The Feeding of the 5,000 is one of the most well known stories in the New Testament. It appears in every gospel at least once. In Matthew and Mark it appears a second time in an identical form where 4,000 are fed. Needless to say, this story was very important in the life of the early church. During a time of intense persecution, it encouraged them that God’s kingdom could not be defeated. Whether it’s the tiny mustard seed or a little patch of good soil, God can make big things grow out of small things.
It’s a reversal from the way our world usually operates where big fish eat small fish, and the weak are often abused by the strong. The Feeding of the 5,000 also became a metaphor for Holy Communion. It reminded the early church that everyone is welcome to come and dine at God’s table. Love and forgiveness are offered there in overflowing abundance.
As we enter into this familiar story, there are two possible ways we can look at what happened on the shores of Galilee.. The first is that a true miracle occurred. Somehow, Jesus multiplied five loaves and two fish so that it fed over 5,000 people. This is the approach I’ve always taken with this story. I’m the kind of guy who has room in my life for miracle and mystery. Even though I was a chemistry major in college, I don’t think everything has to have a rational, scientific explanation. There are some things in our word that simply cannot be explained by reason or science. What happened in our gospel lesson is one of these occurrences.
The second way of looking at this story is that it was a miracle of sharing. I’ve always resisted this scholarly explanation because I believed it cheapened the story. If a true bonafide miracle did not happen that day, then what does this say about Jesus? What does this say about the power he possessed?
So, every time I preached on this text, I went with the assumption that a true miracle occurred that day and it was NOT a miracle of sharing. But now that I’m older, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s any less miraculous for Jesus to get a group of people to share what they have with others.
Perhaps this is the greater miracle than if he magically multiplied the loaves and fishes. Sharing is something we don’t do well on our planet. There are enough resources for us to be able to feed the world. Yet some of us live lavishly this while others die of starvation. There should be enough space for all of us to live in peace, in spite of our differences. Yet, religion, class and race are the driving forces behind most of the wars we wage.
We are also conditioned to hate or distrust those who think, look or act differently from us. We circle the wagons and stick to our kind. Sharing isn’t even remotely a possibility Progressives distrust conservatives. Conservatives distrust progressives. Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill and in Raleigh can barely stand to be in the same room with each other, let alone work together and share resources and ideas.
When we take an honest look at ourselves as a species, I believe multiplying loaves and fishes is a cake walk compared to learning how to live peacefully with each other and share our resources. So let’s assume for today that what happened in our gospel lesson was a miracle of sharing. How does this affect the way we understand the story?
As we read Matthew’s version of it, I’m fairly certain that most people who came to hear Jesus did not come empty handed. After all, there were no restaurants nearby. The disciples were not running a concession stand. Surely, people had some food with them, especially those who had traveled quite a distance to hear Jesus speak.
My suspicions are confirmed by the conversation the disciples have with Jesus in our gospel lesson: “This is a deserted place,” they inform Jesus. In other words, we’re pretty far from town. “And the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
The disciples are smart enough to realize that some people might have brought food with them but not everyone was so well prepared. Jesus says to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
I can see the disciples’ panicked expressions as they take a mental inventory of their supplies: “Hmmm, we have some fresh drinking water. And I know James and John have a flask of wine hidden somewhere. They never go anywhere without it! Peter has a few dried fish and Matthew bought some bread this morning. That’s about it! There’s barely enough for us. Jesus is obviously crazy! ‘You give them something to eat,’ he says. Yeah, right!”
And so the disciples tell Jesus, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he says to them, “Bring them here to me.”
The situation we have here is that they’re in a “deserted place,” meaning they are out in the middle of nowhere, and it’s a bit of a hike back to town. They have some food, and perhaps Jesus knows that others have brought food with them as well. It’s a likely scenario.
And so maybe, just maybe, Jesus takes the meager offering of the disciples; He looks up toward heaven, and blesses and breaks the loaves. He then hands the loaves and fish to the disciples who then hand them to the crowd. Maybe, just maybe, God softened the hearts of those who gathered on those shores. Maybe, just maybe, they were moved by Jesus’ act of generosity and hospitality. Maybe, just maybe, they reached into their bags and shared what they had as well. Some would have brought more than enough to feed their families. Others would have nothing to share. But when all was said and done, the entire crowd was well fed; and there were twelve baskets of leftovers.
My dear friends, I’m willing to look at this story both ways. But today, I hold in my heart the possibility that a miracle of sharing occurred as the loaves and fishes were multiplied. God’s Kingdom was revealed on that day because those who gathered on the shore began acting like kingdom people. They dropped their suspicions and distrust of their neighbors. They shared what they had with those who had nothing, and EVERYONE was fed.
Is this any less a miracle than if Jesus had mysteriously multiplied the loaves and fishes? I don’t think so. Maybe the lesson we take with us this morning, as we go in peace to serve the Lord, is that we’re supposed to do the same! We are supposed to be living signs of the Kingdom. We are called to generously share with others all that God has given us. We are called to break down barriers of mistrust and prejudice and view everyone as a beloved child of God.
If we are committed to this holy work, maybe, just maybe, others will be moved by our acts of generosity and love. Maybe, just maybe, our world can begin to move from war and division into a place of harmony, unity and peace.
That’s my Kingdom dream! The seeds of that dream are sown in our gospel lesson on the shores of Galilee where Jesus reminds us, once again, that God can make big things grow out of small things. Can you believe it with me? Can we trust the miracle and claim it for ourselves, our families, our community, and our planet? I hope so! AMEN.
Copyright ©2020 by David Eck.