The story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 men is certainly a “Biblical classic”; the only miracle recorded in all four gospels aside from the resurrection. The four evangelists wrote decades after the death of Jesus and over the span of almost 100 years, and naturally, they each had a slightly different angle on the story. Still, unlike some other parallel stories in the gospels, the four accounts of this particular miracle are remarkably consistent. For example, in our version, Jesus invites the people to sit on the grass; another version mentions the feast of Passover approaching, indicating the spring-time; and yet another makes note of many people traveling. Some choose to take this as a proof that the miracle really did take place as described; but even those of us who have trouble with its literal reading will derive important implications of this narrative regarding God’s compassion, sacrificial giving, and being together at God’s table.
How does Jesus find himself surrounded by thousands of people in what’s referred to as a “remote place”? This occurred early in Jesus’ ministry, when his popularity was rapidly growing. One often overlooked detail is that at this point, Jesus had just found out about the death of his cousin John the Baptist, and so his motivation for trying to get a break from the multitudes was not mere tiredness, but grief. Looking for a quiet space to come to terms with his emotions, Jesus gets into a boat on one side of the lake, only to encounter another crowd just as he closes in on the opposite shore! Yet again, here are all these people: shouting his name, asking to be healed, to put their needs before his own -- even before the boat reaches the ground. Then, the day is quickly spent, the distance to the neighboring villages is great, and darkness would soon overcome them if they lingered any longer. Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish, looks up to heaven to give thanks, and blesses them. Breaking the loaves into pieces, he hands them over to the disciples to be distributed to the people. Everyone is well fed, and there are even twelve baskets of leftovers. Jesus doesn’t quite make “something out of nothing”, but comes pretty close by feeding an Air Canada’s Centre’s worth of people with a little boy’s lunch.
What strikes you as important about this story? Take a moment to ponder this. When you eat, do you think of your food as a gift from God? In what ways are you helping to “feed” people, physically or spiritually? Do you think of this as your participation in the work of God’s kingdom? What are some recognizable symbols that catch your attention in the story?
For the narrative is, indeed, deeply symbolic. John calls it “a sign”: an event with many hidden meanings. It echoes several Old Testament stories. The first image that comes to mind is that of the ancient Israelites enjoying the first “bread of heaven” -- a shower of manna every morning of their wilderness journey. But, we might also recall that Elija sustained the widow and her son by miraculously multiplying oil and flour; Elisha fed 100 men with 5 barley loaves (resulting in left-overs!); and just a few loaves from the temple priests’ reserves were enough to satisfy a whole band of King David’s early supporters. And that’s not all. Today, from the vantage point of our 2000 year-old tradition, we may choose to read even deeper into the symbolism of the numbers and objects in this story: the 5 loaves may point to the 5 books of Moses; barley is specifically mentioned both in this story and that of Elisha because it’s the first grain harvested in the spring (as Jesus was the first man to be resurrected); 12 baskets of leftovers point to both the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples; the fish get their lives from the water, just as we do from the waters of our baptism; and so the disciples are the “fishers of men”; the people recline on green grass to which the Good Shepherd leads them for sustenance and rest in Psalm 23…
These familiar images must have given the Jews gathered in that remote place at least some clues about Jesus’ role in their midst: a prophet like Moses, Elijah and Elisha, a king like David, and even a priest. Two Passovers later, do you think the 12 disciples might have had a bit of a déjà vu, as they gathered for the last supper before their teacher’s death? Two millenia later, do we still notice a replication of this miracle every time we gather for the Eucharist?
Yes, the symbolism of this story certainly connects it to the scriptures that were written before it, but it is also important for our present-day, shared life with God. First of all, it reminds us to appreciate those who toil tirelessly to provide food to others: farmers and truckers, whose work is never easy; front-line grocery store workers and restaurant businesses, who have suffered hardship recently due to the pandemic; those who serve in the garden beside our church as part of the Common Table, Flemingdon Park Ministry; and, let’s not forget those who cook for their families and friends on a daily basis. Through such efforts to offer hospitality, we really do participate in the kingdom ministry of Jesus.
Second, both the healing and feeding miracles of Jesus model self-sacrificial attitude, and illustrate God’s infinite compassion to all. Jesus puts his own grief and tiredness aside to heal the people's wounds, pains, and sorrows. The crowd would have been incredibly diverse: the rich and the poor, the high and the lowly, Jews and Gentiles, believers and skeptics - each with his or her own unique needs. We are all capable of that, aren’t we? We can all invite people who are different from us to our table, treat them with respect, and put their needs before our own.
And that is why Jesus is not said to have arranged for the new manna to rain down on the multitude of people as it did in Moses’ days. Instead, he used the agency of his close companions to distribute this grace. This is how the “divine economy” works: neither does Jesus do it alone, nor are his disciples able to give more to others than they’ve already received from him. Jesus did not say to his disciples, “keep as much as you need for yourselves and give your leftovers to others”; he said, “take what I give you, and distribute it among others”. God uses ordinary objects and people to create extraordinary realities. Yes, only God can perform a miracle; but we contribute to it with a hand that is open to give, and with a heart that is open to receive much more than we “could ask or imagine”.
And, it is often the most extraordinary realities that are actually the most subtle, that we might miss in our focus on what we might want the miracle to be. Unlike the healing miracles of Jesus, the feeding induces no clear moment of awe. Jesus simply asks everyone to sit on the grass, blesses the food, and hands it out until everyone has enough. The meal itself, to the 1st century Galileans, would have been what they ate every day. One might at least expect some wine, given its significance in our Eucharist -- but no; the meal is just bread and fish because that is all that the little boy had. Perhaps some people didn’t even notice that this was a miracle!
Finally, I often think about the identity of the little boy who gave up his lunch in John’s version of the story. Maybe, he was excited to witness a new miracle; but more likely, he was scared to go hungry, and sad to watch his food taken away, as it happens way too often in our broken world. But the point is that, once again, it is the vulnerable, the weak, the small, the powerless who gives the most, and through whom God works abundantly for all others.
To conclude, the true miracle recorded in this story is not that Jesus was willing and able to feed such a multitude by a small lunch, but rather that God is willing and able to unify so many people by grace alone. God's "invitation to the table" is a powerful metaphor for the awareness we develop regarding the love with which s/he heals, feeds, and transforms us – and, that everyone else is equally loved. The story describes a crowd of people who would not normally be seen together, people who would, perhaps, even go out of their way to avoid each other -- all sitting down on the grass, eating together, and talking about the different ways in which they had experienced God’s healing power earlier in the day. Does that remind us of something? Something called “church”, perhaps?
May our parish community remain that place where everyone feels loved by God, is connected by this love to others, shares a common table, and genuinely considers the possibility that loving others as we would love ourselves is, in fact, the path to joy and peace. The greatest miracles in life may be subtle, but what ultimately brings God's kingdom into this world is his/her desire to change the way we relate to each other. Thanks be to God.