After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
The Gospel of John is structured to answer the question “Who is Jesus?” through the lens of different ‘signs’. Hence the last verse of this passage: “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” So what do we learn about this Messiah? There is hope, idealism and a disturbing confrontation with our own limitations awaiting us in this sign.
This is the only miracle narrative that we find in all four gospels. There are variations in detail that are unique to John that we will address in a moment, but in all four gospels, Jesus is placed in the context of Jewish history and a Christian future. It is a story that alludes to both the Exodus and the Eucharist. In both the Old Testament and the new, mountains were often associated with Holy Places. In the Exodus, Moses meets God on a mountain and he brings the commandments to the people. God provided spiritual guidence and physical food to the escaping slaves. In John, Jesus ‘went up the mountain and sat there with his disciples.’ The Eucharist is anticipated in the blessing and sharing of the bread along with the demonstration of sacrificial giving as a way of life that gives life for us all. In John in particular, the loaves are identified specifically as barley loaves—the bread of the poor and the specific mention of the people sitting in ‘a great deal of grass’ conjures up the good shepherd of the 23rd Psalm. Jesus makes them lie down in green pastures. He restores their soul.’ Jesus is not a one off, his teaching and his care for people marked him a prophet in a line of prophets.
Jesus reveals a God who is directly involved in the concrete needs of people. God is not an abstraction or an ethereal moral guide, God notices suffering, sickness and hunger. And God provides. There is hope for all of us in such a God. And we need to remember that this is the God we worship. In the book of Exodus, the people are instructed to celebrate the feast of unleavened bread. It was, and is, a way to remember the times in their lives when they were literally lost and hungry. When they could not imagine relief, God provided.
So too with us, especially when we call our lives ‘good’, we need to remember that it was not always so. Every life is touched by pain and grief. Most lives include periods when we struggle to find direction. All of us must face uncertainty, debility and death. We often cannot really explain how we survived the hardness of our lives but if we take the time to remember, our remembering leads to humility and gratitude. It is a fundamental faith claim that we believe God is active in our lives. We don’t have to understand or explain, but we can observe and remember that God is in the midst of it all.
Such a promise is a great hope and consolation but taken by itself can become separate from our real lives. In John’s account of Jesus feeding the five thousand, Jesus sees and responds to the concrete needs of people. This is not a story of a magic cornucopia. Jesus’ example is a particular, reproducible way. He quickly rules out buying food. The need far exceeded their financial resources. (“Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”) This is a common dilemma in real life. The needs of people close to us, much less those on a community or world wide scale are far beyond our means to respond. Almost every family has at least one person who is struggling. It doesn’t matter why. How and how much do we respond to those close to us—not to mention the daily requests for money on the streets and in our mailbox. The world is a troubled place and thousands starve every day. The predicament has been with us for all of history.
The feeding of the 5000 began when a boy shared his food. It was a pittance against the need. At the initial offer, it meant he would have less but this boy said: “Here, take mine.” We’ve all seen examples of incredible generosity—from relief efforts in the face of disasters to starving people sharing their food in Auschwitz. When virtually everyone is hungry, people are often more willing to share. Traditional rationalizations used to explain disparities evaporate when everyone is in the same boat. How hard we’ve worked has no meaning to a flood or a fire.
When we truly see that ‘there for the grace of God’, go I’, people are far more likely to band together and support the common good. It is a practical principle. Living in regard for other people as children of God leads to generosity and sharing. When everyone is important, everyone benefits. It is an ideal I understand and share. But it is depressingly hard to actually live.
The abundance mentality that goes with the faith that God will provide rapidly becomes a scarcity mentality. Paradoxically, a scarcity mentality seems more prevalent among the haves than the have nots. If we go by the statistics, most of us are rich. (According to the PEW research center, 70% of the world’s population live on less than $10 per day.) Yet how many of us feel rich? When people across income levels are asked how much money they feel they would need so they would not have to worry about money, the consistent response was about 25% more. It didn’t matter how much people actually made, they consistently felt they needed more. We are far more likely to compare ourselves to the 1or 2% rather than the 70%. We look at what we do not have instead of what we do have.
We seem to be hard wired to live wanting more and thinking we do not have enough. In FIRL, I asked what was so hard about sharing when most of us held the ideal that everyone matters. There was plenty of uneasiness and guilt. We each had to consider how much is enough? What do we really need? We may be ok now, but what about the future? How do we balance these concerns with our call to be mindful and to serve? The early church is described in Acts 2 as a community in which individuals sold what they had and shared the proceeds for the common good. That did not last very long.
The trouble with Christianity is that it calls for sacrificial giving. Whether it was that boy with five loaves and two fish or Jesus on a cross, we are called to give—often at our own expense. We are called to be ever mindful of the disparities of the world and within our abilities (and that is the tricky part) to share for the betterment of all. But some combination of self centeredness and fear get in the way. It may be the ideal but communities based on those principles have almost uniformly failed—and usually within one generation.
It is one thing to announce the faith claim that God will provide and quite another to be an agent of that provision. There is no answer here—except perhaps the willingness to be troubled. My parents now need substantial financial support. That was not part of my retirement plan. We have enough but I am troubled. It is too easy to turn God’s promises and God’s call into a guilt trip. In real life, it is hard to trust in God’s provision. And in real life, it is hard to give—especially sacrificially. We worry. We are afraid. We try to be self-sufficient, become entitled and forget our good fortune as well as our dependency.
The ancient Jews had it right when they said: “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.” Sharing and giving are sustainable only when born of gratitude not obligation. Such remembrance is not ‘You owe me.” It is recalling the experience of being sustained when our own resources were insufficient. It is recalling the experience of being fully known and deeply loved. If you pause and remember such a time, you know that you cannot remain the same person. It may only last for a short while but when you remember you are transformed. You live and love differently.
Feast on the knowledge that God is with you in every circumstance of life. Remember. Only then can you listen to God’s way to love one another. And in real life, only then can you trust God’s care when we discover our fear and self centeredness.
Let it be so.