — and he makes much of them. He not only spreads a table for us, and prepares a feast for us, but he feeds our desire to share it — every course of it, every crumb of it, every fragment.
For his desire, wild and ravenous, is that none be lost.
The Rev. Steve Schlossberg is rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.