Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes is the only miracle that is recorded in every gospel, aside from the resurrection. The four evangelists wrote decades after the death of Jesus and over the span of almost 100 years; naturally, each had a slightly different angle on the story. Still, unlike other parallel gospel stories, the four accounts of this particular miracle are remarkably consistent. For example, 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, indicating Passover time. 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. Today, I will elaborate on just three: compassion and self-sacrifice, blessing others with what God gave us, and the unifying power of gathering in God’s presence.
First, God’s infinite compassion and self-sacrificial stance go hand in hand, and Jesus models them perfectly for us. Let’s consider this: how does he find himself surrounded by thousands of people in what’s referred to as a “remote place”? This occurred early in Jesus’ ministry, and one often overlooked detail is that at this point, he had just found out about the death of his cousin John the Baptist. So his motivation for trying to get a break from the multitudes was both tiredness and grief. Looking for a quiet space, 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. He puts his own grief and tiredness aside not only to fulfil the immediate requests for healing, but also to anticipate their future need for food. We are all capable of that, aren’t we?
That crowd would have been incredibly diverse: the rich and the poor, the high and the lowly, Jews and Gentiles, believers and skeptics - each with their own unique problem. We can all invite people who are different from us to our table, treat them with respect, and put their needs before our own. It’s important to acknowledge that through feeding others, literally and figuratively, we all participate equally in God’s ministry in the world. Let’s recognize our own part in this, and thank others for their contributions. May we remember to appreciate those who toil tirelessly to provide us with food: farmers and truckers, grocery store workers, food bank volunteers, restaurant businesses that have suffered during the pandemic; and, let’s not forget those who cook for their families and friends on a daily basis. Many of us noticed just how much sharing food means to us when the pandemic took away our opportunity to do so over the past 18 months. Now, let our shared meals be a sacrament pointing to the relational image of God in which He has made us all.
But, unlike God’s first act of creation in Genesis, Jesus does NOT make “something out of nothing”, and this is my second point today. He does come pretty close by feeding an Air Canada’s Centre’s worth of people with a little boy’s lunch, but the key difference is that God no longer needs to work with nothing to create and make miracles happen. He already has us, and the rest of the world, and most often chooses to work only with what we bring to the table -- which is, of course, already a combination of grace and effort. But this 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 and the little boy’s meager possessions 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”. And what do you think he said to the little boy? The child would have been excited to witness a new miracle; but he didn’t know it was about to happen, did he? Quite 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. So I tend to imagine Jesus whispering with a wink, “watch this!”, and assuage his fears.
The point is, God uses ordinary objects and people -- vulnerable, weak, small, and powerless -- 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, looks up to heaven, blesses the food, and hands it out until everyone has enough -- with leftovers! 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! That is because the actual miracle wasn’t that the people were healed and fed, but that they did so TOGETHER.
This brings me to my third point. A crowd of people who might not have normally interacted due to societal divisions and distinctions sat together on the grass, resting, eating, and talking about their personal experiences of God’s healing power. I pray that each of our church gatherings may always be a re-enactment of this scene. I think I’ve already mentioned to you that I felt quite emotional on the day that we were able to share our communion after a long break. May this parish remain that place where everyone feels loved by God, is connected by this love to others, shares a common table, and considers loving their neighbours as 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 our willingness to bless others -- with God’s help.