The Imitation Game

West Side Moravian Church
July 26, 2015

Scripture References


On the first of July I was riding my bike up the east shore of Green Bay. As I passed the far edge of the university campus, at the corner of Nicolet Drive and Shorewood Drive just before the old Vogels place, the highway signs describe the intersection of county trunk highways A and I.

AI, I thought as I rode past; Artificial Intelligence. And that put me in mind of Alan Turing, a mathematician and co-founder (with John von Neumann) of the science of computing. Turing is famous for many things. One of them is the Turing Test, a method which Turing proposed in the journal Mind back in 1950 to decide whether or not a computer, or any sort of machine, can think. Turing replaces the question Can machines think? with an interaction, a relationship, which he called the imitation game. (OCR) (PDF)

Even if you are not a student of artificial intelligence you may have seen the movie with the same name.

But what has all of this to do with the worship of God? Come and see.


The Man From Baal-shalishah

A man from the village of Baal-shalisha came to the man of God bringing the first-fruits offering. The man had 20 barley cakes, plus unground barley corns. These were perhaps the offerings of the entire village.

That village was named Baal-shalishah, which sounds Canaanite. One source suggests the name means the village of the lord of the one-third part, but we do not know the origin of the name. While the name may be Canaanite, the offering is Israelite. It is an offering commanded by the law as given through Moses.

We don't know anything else about this village or about the man who came as its representative. We only know that in this one action they were faithfully following the command of God.

The Prophets of God

Elisha was the man of God at Gilgal and it was to Gilgal that these offerings were brought. (After the exile it was expected that all offerings would be brought to the temple in Jerusalem but among the northern tribes at the time of Elijah and Elisha this was not the practice.) At Gilgal, Elisha lived with a company of prophets. We learn from this story that there were about 100 prophets in the community at this time. Elisha said, give the offering to the company of prophets and let them eat.

Elisha's adjutant was sceptical. There were 100 men in the company, he pointed out. There wouldn't be nearly enough food for all of them in a mere 20 barley cakes. But Elisha said, give the offering to the company of prophets and let them eat. Elisha said, do this because God has already discussed this with me and God has promised that there will be enough. They sat down and ate and had food left over.

Did this assistant have faith in Elisha and in Elisha's relationship with God? He may well have; he had lived with the man of God for some time and had seen some remarkable things. But we don't know whether Elisha's assistant had confidence that the 100 prophets would eat and have enough and have food left over. What we know from the story is that he acted faithfully. He set the food before the people as if he did believe. We must account him to be faithful.

The Boy

Hundreds of years later, a boy living in the region near to where Elisha and the prophets had lived came to hear Jesus teaching. He brought his lunch with him: 5 barley cakes and a couple of fish.

In the past, I usually imagined this boy as being young; 10 years old at the most. Now I think this boy was more likely about 16, almost a man. We don't know, of course; the gospel according to John is the only one which even mentions the boy and it tells us nothing about him.

This boy had more than enough food for himself; I wonder whether he may have brought a younger sibling along with him to hear Jesus. I'd guess that their mother was the one who thought to pack a lunch. I imagine her saying, If you 2 are going off to listen to that teacher you'd better take a lunch with you. You don't know when you might get back! But when the disciples began to ask whether anyone had brought any food, I imagine this teenager turning to Andrew and saying, I guess we could share our lunch.

Did that boy believe in Jesus? Did he believe that Jesus was the messiah, the new man of God? We have no idea. Surely he had not carried 5 barley cakes and 2 fish out to the meadow with the intent of feeding all of his neighbors who were also curious about this teacher. What we do know is that when the opportunity arose this boy acted faithfully.

The Disciples of Jesus

As the other gospels say more clearly, Jesus brought the disciples into the countryside for some quiet reflection. The crowd kept following him, however; even when they went up a remote hill for quiet conversation they found themselves surrounded by a crowd, all contrary to their plans for the afternoon.

The teacher doesn't say, We're going to have to send these people away. You students need some time to work on your projects! Jesus, the teacher, instead decides to change the project to fit the situation. Jesus turns to Philip and says, Where are we going to buy food for this crowd?

Now if the disciples were at all like me, they were taken by surprise: I thought we were going to be talking about theology! Now are we supposed to be caterers? There isn't a grocery store for miles. Would any of these farmhouses have extra food we could buy? But what would we use for money? There are a lot of people coming up that hill! So Philip turns to Jesus and exclaims, Even 6 months' wages wouldn't be enough to buy supper for such a crowd!

Andrew chimes in with the only information he has on the subject. There is a boy here, Andrew offers, who is willing to share.

Were the disciples believers yet? Did they believe that Jesus was the messiah, the son of God? We can't tell for certain. They wanted this to be true. They had followed Jesus around the country listening and watching, but we have ample evidence that they were puzzled and confused as well. What we do know is that they acted the way believers would have acted. When Jesus tells them to organize the people, they organize. When Jesus asks for the 5 barley cakes, they bring them. After the meal, when Jesus tells them to pick up anything left over, they take baskets and ask for extra food. Were the disciples still puzzled and confused? I wouldn't be at all surprised. But when Jesus told them what to do, they faithfully did it.

The Faithfulness Game

Now tell me. Were any of these people faithful? The man from Baal-shalishah? the prophets of Elisha? the boy with lunch? the disciples of Jesus? Did any of them keep faith? Yes, of course they did.

I don't say they had faith because among us having faith is said in an intellectual sense. I don't know what any of these people were thinking. I ask, did they keep faith, were they faithful, did they act faithfully? You can see that they acted faithfully because we have a record of their actions.

This brings me to Alan Turing. The question before Turing was, Can machines think? He replied with a better question. He suggested an imitation game in which Casey would exchange anonymous text messages with Alice and Bob, the goal for Casey being to decide which correspondent is Alice while the goal for Bob is to imitate Alice so well that Casey can only guess between them at random. Are there, Turing asked, imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game? If Bob were really a computer, could it fool you? And if the computer can fool you, we might as well say that it is thinking.

The question before us is only a little different. Our question is, does Philip have faith? Or Andrew, or Mary, or James? I offer the suggestion that we change the question. I suggest the faithfulness game. I suggest that we look at how closely their actions imitate the actions of a faithful follower of Jesus.

If Hannah keeps faith with Jesus in her actions, will we not count her as being faithful? You will know them by their fruits, is how Jesus put it.

Jesus' Imitation Games


Meanwhile, Jesus was imitating Elisha. Jesus Christ, as God incarnate, had no need to be playing the faithfulness game; he was, literally, the embodiment of faithfulness. He had good reason, however, to recapitulate the actions of Elisha for the disciples and the crowd. Elisha was the man of God who spoke the words of God and conveyed the power of God to the people of his time.

By reenacting some of the stories from Elisha, Jesus lays out his claim to be of God, to be speaking God's message, and to convey the power of God. Elisha had healed the sick and Jesus had healed the sick; Elisha had fed a crowd and now Jesus had fed a crowd. The ordinary folk and even the scholars were fully aware of what they were seeing. Remember the comment from the scholar Nicodemus, who said to Jesus, Only someone who came from God could do what you do.

The people of Jesus' time began to know who Jesus was because of what Jesus did.


And what Jesus did in this story is interestingly different from what Elisha did. Elisha fed 100; Jesus fed 5000. Elisha fed his company of prophets; Jesus fed everyone who came to see him. Elisha took 20 barley cakes; Jesus only 5. Who is greater? The one who feeds 100 of his fellow prophets with 20 barley cakes, or the one who feeds 5000 strangers with 5 barley cakes and a couple of fish?

It is interesting as well to consider that the 20 barley cakes Elisha used came as a formal offering intended for God's work. The 5 barley cakes and 2 fish seem certainly to have been intended as lunch for the boy who brought them (and, if my guess is right, his younger brother or sister). Elisha multiplied the effect of an offering made to God, but Jesus transformed the virtue of prudence into the virtue of faith.


In the middle ages, it was thought that the only possible interpretation of the feeding of the 5000 was the magical interpretation: God is such a great magician that the bread continually replicated. But the story itself doesn't quite say exactly that. In the 20th century, another interpretation was proposed. Perhaps what was replicated so abundantly was not bread but people. Perhaps the transformation of prudence into faithfulness is what was replicated, as all the people who brought food were transformed into people who shared food.

Do you prefer the 15th century explanation, or do you like the 20th century version? Maybe you like them both. If we needed to know how God performed this miracle, I'm pretty sure the Bible would have told us. But God's message does not lie in the mechanics of the miracle.

God' Message

What God is saying to you is this: Live as if I were God. When you bring your offering, when you organize the church, when you share your lunch, do it faithfully.

Live as if our Lamb has conquered. Live as if transformation is possible, as if whatever is bad in life can be transformed into something good, and what is good can be made even better.

Imitate faithfulness in the way that you live each day, because then you will be faithful.