One of the most noted and commented upon miracles in Jesus’ three-year ministry is the one we heard in the Gospel of John today, the feeding of the five thousand with five loves of bread and two fish. More often than not the story of this miracle is interpreted as a precursor to the Eucharist and the bounty to be found in the banquet of God. If you look up loaves and fish on the Internet you will get literally millions of sites and sermons and organizations that in one way or another correlate to this idea, that the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand relates to the abundance of God’s grace. While I do not disagree with that interpretation, indeed I think it is an important component, I think the substance of this story is more subtle than we might expect and the meaning more profound than we might have imagined. Yes, the feeding of the five thousand with such little food is a miracle, but the symbolic significance is exceptional and its meaning for us I think is extraordinary.
If you take the entirety of the Gospels there are only two miracles that appear in all four of them. One is the resurrection of Jesus and the other is the feeding of the five thousand. Obviously I don’t need to stress the importance of the resurrection and why all four Gospels would proclaim it. But if the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is the only other one found in all four, it must be very significant, and to be sure I think that it is, but in order to understand the nature of its power as symbol we need to do a careful reading of it and find the meaning in the subtleties of this exceptional miracle.
The Gospel of John states that before the feeding of the five thousand Jesus had intended to get away to a quiet and deserted place and have some time to himself. As we find elsewhere in all the Gospels Jesus regularly found a private and restful place so that he could pray. In this instance the crowds follow him along the edge of the Sea of Galilee and a throng greets him when he lands his boat on the shore. It is an almost comical scene in a way – here Jesus takes a boat to get away from the crowds and as he closes in on the shore where he expects to be alone, there is a multitude of people likely shouting his name and asking to be healed even before his boat reaches ground. It is a kind of first century paparazzi if you will; despite some considerable effort Jesus cannot find personal privacy even in this deserted place.
But of course Jesus does what we would expect him to do. Jesus puts himself and his needs aside and has compassion on the people and moves among them healing their wounds and their pains and their sorrows. In fact he moves among them and cures them of their ills until it becomes dark. The disciples, feeling that being in such a desolate place that the thousands must either leave now or camp out for the night, and knowing that there is very little food, ask Jesus to disperse the crowd and tell them to find shelter and provisions in the surrounding villages. And then in the four Gospels we hear this, “Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled”.
In a careful reading of this text what strikes me is the elegant simplicity of the miracle. There is no moment of surprise or aw, no sudden or noticeable shock on the part of the bystanders as in other miracles. Jesus simply asks everyone to sit on the grass, he blesses the food he has and he starts to hand out the food until everyone has enough. Notice also the meal itself. It is simply bread and fish. To the people of the shores of Galilee in the first century this would be what they would eat virtually every day; this was simple peasant food. If this meal were to symbolize the banquet of God one would at least expect some wine given its significance in our Eucharist. But it is not there, the meal is just bread and fish because that is what was presented to Jesus and that is what he multiplied to feed the thousands. Perhaps some in the crowd didn’t even notice this was a miracle. They just all sat together in the dusk of the day and ate until they were full and talked among themselves.
Symbolically this miracle absolutely does allude to the grace of God and that God is with us and will provide spiritual sustenance for us wherever we are and wherever we should go. In fact I take great comfort knowing that God is there for me even when I am spiritually empty and holds before me the bread of life, the love of God, no matter what the circumstance. But, as I mentioned there is much more going on in this miracle than just the grace of God. There is more going on here than God providing the necessities of life, spiritual and otherwise, to a large group of people.
In the last few weeks and months we have all been made aware of some devastating and horrific events around the world. Hatred and indifference and corruption and naked brutality have surfaced and taken their appalling and agonizing toll in the Ukraine, in Turkey, in Northern Africa and the Middle East. We look at these events and perhaps feel as powerless to do something about these things, as we feel incapable of understanding how and why they would happen in the first place. Who on earth would kill innocent children? How on earth can we stand by as children die of starvation and thirst in front of our very eyes? Is any cause sincerely worth the fight if you have to train a child how to use a machine gun?
As a Christian I truly believe it is a part of our life’s journey to be involved in ways and means that make this earth a better place, that make this earth more like our heavenly kingdom. I don’t think we humans will ever achieve the perfection of heaven on earth, but I do believe we can realize an end to war and that we can engineer the fair and equitable distribution of food and clean water. I believe we can achieve these two important objectives, but what is it that we have to do, where is it that we have to start? For us Christians I believe the answer can be found in the feeding of the five thousand.
First let me explain this by saying there were many more than five thousand. In Matthew’s Gospel it says there were five thousand men plus women and children. Assuming many were traveling in families, and that is a safe assumption from what we know, that would mean the number of people would likely have been more like fifteen to twenty thousand. We also know this crowd would have been incredibly diverse - the rich and the poor, the high and the lowly, Jews and Gentiles, believers and skeptics. Among this multitude Jesus had spent the day healing their wounds and their pains and their sorrows. He would have spent the day making it very clear that God loves them all and that the love of God can change their lives in ways they would not have thought possible. As the sun begins to fall this incredible man of God asks them to sit down and immediately they are fed until they are all full.
The beauty and the subtlety of this miracle lies in the meal itself. Jesus makes it clear that everyone, everyone is welcome to this table and at this table they will receive an equal amount of God’s love, that is to say more than they could ask for or imagine. The beauty and the subtlety of this miracle lies in the conversations that must have gone on during the meal. People, who would not normally be seen together, people who perhaps would even go out of their way to avoid each other, are eating together and talking. What might they be saying, “My daughter is healed, she is whole again”. “My father can see me for the first time”. “My worry is gone, I can feel the light and the love of God”. And as these conversations continued is it too hard to imagine people saying, “Perhaps there is something to this man’s message”, “Could it be that loving others as we would love ourselves is the path to joy and peace”? “He speaks to the importance of forgiveness and loving even our enemies; I must admit at this moment all this seems possible”.
The miracle of the loaves and fishes is not the appearance of food by itself, it is what people experience when God’s table is open to everyone and that each one of them become open to the idea that God loves them and heals them and changes them and is doing the exact same thing to everyone else. The miracle of the loaves and fishes is that a whole multitude of people would feel healed by God, and would feel loved by God, and would walk away having sat at a common table and genuinely discussed the possibility of an end to injustice, an end to poverty and hunger and thirst, and an end to war. The true miracle here is delicate and understated in its manifestation, but its true power comes from the love of God that can change minds and that can change the world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that, “The power of love, as the basis of a State, has never been tried”. I believe we as Christians are called to try to make the power of love the basis of our lives. It is unlikely that we will ever have the chance let alone the ability to change thousands of lives in one single afternoon as Christ did. But the beauty and the elegance and power of the miracle of the loaves and fishes is its subtlety and we are all capable of that. We can all invite people who are different from us to our table and to treat them with love and respect and to speak of a better world. I do believe poverty and war will one day be history, but their eradication will not be done by revolution or popular protest or the like. It will be done when the mutual feeling of love for our fellow human beings makes it nonsensical to build a gun or a bomb when we could plant some food instead. Yes, that would be a miracle, and the love of God elegantly leads us to that outcome everyday. Let us break bread with each other. Amen.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney