August 3rd, 2014
When I was a teenager, I’m afraid to admit that I was an agnostic. I guess these days I’d be called ‘spiritual but not religious’. I would hear of Jesus’s miracles and then, with the absolute certainty and fullness of knowledge that only a 14 year old boy can have I would start to pick apart the tales of miracles in the Bible. I did mental gymnastics of staggering skill – walking on water involved sandbanks that, despite being surrounded by fishermen, only Jesus knew about. Healing involved medical knowledge ahead of his time. Raising people from the dead? CPR and artificial respiration. Let’s face it, I must have been a totally insufferable snot-nose to people around me, especially my Aunty Harriet who taught Sunday School.
But the feeding of the 5000 was different. I could never come up with a ‘scientific explanation’ the I was comfortable with. There were a lot of witnesses…the best I could come up with was that there was much more food than had been reported, or that it was just a story. Somewhere in the back of my mind, that any attempt at ‘rational’ explanation didn’t hold water for me at all, but I couldn’t dismiss it out of hand.
The feeding of the 5000 is unique in that it is the only miracle that appears in all 4 Gospels. It’s also a miracle that is repeated by Christ when He feeds other large groups of people. To me it’s probably THE miracle, encapsulating in one act the power and compassion of the living Jesus in his earthly ministry, and the importance of the Disciples.
Let’s take a step back and look at what has happened immediately before the events related to us in today’s reading. The story unfolds about a year or so before the Crucifixion. A short while before, Jesus had preached in his home area and had not been well received. He has just heard that John the Baptist, the man who baptised Him, has been executed by beheading at the orders of King Herod. John’s own followers have relayed the news; how must Jesus have felt at this moment? After all, as well as being a man of God, John was family; he was Jesus’ cousin. How do Jesus’s disciples feel? Do they see this as a foreshadowing of the fate of Jesus? All that we know from the Gospel is that Jesus
“withdrew by boat to a private place”
But the people from the surrounding towns and villages wanted to see Jesus, to hear him preach, perhaps even to be healed. They’d heard a lot about this man, even that He was the Son of God, and were pretty determined and, having worked out where Jesus and his disciples were likely to be going, they set off on foot and were there waiting for Jesus when He landed.
It would have been easy for Jesus to hop back in the boat and set off again – maybe even bob around in the water for a few hours. But Jesus landed, and, looking at the huge crowd,
“had compassion on them and healed their sick.”
Although the miracle is referred to as ‘the feeding of the 5000′, the chances are that there were many more people there than 5000. Matthew says at the end of our reading :
“The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children”
Matthew is the only one of the Gospel writers who actually points out that there were women and children present as well. As we’ve heard on previous occasions, this attitude towards women and children in the Gospels isn’t unusual for that time and culture. It was very much a man’s world, and taking this in to account we might actually estimate that there could have been over ten thousand people there – possibly up to fifteen thousand! Suffice to say, five thousand was the minimum crowd size that day.
As Jesus healed – and no doubt spoke with the people around him – the disciples noticed that the shadows were starting to lengthen.
“As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so that they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
It’s hard to judge what time of day this would be; in Jewish culture the day ended at sundown, but the onset of evening could be possibly a few hours before that. If the disciples were assuming that the crowds would be able to disperse and actually buy food from the villages, it figures that we’re looking at what to us would be mid to late afternoon – after all, it would be unexpected to find anyone able to buy food after sundown.
The disciples here are concerned about meeting a human need in a compassionate and very human way; we need to feed people – we don’t have the capability here to do so, so unless we want a riot on our hands we need to get these people fed somehow.
Imagine their surprise, then, when Jesus turns to them and says:
“They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
I can imagine the disciples standing there with various options going through their heads…we don’t have the money to buy this amount of food. We don’t have friends in the area we can call upon. We didn’t bring a mule-train of baskets of bread, and whilst we include fishermen in our number, come on, Lord – we can’t catch that many fish in the next hour or so!!
They had forgotten that they are with Jesus, whom they’d already seen do some quite incredible – one could say miraculous – things. Had they remembered, they might have expected a miracle to occur similar to that in Exodus, where God fed the people of Israel with Manna from Heaven for 40 years. But even had they remembered that, they would still have been taken aback by that phrase ‘YOU give them something to eat.’
The disciples tell Jesus the meagre state of their supplies:
“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fishes.”
Jesus tells them to bring the food to him.
Now I guess at this point the disciples were realising that Jesus has something in mind. What were they expecting? Perhaps that Jesus, on seeing how little they had, would simply cause a rain of Manna? Or that fish would leap from the nearby water at his command to be collected and cooked for the people? Or that the people would be somehow miraculously fed without any food involved at all! We don’t know; what we are told is that Jesus takes the food offered him, orders the people to sit down, he looks to Heaven, gives thanks and then starts breaking the loaves up.
And then, He gives the broken pieces of food to the disciples, who then give them to the people. The disciples find themselves, after all, feeding the people! They all ate, and were well satisfied.
Let’s just take stock here and look at what has just happened.
Jesus has indeed performed a miracle, but one that was based on the participation of the disciples. The bread and fish – their very meagre offerings – have been taken and miraculously multiplied to feed the people present. Jesus has already shown compassion and healed the sick at this gathering. He has fed the spiritual needs of the people who came to see him, but He has left it to his disciples, with God’s grace, to feed the people physically.
It would be within His power to do the lot, so to say, but He chooses not to do so. He chooses to effectively teach the disciples that whatever they have to give Him, He can multiply it and use it for the good of the many. Here, he takes a small amount of food, something that might have barely stretched between the disciples themselves, and multiples it a thousand fold, if not more.
And this multiplication of what is offered by the disciples isn’t stingy; after people are fed – and satisfied – the disciples pick up 12 baskets of left overs. Here we have an example of God’s generosity – not ‘just enough’ – but enough and more. And I like to think that there was a little bit of divine humour here in creating a enough left overs so that each disciple will end up carrying a basket, perhaps as a reminder!
Jesus has involved the disciples in this miracle in a big way; He’s taught them that whatever they can offer to Him, it will be magnified by the grace of God. He’s also shown them and the people that the Disciples are part and parcel of Christ’s Ministry. This isn’t ‘Jesus and the backing band’, this is Jesus and His Disciples, and that Jesus provides through his Disciples.
The grace of God, Jesus’ teaching and compassion, the compassion of the disciples and their offerings all come together in this place to produce a miracle that is relevant to us today. The disciples physically fed the people, with food created by Jesus’ miracle. A little over a year after this event, they will be feeding people spiritually, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Their compassion, knowledge and skills will be amplified by God and be used to bring the teachings of Christ to thousands.
Last week we heard of the mustard seed; that smallest of seeds that grows and becomes a massive, well rooted and difficult to get rid of bush! This miracle reflects on that parable; that small offerings and beginnings can lead to great change when put in the hands of Jesus.
The other day I read a comment on Facebook from a friend of mine that they didn’t know how to cope with the state of the world today, that they felt powerless, and that whatever they could do seemed useless in the face of the death and destruction we see every day on the news.
I think we all feel like that sometimes; but perhaps, as disciples of Christ, we need to think of what loaves and fishes we can bring to Christ to help with the hunger and suffering of the multitudes. In a very literal way, we see the Food Banks feeding families – one tin of beans, given with love, added to other goods provided by people moved by Christ to help, helps feed a family. A compassionate word to a friend might lift them beyond your expectations. A few pounds given to a charity might feed someone threatened with starvation; a few minutes of time spent writing a card to a political prisoner will let them know that someone, somewhere, knows about them.
As disciples this is our job; we spread the word of Christ through word and deed.
Like I said earlier, as a teenager I tried and failed to rationally explain this miracle. Now as an adult I can look at the story from a different perspective, and I do wonder whether the reason I couldn’t comfortably explain it to myself was that the miracle itself offered, in the words of Graham Greene, ‘a hint of an explanation’ of it’s own; the fact that I couldn’t rationalise that miracle planted a seed of it’s own that left me open to finding faith in later life.