Ninth Sunday after Pentacost
The feeding of the multitudes; it is one of the few stories incorporated by all four of the gospel writers. There are some differences in the way each tells the story, and as Helen pointed out in her sermon last Sunday night, Mark actually includes two such stories; one set in a Jewish context and one in Gentile territory. As with John, Matthew and Mark follow the feeding of the 5000 with the account of Jesus coming across the stormy sea to his frightened disciples, and taken together the two stories speak to the overarching gospel question: who is this Jesus?
- To listen to the sermon simply press play:
At this point, the disciples are not entirely clear as to who he is, and certainly the crowds who follow him are mostly drawn in by what John calls “the signs that Jesus was doing for the sick.” When they realize that in being fed together from so little—just a few loaves of bread and two fish—they’ve actually experienced yet another sign, “they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’” Caught up in the thrill of a wondrous sign, their enthusiasm is such that Jesus feels he needs to keep moving. As John puts it, “When he realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” They have seen signs of something that speaks to them of power, and so are inclined to put him up on a royal pedestal. Jesus, on the other hand, is the one who has come to them precisely as one of them—as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood”—and so his withdrawing from them stands as refutation of that kind of power. His wondrous signs are meant to point to a whole other way of understanding how the world might work.
The image of bread offered in a wilderness points back to the story of the freed Hebrew slaves being fed in the desert. These are slaves, remember, whose lives have been lived under the rule of Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s kind of kingship. After that initial burst of exuberance—we’re free!—unsettling doubts begin to set in. Why, Moses, have you led us out here simply to die? At least there was food to eat in Egypt…
“In answer to the people’s fears and complaints,” writes Walter Brueggemann, “something extraordinary happens.”
God’s love comes trickling down in the form of bread. They say, ‘Manhue?’— Hebrew for ‘What is it?’—and the word ‘manna’ is born. They had never before received bread as a free gift that they couldn’t control, predict, plan for or own. The meaning of this strange narrative is that the gifts of life are indeed given by a generous God. It’s a wonder, it’s a miracle, it’s an embarrassment, it’s irrational, but God’s abundance transcends the market economy.
God’s abundance transcends Pharaoh’s seven day a week market economy, in which in return for a bit of food slaves are worked to death. Manna—‘what is it?’—is the bread of life in an unforgiving desert. And there is enough for everyone.
Yet as Brueggemann notes, “[B]ecause Israel had learned to believe in scarcity in Egypt, people started to hoard the bread. When they tried to bank it, to invest it, it turned sour and rotted, because you cannot store up God’s generosity.” What you need to do is to simply trust it.
But trust is not always easy, particularly when you’re out in the wilderness, and so in this gospel we heard Philip sounding as if he’s pretty much at home with Pharaoh’s kind of economy. When Jesus asks him, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip’s answer is blunt: “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” It is to the point, and ever so reasonable; I might have given the same answer myself.
Now what follows next is unique to John’s telling of the story. “One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.’” I love that, and for a couple of reasons. First off, it means that this child is to be pictured as being close enough to Jesus and the twelve that he was aware they had a concern about food. Not way at the back, not lost in the crowd, not pushed to the kids’ program… he’s right there with them. And I love that his response is to offer what he has; a couple of fish and five little loaves made from barley flour. It’s his bag lunch, “Here, mister, I’ll share my sandwich, apple, and fruit roll-ups.” I like that Andrew is at least prepared to take the boy’s offer to Jesus, even if he can’t resist adding an editorial comment: “what is this for so many people?”
“What is it?”—Manhue? It is enough, and more besides. Everyone is filled, and still there are twelve baskets of leftovers; more, in fact, than what they began with.
“Who is this Jesus?” the story asks, and right away answers that he is the one who takes the gift of a child and feeds a crowd. He is the one whose presence allows a crowd of people to sit down together and to share a meal… no small thing in its own right, for it wouldn’t have been easy for torah abiding Jews to eat food they weren’t sure was kosher, in the company of strangers who could well be ritually unclean. He is the one who pushes aside Pharaoh’s way of understanding scarcity—and Philip’s very practical way of understanding the logistics of feeding a crowd—and demonstrates the truth of abundance when seen from God’s side of things.
When you think about it, aside from Jesus, the little boy is the one character in the story able to see things from God’s side of things, and I hope that as he grew up he never lost that capacity. It doesn’t come naturally to most of us, or at least not once we’ve left that place of childhood and have learned to think like Philip. “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little” is not all that different from, “I can’t do anything about it,” “What do you expect me to do about it?” or “What difference can I make,” or even, “Not in my back yard.”
Yet by including this detail about the boy’s lunch, John is reminding us that so often the work of God begins with the gifts we offer, however insignificant they might seem. What we do and what we bring—however small that may seem and however insecure we feel about it—is taken seriously in God’s strange version of things. We just need to learn to trust that.