17th Sunday in Ordinary time

Ever since the referendum two years ago Brexit has dominated the news, public debate and – in many cases – private conversation. Two years after the decision was made you might have expected the story to have gone cold and to slip out of public consciousness. Instead, Brexit remains a hot topic and it persistently occupies the headlines. Part of the ongoing discussion is the perception of Brexit as a political process. At one end of the spectrum it’s seen as the ultimate liberation, while at the other end Brexit is considered the ultimate folly. And, obviously, there are many opinions that fall between those two extremes. I’m not going to delve into such a discussion here; it’s not my job, and I’ll be happy to keep those few friends I still have here. I want to use the topic as a springboard to a much wider issue. Many commentators believe that Brexit has been driven by populism; the subliminal message of such opinions is that populism is bad and wrong.

When I started working on this sermon, I did some basic research; I mean that I was looking for some relevant jokes! When I typed populism into an online search engine, the first result returned was the definition of the word. It goes like this: support for the concerns of ordinary people. Well, I can’t see what’s wrong with that! That’s exactly what Jesus does in today’s gospel. With a pinch of salt I’d say that he behaves like a model populist: he addresses the crowd following him. The people  follow Jesus because they have witnessed the free medical care he provided to a number of sick people. And then he feeds all five thousand of them despite a fantastically insufficient budget (two hundred denarii) and resources (five loaves and two fish). No wonder that the crowd wants to proclaim Jesus as their king, even against his wishes. Free medical care, free meals and the subsequent care-free lifestyle are surely worth suffering long speeches for, aren’t they? Well, over the next four Sundays we will be listening to one long speech by Jesus. Let me tell you, at the end of it people will leave Jesus in droves, they will disappear like snow off a dyke, to the extent that He will ask even his closest companions whether they will leave him too. So much for Jesus as a career populist, then.

But truly, He never was or wanted to be someone in the mould of our modern-day populists. He was considerate of the concerns of ordinary people, but he didn’t offer unrealistic, simplistic solutions to those concerns. He rejected the narrowly nationalistic, political and often violent struggle, which was common amongst his contemporaries. Jesus’ way of changing inequality in many aspects of people’s lives was and is by changing the hearts of individuals. His miracle of feeding the crowd was a practical demonstration what can be achieved when people apply the brakes to their selfishness. Somehow people in the crowd, moved by Jesus’ sharing of the little food He’d had, followed suit and shared their own modest provisions with others, effectively leaving everyone satisfied. But then they lost the plot. They missed one crucial point: such a miracle is possible when the people involved have produced something to share. Perhaps that explains a tiny detail in today’s gospel: there were five thousand men following Jesus and making all the fuss, while their wives, left behind at home, took care of the necessities of everyday life.

So, dare I say, we need populism as a remedy against individualism. But we need a pure form of populism, the one that offers support for the concerns of ordinary people. I’m glad to say that in this parish community, far more often than not, we rise to that challenge. Usually it’s accomplished quietly, without attracting much attention or waiting for applause. And I hope we will continue in such a way, because it’s an ongoing challenge.