There is a story told by Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist, where he tells the fable of a young Spanish shepherd named Santiago, a young fellow who decided if he were going to make anything of his life he needed to get advice from the very best. With apologies to Paulo Coelho the following is a very approximate retelling of the story. After some difficult journeying the young man came across a grand old building high atop a big hill. There was a wise old man living there. He found the wise old sage seated. “Tell me what must I know for my life to be successful?” – the young man asked.
The old man thought for a moment then he handed the young man a teaspoon into which he poured a few drops from a small flask of olive oil.
“I will tell you”, he said – “but first you must do something for me. I want you to walk right round my big old house – through all the corridors – up and down all the stairs and into every room – especially the library. But you must not spill a drop of oil”.
The young man was puzzled, but decided to humour the old guy. So off he set – very, very carefully. Walking slowly, smoothly, avoiding any sudden movements and concentrating very hard on the spoon – even on every step of the stairs, it took a long time. It was a big house.
“Well?” said the old man when he returned.
“Not a drop spilled” said the young man with real self-satisfaction.
“Now the real test. I want you to describe everything you saw. The views from the upstairs windows, the books in the libraries, the tapestries and fine pictures on the wall and the gardens which my gardener has spent so my time and effort creating”.
The young man looked shamefaced. “Sorry”, he mumbled “didn’t see anything – but I didn’t spill a drop”.
OK That was part one. Now this time go out again – this time without a glance at the teaspoon. Your task this time is to notice everything.
Off he went – and boy, was it different this time.
He came back, his eyes sparkling, filled with excitement.
“This is a fabulous place he said. You can see for miles into the mountains from those upstairs windows – those forests , the patterns in the clouds… you can even see animals in the woods. And the library – where on earth did you manage to find such interesting books. Those oil paintings – I reckon they must be all original. Who designed the house? Those staircases and the grand dining room…”
“And the teaspoon?” asked the old fellow.
The young fellow looked down in embarrassment.. “Oh”, he said. “Well yes I might have dropped a bit of oil”.
“OK, you have it now”, said the old fellow. “You see, you won’t notice anything as long as you are only interested in what is in your hand.
Remember this truth – remember the drops of oil.”
Which brings us to this strange miracle of the loaves and the fishes. I want to suggest the key to understanding this strange account is our ability to notice things away from our personal inclination and focus. Away from the spoon we carry. A superfical glance at the story leaves us with an impression of a Harry Potter type image of a magic God filled figure in the form of Jesus, waving his hand like a stage magician and causing the mysterious multiplication of physical entities like loaves of bread and actual fishes.
If this indeed is what we think happened I would suggest it is not helpful to us as an image for two reasons. First of all it leaves the story entirely without the need for personal commitment to a situation. If meeting such a need – in this case, feeding the hungry can only be accomplished by a level of deep God-like knowledge and then only if it is applied at what a recent visitor to this site termed as operating beyond the job description of one’s personal pay grade, then we only wonder at it and do not expect any possibility that we too might be called upon for similar tasks.
The second reason it is not helpful, is that the total suspension of the laws of nature conveys the message that since we cannot suspend the laws of nature, Jesus’ interpreted form of magic action has nothing to do with our actions in the sort of world we currently inhabit.
With those two cautions let us look again at what appears at first sight a simple enough story, and let’s be clear if we are honest, a story which I guess is totally unbelievable for anyone who has a grasp on reality. Loaves and fishes taken from a boy’s lunch don’t just multiply by themselves – at least not outside fairy tales. But if we forget ourselves for a moment and start to look a little further I wonder what we might see.
So let’s look again.
Jesus out for a walk – and all those curious people coming along too, to gawp….people….lots of people.
In a city we are regularly surrounded by people –go to a football match….wall to wall people. Go down town – those thronged foot paths. To see them as a crowd that is the easy bit. To notice their eyes, their aches and pains – to see them as persons – now that is unusual. Yet with this particular crowd Jesus does something totally unexpected – and I am not talking about multiplying loaves and fishes. No what Jesus does is every bit as strange – he notices that they are hungry. If you look at Jesus’ encounters with different people this is his standard trick – the approach that sets him apart. The people see a mean tax collector – Jesus looks closer and sees someone worthy of a name, Zaccheus and what is more an unhappy person. Then the people see an untouchable leper – yet Jesus sees a person who suffers and wants the touch of human hand to heal. The disciples see a prostitute getting into Jesus personal space – Jesus sees her as Mary – again a woman with a name – a woman who can be welcomed. The disciples see little children bothering Jesus – which kind of reminds me of the woman recently who according to the Herald two weeks ago, put her children up for sale on E-bay. Jesus sees these children who the disciples considered to be children apparently bothering him rather as real live people deserving his full attention.
Let me stress that this is not a common practice. Remember it is all too easy to walk unseeing past the beggar on the street, the Muslim woman shrouded in a veil, see the refugees as part of the passing flickering images on TV but not see them as people. Professor Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at Leeds University is one who has pointed to the dangers of not noticing. With the growing world food shortages, the rapid increase both in population and the prices of basic foods Professor Lang see the general public – as he put it in 2008 “sleepwalking into crisis”. Perhaps because in these days when we have formalised and tamed the gospel to the point where we are no longer noticing, we don’t expect to encounter prophets these days, especially those who are not qualified Church leaders and who are merely ivory tower academics at ordinary universities, and I guess as a result of the widespread inattention to such warnings, the current statistics now show we are three years closer to the crisis. I wonder if others agree in retrospect Professor Tim Lang qualifies as a modern prophet.
Ivory tower dreamer or genuine prophet, Tim Lang does us a great service by reminding us of the growing disaster in the making, and this year the OXFAM statistic of an additional 44 million pushed into poverty so far this year is more than another enormous figure capable of only eliciting dim incomprehension. Our miracle observed this morning might at least remind us that if we were to apply the technique of noticing the individual –we might find ourselves looking at families with individual people like you or me facing despair and feeling exactly as we ourselves would feel if visited by the same tragedy.
So to return to the loaves and the fishes…..
The second part of this miracle is that Jesus doesn’t see himself, the one many have called Son of God, as the only one to whom the responsibility for the act of kindness should be left. In another gospel version of the same story He calls a boy to him to start the sharing process. In this Matthew version, it is the disciples he turns to. And it works in an unexpected way. It is a sad commentary that these days we not only prefer not to notice too much by way of needs, but that when such situations are forced upon us we don’t see ourselves as part of the answer to need. I am sure that many of us are unconsciously drawn to the easy option of praying for God to fix all. I have heard the most sincere prayers in Church or in Bible study groups for God to address the needs of the hungry. But what is that worth without the genuine intention to get involved in meals on wheels or food parcel collection and distribution or bothering the local politician to raise questions about overseas aid? It is an interesting question as to how many things would remain on the prayer list if only the situations where we showed ourselves to be part of the solution were allowed to be mentioned. But whereas it is easy to ask a vague conception of God to deal with these issues like famine, war, injustice and loneliness by praying his blessing, if we believe that Jesus would have been concerned with our present context of contemporary need – perhaps he too would still be looking for the non-entity child …or for that matter someone as ordinary as us to join with him in sharing.
I have heard some most interesting discussions about the validity of the loaves and fishes story as genuine magic type miracle. The short answer as to whether or not there was super-natural magic actually involved is that in fact we can never know. An experiment is only a true experiment if it can be repeated and since we cannot know about the accuracy of Matthew’s reporting and since Jesus himself is not on hand to organise the repeat performance with all conditions the same, we cannot organise the repeat for more objective recording.
My personal preference – I guess partly a result of my science background is to say that as far as I can see there is no reason to invoke magic where none is required. As far as I know atoms do not reproduce themselves in bulk such that fishes and loaves appear as if by magic. For me, I think it quite reasonable to say that the reason why the sharing miracle worked was that those present who did have food were moved by the disciples’ or the boy’s example to share. In this real world of ours even if multiplication of loaves by itself could occur the evidence is that this would simply mean that the few well fed would have taken an even bigger share. As we model large scale what actually happens when some are born into lucky situations in this unjust world of nations we see the hungry have remained hungry. The real miracle then came not with multiplication but with division. Division of bread gets more into the hand of few. Division (especially willing division) is actually what builds community. Turning a selfish crowd into community is indeed the best part of Jesus’ miracle
There were reportedly many hungry people that day – and any other day if their society was anything like ours, they would not have been fed. Please note the Matthew account nowhere says that magic was actually involved in what happened. He leaves us to work that part out for ourselves. You may think differently to me and debate will not in fact settle the issue. However that particular hungry crowd was what Jesus chose as his context calling for action. Whatever Jesus in fact did – by all accounts the people got fed and what is more – what to us might have been a crowd of the unthinking has been transformed (if only temporarily) into caring community – so Jesus has successfully addressed his context.
Our current setting is July 2011. Our context challenge is the still unequal distribution of resources and plenty who are hungry. Simple handouts may not even best the best long term answer because our sharing may need to include sharing the know-how and resources to grow the food so that at the end there will in fact be something left to gather. Can we lift our vision from the spoon in our hand and start seeing from a new perspective?
(Comments would be most welcome since this is intended as a tentative draft work in progress. If you find the notes and/or other articles on this site helpful or thought provoking, sharing this site with others would be appreciated.)