Eighth Sunday after Pentecost / Eighth Sunday of Matthew, August 11, 2019
I Corinthians 1:10-17; Matthew 14:14-22
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
August 11, 2492 BC, is the traditional date on which Hayk the Great is said to have defeated Bel and founded the Armenian nation. If that information is new to you, it’s new to me, too, as of just a few days ago. I am not deeply studied in Armenian history.
But what caught my eye was the name of the entity that Hayk the Great defeated—Bel. This is usually spelled “BEL” and probably pronounced as we usually say “Baal.” And if you know the Old Testament at all, you can guess why Baal is someone whose name coming up would really pique my interest. Baal (or Bel) is the northwest Semitic word for “lord” or “master,” and is used as the name of a god whom Israel is fighting against as they struggle and often fail to worship Yahweh, the one true God.
So, did Hayk defeat some great king or nation identified as Bel, or was this a struggle between one pagan deity’s nation and another’s? If you study the ancient world, you know that they regarded these things as all one issue. The fate of a nation was tied up with its god or gods, and great men and women were always understood to be closely associated with a deity.
So, in the Old Testament, as I mentioned, Baal comes up over and over. I want to focus today on one story involving Baal that may be less familiar to most of us. Many are familiar with the prophetic shown-down on Mount Carmel between the Prophet Elias and the prophets of Baal, calling down fire from heaven onto the sacrifice, but many of us probably have not read a portion of the Book of Daniel which is called “Bel and the Dragon,” which is in Orthodox Bibles but not all other Bibles. This is really two stories, one about Daniel encountering Bel and another about encountering a dragon. It’s the first one about Baal that I want to talk about today.
So here’s the story: The prophet Daniel lived in the Babylonian empire during the period of the captivity of Israel. One of the Babylonian kings who reigned during that period was Cyrus, the Persian king who conquered Babylon. After the conquest, he would worship Baal every day, visiting the idol of the god and adoring it, seeking to win it over as a way to help ensure the loyalty of the conquered Babylonians.
But Cyrus noticed that the prophet Daniel did not worship Baal but worshiped his own God. So he asked him why he did not worship Baal, and Daniel replied that he would not worship gods made by hands but only the living God Who created everything.
The king asked him, “Do you not think that Bel is a living god? Do you not see how much he eats and drinks every day?”
Now, you might ask yourself what’s going on here. How can Cyrus actually think that this idol eats and drinks? And why would that even be a thing?
To understand what he’s referring to, you have to know something about ancient pagan idolatry. When a statue of a god was set up by worshipers, a ritual was held to “open” its nostrils so that it would receive the spirit of the god. This ritual in a sense was considered to trap the god in the idol and made its continued presence there dependent on humans taking care of it. And the care wasn’t just the care given to a piece of religious art but included actually bringing it food. The food offered to the idol was then often eaten by worshipers, who thus were sharing a meal with their god. And in exchange, these sacrifices were expected to get the god to give them good crops, victory in battle, etc. So that’s the background.
In the case of this idol of Baal, however, it was said that he would consume all the food and drink himself, which of course was truly astounding if true. Every day, this idol was brought twelve bushels of fine flour (probably made into cakes), forty sheep and six vessels of wine. And the idol was sealed into a room by itself, and all the food was found consumed the next morning.
Daniel insisted that the idol had never actually eaten anything, and the king, who regarded him as a trusted adviser, demanded of his pagan priests to know who it was that was eating all this food. They of course said that Baal was eating the food, and they challenged Daniel to a show-down to test whether it really was happening.
So the priests put the usual food and drink in the chamber with the idol and then left. Then Daniel had his own servants sprinkle ashes all over the floor in the chamber in the presence of the king. The room was then sealed. The next morning, the food was found eaten, but the footprints of the pagan priests were revealed in the ashes. It turns out that they had a secret entrance they used at night to enter the chamber and consume all the food themselves.
The king therefore had the pagan priests put to death for their treasonous deception and then handed over the idol to Daniel, who destroyed it as well as the temple.
So let’s contrast this with today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 14. This is the famous Feeding of the 5000, wherein Jesus miraculously multiplies five loaves of bread and two fish, feeding 5000 men with their families, and twelve baskets of food are leftover after everyone has had his fill.
Compare this to the feeding of the idol of Baal. Baal has to be fed and cared for by his worshipers, yet Jesus Christ, the God-man, the one true God, needs nothing from His worshipers. Instead, He actually feeds them Himself. And with the traditional interpretation of this Gospel passage as being an image of the Eucharist, our God actually feeds us with Himself.
Baal cannot even feed himself, and yet his worshipers expected him to provide them with good crops, victory over enemies, etc. Yet the true God needs nothing from us and indeed has provided us with all things, being the Creator, Shaper and Sustainer of all.
Finally, however, note how idol worship ultimately refers the worshipers back to themselves. The pagan priests of Baal are the ones in control, and it is really themselves they are feeding. It is about their own desires. This is why in the Scripture idolatry is over and over again linked up with sexual immorality. Why? Because it is about pursuing your own desires and pleasing yourself. You are the one in control.
But at the Feeding of the 5000, the people are hungry. They are in need. They cannot feed themselves. If they wish to continue to be in the presence of the God-man, they have to submit to His will and not their own. And He responds by multiplying food for them so much that they cannot even eat it all.
We may not be going into pagan temples and worshiping Baal or other false gods, but when we keep ourselves in control and offer up sacrifices to the things we want rather than to Jesus Christ, we are absolutely engaging in idolatry. Is it any wonder that, the more we serve idols the more we are addicted and fall into immorality? Is it any wonder that, the more we offer up sacrifices to idols, the more we find ourselves lacking in the blessings of God?
To what are you sacrificing your time, your attention, your money, etc.? That is what you are worshiping. If you would worship the one true God, then you offer your sacrifices to Him. And when you sacrifice to Him with what it is that He has given you—because He is the Creator, not you!—then He will respond by multiplying to you what you need.
If we are in lack, it is not because we are not smart enough or have not made the right trades with our gods. It is because we think that we are in control or are trying to take control. But if we will instead offer our sacrifices to the true God, then His blessing will pour out on us, with more than we can possibly even imagine.
To Christ our true God Who receives our sacrifices and feeds us with Himself be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.