Wednesday
Mar242010

Free Fish

The allure of the word “free” is well documented.

Slap the word “free” onto a web page or flyer, use a healthy combination of yellow and black, and it will not matter what you are giving away. People will want it. Free doughnuts? Who could refuse? Free iTune every Tuesday – even if it consists of American Idol rejects warming up for their disgrace – people will dutifully make the download, because it’s free! Free punch in the nose? Some folks will not even be able to refuse that offer.

Americans used to warn that free offers seldom come without strings attached. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” they would say because either somebody else has to pay for it through taxation or the person making the offer really wants to sell you on something even more expensive than the dry tuna salad you’re choking down.

Tuna.

In the Bible, the appeal of free fish is paramount.

Even before the Hebrew pilgrims had laid eyes on the land of milk and honey, they were complaining about the fare that God and Moses provided them along the way from Egypt, where they were oppressed slaves of the pyramid-building Pharaoh. 

 

“Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, ‘Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at’” (Numbers 11:4-6).

 

The inspired description of manna seems rather tantalizing – “like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31). Most appealing had to be the way it was acquired – not at a distant grocery or the top of a tall, tall tree. Manna dropped from the sky six days a week at no cost to the consumer.

Manna, however, is not fish and even free manna cannot compare to the succulence of what the people at PETA now call “sea kittens.”

In Egypt, the Hebrews spent their days making bricks and when Moses acted as their shop steward before Pharaoh, they became required to scavenge for straw as well without reducing their quotas. They worked from dawn to dusk and could not even be allowed a few days off to worship their God. They had no free time, no joy and no hope.

But they had fish. Free fish.

Their distant descendants in the time of Christ had the same appetites.

A large crowd gathered to hear him teach and to heal the sick, moving Jesus to extend his compassion to their grumbling bellies. He commandeered the five barley loaves and two fish of a young boy and turned them into a feast for five thousand, satisfying the multitude and producing twelve baskets of leftovers. This was the most successful potluck in history and only one person brought anything at all!

Free fish and some bonus bread had an unexpectedly strong effect on the throng. “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (John 6:15). The next day, the crowd went looking for Jesus again because their tummies were complaining. Where’s the free fish guy, they must have wondered.

 

“When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you’” (John 6:25-27).

 

Jesus offered to be their bread of life, denouncing their shortsighted hope for a renewal of Moses’s manna. “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” he claimed, confounding their carnal contemplation (6:41). Over the next few minutes, it became clear that there would be no more free fish, at least not in an attempt to hold on to their loyalty and attention. The disciples grumbled until they finally had enough. “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66).

No more free fish? No more discipleship.

Churches and teachers today are still slapping the free fish sticker on anything they can find that might entice an audience and maintain a membership. Free sports and recreation. Free banquets and parties. Free coffee and doughnuts. Some even go old school and fry up free fish from time to time. 

Somebody has to pay for it all of course. 

The Lord’s treasury is raided for these inducements on the self-defeating premise that appeals to the flesh are necessary to hook the spirit (Romans 8:1-11). Beyond the monetary cost, the gospel’s dignity and significance are sacrificed upon the altar of numbers and appearances (Romans 1:16). What the gospel cannot do to save souls, free fish or racquetball or puppet shows must accomplish. Stomachs and funny bones are constantly converted, but such things make no lasting appeal to the spirit, which must be won on a higher plane. Preach the word!