Feeding the Five Thousand

Some years ago, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Louvain took an interest in how people feasted and celebrated. As part of his research, he asked one of his students to write a thesis on the following subject: ‘How do children, aged 9-11 years, experience the phenomenon of feast?’. The student approached the subject in various ways, and one of these consisted of showing a controlled group of 100 children three different drawings of a birthday feast.

In the first drawing, the picture depicted a child alone, but before a mountain of gifts and presents waiting to be opened. In the second drawing, the child was not alone, and was surrounded by just a few members of their family, and some food – a birthday cake, ice-cream, and other treats. But there were many fewer presents to open – in fact only one parcel, and not a one very big at that. In the third picture, the child was surrounded by wider family, friends and neighbours, and there was more food. But there was no gift or parcel in the picture at all, so nothing to open.

The question the children were asked was simple enough: which of these birthday feasts would you rather have for yourself, and why?  Seventy percent of the sample chose the third picture.

So the children explained this was the real feast. Others said ‘because in the third picture, everyone is happy – in the first picture, only I am happy, and in the second picture, not enough people are happy’. The children had grasped something authentic about celebrations. That by being together, and only be being together, can we be truly happy. A true feast, in Christian thinking, is a communion with God, and a communion with people – the two are indivisible.

The early church understood this. So the first Christians looked after the widows, orphans and poor. And they treated them not as objects of charity, but as their equals. They did this for foreigners, friends, neighbours, slaves, free, male, female, young and old.  As John Chrysostom wrote, ‘ubi caritas gaudet, ibi est festivitas’: ‘where charity rejoices, there we have the feast’.

Jesus is an expression of God’s heart for humanity. He is the Body Language of God.  The kingdom is for all. So the ministry of Jesus will incorporate from the outset. It belongs in the alleys, not just the temple. It will welcome Samaritans, not just Sadducees; Publicans, not just Pharisees.

The kingdom that Jesus preached was more than just a creature of his adult imagination and inspirational prophetic vision.  His childhood, I think, had probably taught him a thing or two about people, society and God.  He grew up in occupied territories, so had seen the good and bad side of that coin – oppression traded off against organisation.  Jesus’ childhood had included a sojourn in Egypt.  And we know that by working in Joseph’s trade – carpentry and building (Gk. tekton) – he had, by living in Nazareth, been exposed to the nearby Roman settlement of Sepphoris.  This was a Hellenized community of almost 30,000 in Jesus’ childhood, compared to the population of Nazareth, which boasted a mere 300. 

So Nazareth was a dormitory village supplying labour to a much larger cosmopolitan community nearby.  It would have been full of Gentiles of every kind.  So, from an early age, Jesus would have been exposed to a world beyond his native parochial Judaism. The theatre at Sepphoris seated 5,000.  It is almost certain that Joseph took Jesus.  For Jesus, in his adult life, uses the Greek word ‘hypocrite’ quite a few times, which simply means ‘actor’ – one who is masked, and playing a part. 

Jesus saw that God was for everyone; he lived, practised and preached this.  We see this in the healing miracles that Jesus wrought – to a Canaanite girl, a Samaritan woman or a Roman centurion’s servant.  To lepers, the blind, the demon-possessed; Jesus touches the untouchable, hears the dumb, speaks to the deaf and sees the blind.  His healings are highly partial, being overwhelmingly directed to the marginalised and ostracised.  It is there in parables too, with Jesus constantly teaching us about the least, the last and the lesser; God can’t take his loving eyes off the people we most easily neglect.

Jesus, let us remember, was born in Bethlehem.  The name of that place, in Aramaic, means “the town of bread”.  Jesus was born in a place where bread was baked and shared.  What is significant about this, is this. Jesus’ Kingdom of God project was, from the outset, supra-tribal and collective.  It reached out beyond Judaism to the Gentiles.  Indeed, he often praised gentiles for their faith, and often scolded the apparently ‘orthodox’ religion of his kith and kin for its insularity and purity. 

The ministry of Jesus is startling in its inclusivity.  Consider, for example, the feedings of the 5,000 and the 4,000.  It is customary, in a kind of lazy-liberal and rather reductive way, to suppose that the gospel writers simple got their maths muddled, and were a bit confused about a single event.  But in actual fact, there may be good reasons to regard the two miracles as quite separate.  The feeding of the 5,000 takes place on the western banks of the Sea of Galilee.  The region was almost entirely Jewish, and the twelve baskets of leftovers symbolise the twelve tribes of Israel. 

What then, of the feeding of the 4,000, and the seven baskets of leftovers?  It is, after all, the same kind of territory that Jesus’ healing of the Canaanite girl takes place on, which breaks up the stories in Matthew, Mark and Luke – Jesus healing a foreigner and person of foreign religion who has no right to Jesus’ Jewish healings.  Jesus heals lots of people who are foreign.  The theme of feeding and bread is shared.  The event occurs on the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee, and the region was almost entirely Gentile in composition. 

The seven baskets of leftovers correspond to the seven Gentile regions of the time (i.e., Phoenicia, Samaria, Perea, Decapolis, Gaulanitis, Idumea and Philistia).  Moreover, the baskets in the feeding of the 5,000 (kophinos) are smaller than those mentioned in the feeding of the 4,000(spuridi – a basket big enough for a person, as with Paul in Acts 9: 25).  The point is that the new manna from heaven will be distributed evenly, across all lands; plenty for all. 

In the first churches, we find Jews, Greeks and Romans; slave and free; male and female.  This is what it means to be one in Christ: built together to be the dwelling place of God; the oikos – ‘God’s household’.   But it was not a cosy home for the chosen few, or perhaps those only related by marriage and birth.  God’s kingdom was always ‘Open House’.

The ancient Sufi Persian mystic poet Hafiz (1315-1390) was orphaned as a child, and interestingly then went to work as a baker of bread to make ends meet. He wrote some of the finest Arabic poetry ever, and you will see the reason I chose Hafiz’s poem here, ‘The Seed Cracked Open’.

It used to be
That when I would wake in the morning
I could with confidence say,
“What am ‘I’ going to Do?”
That was before the seed
Cracked open.
Now Hafiz is certain:
There are two of us housed
In this body,
Doing the shopping together in the market and
Tickling each other
While fixing the evening’s food.
Now when I awake
All the internal instruments play the same music:
“God, what love-mischief can ‘We’ do
For the world Today?”

I love the idea of our churches as ‘a seed cracked open’.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground, it cannot bear fruit – it cannot feed us.  We have to surrender ourselves and yield, if the miracle of feeding and providing is to happen. I think the “love-mischief” that God wants us to do today is rather like John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000.

By the shore of lake Galilee is the wonderfully named ‘Church of the Multiplication’. The beautiful 5th century floor mosaic of plants and birds depict in front of the altar a basket of bread flanked by two fish. For centuries this has been remembered as the site of what we call the Feeding of the 5,000.

We often struggle in this story with the maths. How can five loaves of bread and two fish be shared to feed 5,000? The fractions would be miniscule if it were even possible to do this kind of division. The miracle is that this is not about division – eking out limited resources it is about multiplication -satisfying the needs of this large crowd.

Like all miracles to be read as a sign, a pointer to truth.  Jesus’ miracle comes from his compassion. The Greek word has a very physical understanding of this feeling it is to be moved in one’s guts. Instead of being angry at the demands on his attention when all he wanted was peace and quiet he is overwhelmed with the pain and the need of these people. He begins to heal those who are in need.

We assume this all takes some time because the next thing we know is that it is evening. The disciples are also concerned for the people. Night falls quickly and these people need to go as soon as possible to find food. So, they say to Jesus – send them away. Jesus says they won’t need to go if you feed them. Then we get the math problem. We only have five loaves and two fish.

The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle of Jesus that is related in all four gospels, and John’s is the longest account. The account in John 6 has a different setting from the other three gospel accounts John places the focus on the activity of Jesus in Jerusalem before this miracle. Rather than describing this as expressions of Jesus’ power, or demonstrations of the coming of the kingdom, John labels this as a ‘sign’: things which are not an end in themselves, but point to something greater. (John doesn’t actually say ‘healing’ in this story, but says instead “they saw the signs he was doing on the sick”.

So, what is this sign? That the grace of God is not finite; it is not a resource that needs to be carefully portioned. It will satisfy us and still there will be enough leftovers to feed more.  We do not have to compete for grace as if it were a scarce resource. Nor do we need to hoard it. We simply need to take what we need and share what we have. All ate and were satisfied.

At times we are the disciples in this story, those who walk with Jesus. We are asked to join in the feeding of those in need, not to send them away empty, even if that can seem sensible. We offer what little we have to God for blessing, and find that we can give and give but not be depleted because the miracle of grace is to meet the need and satisfy the hunger. As we feel for the needs of others so that grace can flow through us.

How often do we think, “I won’t get involved because I cannot make a difference”?  This story says your small offering may be all that is needed for a miracle to happen. For our God is the God not of division, but of multiplication.  And your gift is enough for God to do something.  There will always be too many, too little, and the hour late.  But with God, there is no finitude.  God is a God of infinity, and his love, well, infinitude. So, do what you can.  God never asks too much of you.  He just asks for everything you’ve got.  See what God can do with that. So, go forth this day; let God multiply.