Here’s the story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the feeding of the multitude:
There are thousands of people who had gathered one day to be near Jesus and hear his teaching and pray with him. They all get so absorbed that they forget about the time – the day had gotten longer than anyone expected and everyone realizes their hungry.
The way the story’s told in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the disciples then pull Jesus aside and say, “Hey, it’s late. People are hungry. Send them away so they can go back to town and buy supper for themselves.” In other words, the disciples want to say to everyone: “The Jesus show is over for today, folks. Go on back home and take care of yourselves. You’re hungry? Didn’t plan ahead and pack something? Not our problem. What’s that? You can’t buy yourself supper? You can’t afford it? The food prices are too high? Not our problem. Sorry. Go home.”
But Jesus says to these disciples – “No, no, my friends, this Jesus show ain’t over. It’s only just begun. Everyone here stays, all five thousand, and it’s up to you to be sure they’re fed. We’re all in this together. Figure it out.” “What? Are you kidding?” The disciples say, “It’ll cost a fortune to feed this many people! We can’t afford that. The food prices are too high. It’s not in our budget … And, no Jesus, don’t start guilt tripping us about famine in Yemen and food scarcity in Puerto Rico and how many kids in our classrooms need free and reduced lunch when in our country we throw out 60 million tons of perfectly edible food each year. Don’t want to hear about it. It’s been a long day. Look, we’d like to help, sure, but if we’re going to pay for it, there just isn’t enough silver in the purse to go around. Okay?”
And then, the miracle:
A kid in the crowd roots into their bag and says, “Here. Here’s what I’ve got.” He sees he has a little more than he needs, right then. Five loaves and two fishes – not a lot, but more than he needs.
And remember, he’s hungry too. So he could’ve easily just snuck off on his own and had a nice little meal. He could’ve said, ‘Well I thought ahead and packed food. It’s not my problem if you didn’t.” This is like what Moses was warning against: Folks taking for granted the abundance of the promised land and thinking, “I did this for myself. It’s all mine.’
Instead this child offers what he has, all of it, for everyone’s benefit. He offers what he has to help the larger problem. And in the face of that larger problem it didn’t bother him that what he had to offer was a drop in a bucket. This is the key to the miracle. This is the key that Jesus turns to ignite the divine in our midst.
“Blessed are the pure in heart.” “Unless you become like a child, you will not know the Realm of Heaven.”
So Jesus takes what the boy has given. He blesses that food, before the five thousand people – this little that they have – and he breaks it and he gives it out. So five whole loaves in one persons’s hands become ten broken pieces in ten people’s hands. And those people then take those, give thanks, and each brake what they now have, eating some and giving the rest to their neighbors. Those neighbors then do the same, and so on through the crowd … and everyone has enough to receive and to pass on.
I imagine this being like cells dividing. One cell divides, and each half then grows into a whole which then divides again. 1 becomes 2, 2 becomes 4, 4 becomes 8, 16, 32, 64, and so on. So what may first look like division turns out to be multiplication. That’s the miracle of generosity. That’s how it works when we take and thank and bless and break and give and eat with the purity of heart of this child, the purity of heart of this Jesus, who simply gives what he has to offer in response to the need. The gift multiplies through the multitude.
In the end, after everyone has had what they need, they gather up what’s left and find they’ve all ended up with more than they need.
It starts with one person discovering they have more than they need – in this case, five loaves and two fishes. And after this chain reaction of generosity it ends with everyone discovering they have more than they need. They fill twelve baskets with the blessed leftovers.
And Jesus wants these blessed leftovers gathered up, “so that nothing is wasted.” Because it’s precious stuff – you don’t take this abundance for granted and throw it out.
These blessed leftovers are like the sour dough starter for generation after generation of generosity.
And we tell this story over and over again because it all has got something to do with the Good News that Jesus brought, the Good News of the Realm of God in our midst and how it transforms the way we live together.
At the end of the story, the people were amazed and wanted to make Jesus king. But he slipped away, leaving the leavening of these loaves and fishes, these blessed leftovers that have now been passed through the generations … So we can now take and give thanks, bless and break, eat and pass it to our neighbor.
Thanks be to God.
Deuteronomy 8:7-15 17-18 (The Message) So it’s paramount that you keep the precepts of the Holy Mystery, your God, walk down the roads God shows you and reverently respect God. The Supreme One is about to bring you into a good land, a land with brooks and rivers, springs and lakes, streams out of the hills and through the valleys. It’s a land of wheat and barley, of vines and figs and pomegranates, of olives, oil, and honey. It’s land where you’ll never go hungry—always food on the table and a roof over your head. It’s a land where you’ll get iron out of rocks and mine copper from the hills. After a meal, satisfied, bless the Holy Mystery, your God, for the good land God has given you. Make sure you don’t forget the Holy Mystery, your God, by not keeping God’s precepts, rules and regulations that I command you today. Make sure that when you eat and are satisfied, build pleasant houses and settle in, see your herds and flocks flourish and more and more money come in, watch your standard of living going up and up—make sure you don’t become so full of yourself and your things that you forget the Supreme One, your God, the God who delivered you from Egyptian slavery. If you start thinking to yourselves, “I did all this. And all by myself. I’m rich. It’s all mine!”—well, think again. Remember that the Supreme One, your God, gave you the strength to produce all this wealth so as to confirm the covenant that God promised to your ancestors—as it is today.
John 6:5-15 (The Message) When Jesus looked out and saw that a large crowd had arrived, he said to Philip, “Where can we buy bread to feed these people?” He said this to stretch Philip’s faith. He already knew what he was going to do. Philip answered, “Two hundred silver pieces wouldn’t be enough to buy bread for each person to get a piece.” One of the disciples—it was Andrew, brother to Simon Peter—said, “There’s a little boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But that’s a drop in the bucket for a crowd like this.” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” There was a nice carpet of green grass in this place. They sat down, about five thousand of them. Then Jesus took the bread and, having given thanks, gave it to those who were seated. He did the same with the fish. All ate as much as they wanted. When the people had eaten their fill, he said to his disciples, “Gather the leftovers so nothing is wasted.” They went to work and filled twelve large baskets with leftovers from the five barley loaves. The people realized that God was at work among them in what Jesus had just done. They said, “This is the Prophet for sure, God’s Prophet right here in Galilee!” Jesus saw that in their enthusiasm, they were about to grab him and make him king, so he slipped off and went back up the mountain to be by himself.
(Delivered November 26, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)