It was Saturday. Like all Saturdays, we would get together in the synagogue of Capernaum. In the assembly were several of those who had eaten with us in Bethsaida, where we had shared the fish and the loaves of bread. The prisoners’ relatives were also present, as well as a number of beggars…. After the ritual prayers, Phanuel, one of the wealthiest proprietors in the city, stood up to render the Scripture reading…
Phanuel: “Then a small thing, like a grain, similar to frost, appeared in the desert. Moses told the sons of Israel: This is manna, the bread of God that nourishes us. This is what the Lord commands: that each one gets what he needs for him and his family to eat. The children of Israel thus obeyed. However, some got more than what they needed and so the others got little. So they divided it equally among themselves so that everybody would have only what they needed. Moses likewise said: no one is to keep the manna for the next day. But some did not obey him and they started to hoard food, which became infested with worms and became spoiled. Moses had commanded each one to get only what was necessary for his subsistence…” This is the word of God in the sacred book of the Law!
All: Amen! Amen!
Then Eliab, the Rabbi, in his usual shrill voice, addressed himself to everyone in the synagogue…
Rabbi: Brothers and sisters, who among you wants to explain the text?… Come on, feel free to comment on the holy word that we have just heard…
Amos: The one who read it ought to feel ashamed of himself!
Amos, one of the laborers in the property of Phanuel, broke the silence…
Amos: I don’t want to comment on anything. What I want is to shout at the face of this greedy man: comply with what you’ve just read!… All of you, please listen and be the judge: Phanuel hasn’t paid me a single cent for four months already. I work myself to death on his farm, and yet, he never pays me… Thief!
Rabbi: You shut up and bring out your grudges somewhere else! This is not a tribunal, but the House of God!
Amos: If they don’t listen to me in the Tribunal, where do I go, huh?
Rabbi: Shut up, I said!… I repeat: Is there any brother of ours who would like to comment on the word of God?
Simeon: Yes, yes, Rabbi, I’d like to comment on it!
All eyes turned to the hunchback, Simeon, a poor man living near the market…
Rabbi: What have you got to say?
Simeon: Well, actually, I’ve got nothing to say… Moses said it all. You heard him, didn’t you? No one is to have more and no one is to have less. No one is to have excess bread, and no one is to be wanting in it. That’s the law of Moses. I’m a son of Moses, ain’t I? That man, over there, Mr. Eliazir, is Moses’ son, too… Then why are his barns bursting with wheat and barley while I’m here dying of hunger, huh?
Rabbi: You shut up too, silly man! What you’re saying has nothing to do with the word of God. If you want to discuss politics, then go to the tavern.
Simeon: I’m not talking of politics, Rabbi. All I’m saying is that my children haven’t got even a piece of bread to eat.
Rabbi: Eat! Eat! That’s all that you can think of brothers and sisters, we are in the house of God. For a moment, let’s forget all these material concerns and talk of matters of the spirit.
A Woman: Of course, you can say that because you always have hot meals everyday! If you were starving like us, you would sell your spirit for a plate of lentils!
Rabbi: Get this scandalous woman out of the synagogue! I’ll never allow anyone to desecrate this holy place!…. Hmmm… Now let’s talk of sacred things, the divine bread, the manna. As the reading says, manna fell from heaven over the Israelites..
Woman: But what falls on us are the beatings of the guards! My two sons have been imprisoned for a week and beaten like dogs! Do you know why? Because this swine of a Sadducee denounced him! Yes, Gideon, you did it and don’t you turn your face, for everyone knows, you traitor..!
Rabbi: What’s going on here, huh?… What have you come here for, to pray or to pester others in the community?…
Amos: Brothers? How can this usurer be my brother when just yesterday he grabbed me by the neck and forced me to pay the damned interest? Stop playing dumb, Reuben, it’s you I’m referring to!
Rabbi: Stop it! That’s enough! You are in the house of God and you are here to pray!
Simeon: But Rabbi, don’t you understand what we’re telling you? How can the lion and the sheep pray together? The lion prays for the sheep to fall asleep that he may eat him up. The sheep prays for the lion to sleep that he may cut off his mane!
Amos: Well said, Simeon! How can I pray together with Eliazir when I don’t even have a handful of soil to cover my dead body? This place is too small for the two of us!
Another Man: Old Berechiah robs you of twenty and then bribes the judges, who rob you of twenty more! How can I pray with him under the same roof?…
Another Man: Yeah, this must be said loud and clear for everybody to hear!… Look at his pious face… The wheat you keep in your barns could feed forty families in this town! Your wife’s jewelry could repair all the houses in this town! So, you’ve got to choose between them and us!
The noise heightened like a tide. Accusing fingers were raised and we spoke fearlessly, denouncing the abuses of the mighty people of Capernaum…. Then Eliab, the Rabbi, red with fury, took to the lectern and began to shout…
Rabbi: You are too much, damn it! You, who have no respect for the word of God, you who only want to make politics! Yes, yes, I know what’s happening here! Just like last time, in the wheat farm. An agitator filled all your heads with dreams. I know this man well. He’s here with us. But this, let me say for the last time: Either you shut up or I’ll drive you all out!
Jesus: That’s not necessary, Rabbi. We’re leaving. One of us is excess baggage here.
Jesus stood up, gave a half turn, and left the synagogue.
Rabbi: Damn you! It’s all your fault! You have divided the com¬munity! You’ll pay for this, rebel!
We, of the group, left too and followed Jesus. The farmers, Eleazir’s laborers, Phanuel’s unpaid workers, the prisoners’ wives and many others, left the house of God in silence… soon there was only one left inside the synagogue, the Rabbi, who was walking to and from the lectern, with clenched teeth and fists. Friends of the landowner as well as the usurers remained too. There were some who, for fear of the Rabbi’s reprisal, dared not leave. In one corner of the square outside, all of us surrounded Jesus….
Old Woman: Hey, you from Nazareth… have we done something wrong by leaving the synagogue?!
Jesus: No, don’t worry, gran’ma. Even the prophet Jeremiah had to set his foot against the doors of the Temple, to expose that the House of God had been converted into a den of thieves.
A Man: So, what now, Jesus? What’s gonna happen?
Jesus: The usual thing, neighbor. They throw stones at us and hide their hands. Then, when we protest, they’ll accuse us of inciting trouble and sowing discord in the community. Meanwhile, they pretend to be like meek lambs… but don’t be deceived by their guise, for deep inside them, they’re wolves with sharp fangs. All they want is to snatch everything from you and get away with it.
A Woman: What do we do now, Jesus?
Jesus: The opposite of what they’re doing: share. God is asking this from us. That’s exactly what Moses wrote: no one is to have more nor less. This is the sign that the Kingdom of God has started with us. Listen, my friends: why was there enough bread for everyone yesterday? Because what we had, we shared with each one. This is the will of God. If we share our bread in this life, God will share eternal life with us. If we share the bread of the earth, God will give us bread that’s even better, the bread from heaven, like that manna that fell into the desert.
A Man: Tell me, where do we get this bread from heaven?
Jesus: Never mind that now, Simeon. First, you’ve got to share the bread of earth, don’t you think so?
While Jesus was talking outside, Eliazir the landowner, left the synagogue and headed for our group, threatening us with his fist…
Eliazir: Hear this well, all of you. We can’t tolerate what you’ve done. With the Rabbi’s consent, I’m reporting all of you to the police, specially you, Nazarene, the leader of all this agitation!
A Woman: It’s obvious who got hurt the most!
Eliazir: You can laugh all you want, fools! Let’s see how you laugh when the soldiers come and put you in prison, when they grab your sons, beat them at the pillar and crucify them on the Roman cross. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you!
The silence that ensued was heavy with ill boding. Eliazir’s threats froze all the laughter on our lips, for they were serious. The Romans never spared anyone. Everyday, new crosses stood all over the country to drown the cry of protest coming from the poor of Israel…
A Man: Well, companions, maybe we should stop this dialogue for now, what do you think?
Another Man: Yeah, besides it’s a little bit late…. so, goodbye everyone!
Amos: I must go too… I’ll see you next time…
One by one, the people proceeded to their homes, just as they had left the synagogue moments before….
James: Cowards! They’re all a bunch of cowards…!
Jesus: Of course, James. We all feel scared at the moment of truth. No one likes to risk his life. But one must do it. We’ve got to share our bread, but we’ve also got to share our body and blood too. Many of us will break our bodies like we’re breaking bread. A number of us will shed blood like we’re spilling wine… When we’ve offered our lives for our country, then we’ll be worthy of the Kingdom of God.
John: Well, those words are easily said, Jesus, but… very hard to swallow.
A Boy: The soldiers are coming! Run, run, they’re carrying lances and clubs!…
Many scampered away when they heard the soldiers coming. We, too, started to look at each other with anxiety.
Peter: Well, Jesus,…. so…. so…..
Jesus: What’s wrong, Peter? Do you want to go too? Go ahead. What about the rest of you?…
Peter: Well, if we want to go – yes we do…. Ufff… That’s okay, Moreno, we’ll stay with you. You’re right. The truth simply gets stuck in one’s throat, like a fishbone.
Jesus: Now we’re thirteen. Anyone of us may falter. That’s why we’ve got to support one another… May God give us the strength to share with everyone… even fear itself!
Peter: The soldiers are here, Jesus!
One Soldier: Hey, all of you, disperse, disperse…! We want no trouble…. C’mon, c’mon, on your feet… And you, stranger, watch your actions. We’re aware of everything, do you hear? You and your group are blacklisted… Go now, go back to your homes…
Fortunately, the soldiers paid little attention to Eliazir’s complaint. They let us go that time. All this happened on a Saturday, a rest day, right in front of the synagogue of Capernaum.
The ruins of Capernaum during the time of the gospel were not discovered until the end of the last century. About six hundred years after Jesus’ death, Capernaum was destroyed and all the locales of the gospel were gradually reduced to rubble. One of the tasks undertaken with great care after the discovery was the restoration of the synagogue. It was not the same synagogue that Jesus knew, but was built over the one which existed during his time. The present building belongs to that of the IV Century, very spacious, with thick columns and beautiful decorations on the walls. It is very near Peter’s house.
During the worship rites celebrated every Saturday in the synagogue, which Jesus customarily attended in the company of his countrymen, an excerpt from the Scriptures was read and the members present commented on it. Neither the reading of the text nor commentary were specific tasks of the Rabbi. The women ordinarily never spoke publicly in the synagogue, although in this episode, their participation is understandable, considering the flow of discussion among the neighbors.
In the episode, the text read is taken from Chapter 16 of the Book of Exodus. Manna or “bread from heaven” was the food the Israelites found in the desert in their long journey to the Promised Land. The norms given by God in gathering the manna aimed at preventing the accumulation and inequality in the distribution of food so that everyone would have enough.
No matter how the Jewish worship in the synagogue differs from that of Christians, and how the former’s Saturday worship cannot be at a par with the Eucharistic celebration on Sunday, in this episode, a certain similarity is found, in order to focus on the basic theme of worship-justice.
The theme of Eucharist-justice is a problem as old as Christianity. Paul affirms that wherever a glaring inequality exists, then there can be no celebration of the Eucharist, but an act condemned by the Lord. His denunciation in this sense is strong (1 Cor 11:17-34). During the first centuries of Christianity, there was an evangelical consciousness to capture the relationship between the Eucharist and justice. Only those who shared their wealth with their brothers and sisters celebrated the Eucharist and broke Bread. Furthermore: It was the Bishop’s obligation to watch out for those who gave offerings during the mass. If these were oppressors of the poor, then the latter were prohibited from receiving anything from them. (Apost. Const. II, 17, 1-5 and III, 8 and IV, 5-9). This was so strictly enforced that the “Didascalia” of the Third Century provides that if there is no other means to feed the poor but to receive money from the rich who commit injustice, then the community might as well die of hunger, rather than receive help from the oppressors (Didasc IV, 8, 2). Provisions of this type proliferate in the writings of the Holy Fathers and Churches from various places through the centuries. Another example of how radical this was is shown by the Bishop of Milan, Saint Ambrose, who, having been informed of the massacre of thousands of persons, for which Emperor Theodosius was responsible, not only criticized the latter, but also threatened him with a letter that “the Bishop will not offer the Sacrifice of the Mass in his presence” (Epistle L1, 13). At the start of the 9th Century, the official Church got rid of this practice and concentrated solely on the theme of Christ’s real presence in the bread and how such a sublime mystery could be explained and understood. Thus, the other dimension of the Eucharist was lost.
The prophets of Israel are in this line also. At the very doorsteps of the Temple of Jerusalem, a place much more “sacred” than the synagogue of a town of fishermen, prophet Jeremiah “scandalized” the religious people of his time and their own king, by criticizing the false security of those who sought protection in cult, but were remiss with their obligation to be just (Jer 7:1-15; 26:1-24). With this sense of freedom, characteristic of the great prophets, Jesus puts justice before worship, and in the sacred place he expounds on what is more sacred for God: the life of people, and justice among all. No one is to bring offerings to the altar if another person has something against him or her. The person must first be reconciled with the other (Mt 5:23-24).
In the Eucharist, we believers celebrate the One whom they killed because He was faithful to God, and who became God by resurrecting from the dead. In the Eucharist, we celebrate this common faith, extending through history by living this same faith. We celebrate a common hope that things will change toward life, equality and community among people. We celebrate love that compels us to share, to risk our lives for this cause and to create our community. The celebration of the Eucharist – the word of the prophets as well as Jesus’, the bread that is broken and shared – sustains this faith, this hope and this love.