When I think of a story about Jesus doing a miracle I guess I will probably annoy some people when I say that to me the part which appears mystical or miraculous is rarely the real point.
In this morning’s reading for example, Jesus organizes for some hungry people to be fed. From a purely personal point of view, I have to confess I don’t actually care how he did it – or how it was subsequently remembered and reported. As it happens, because I believe that that the working of the natural world and principles of nature are trustworthy, I strongly suspect that whatever Jesus did would not have required some kind of magical or mystical intervention. Nevertheless there is something that is reported here that sets Jesus aside from how many important people would be expected to act in the same situation.
In one of Rex Hunt’s commentaries and sermons on this particular miracle he tells a story which seems so appropriate to introduce this topic that I want to borrow it.
It seems a small girl called Kathy went with her parents and some of their friends to a restaurant. Because the others were all adults and the conversation was about things concerning the adults, Kathy sat largely ignored. When it was time for the waiter to take orders he took all the other orders first – then he came to Kathy.
“And what would you like?” asked the waiter
“A hamburger and a large Coke”, said Kathy.
“Oh no she won’t” said her mother. She will have the fried chicken and some boiled vegetables.
“And some milk!” added her father.
As the waiter walked away he turned and I suspect to the horror and consternation of the parents he called out, “What sort of sauce do you want on the hamburger?”
“Look at that. He thinks I’m real!” said Kathy.
Waiters aren’t expected to consider the real wishes of children ahead of their parents any more than Jesus might have been expected to alter his plans to take into account the feelings of the disciples, or for that matter, that a crowd of hungry people should expect to have their hunger noticed by someone as important as Jesus.
Living in the cyber age is changing society in new and strange ways. For possibly the first time in history the problem is no longer a shortage of information. Given our ready access to the web via Google and a host of other impressive search engines we are inundated with knowledge. Faced with this avalanche of facts and understandings our real dilemma comes in the selection of life enhancing observations and principles. This includes what we do with the information from the countless sermons and commentaries on the feeding of the five thousand. No doubt the new Christian might well be content to hand responsibility for this selection to those who go before them on the faith journey, but sooner or later many of us come to the realisation that we too must get to the point of making our own judgement and selection.
There is of course a problem in holding to closely to the literal truth of the loaves and fishes story quite apart from the multiplication of loaves and fishes mechanism. For a start there are other versions of the story in the other gospels and the detail varies in the retelling. There are actually six accounts given in the gospels of feeding the multitudes. Matthew chapters 14 and 15, Mark 6 and 8, Luke 9 and today’s version in John 6.
In one account, we read of 5,000 men and another 4,000 men; once with five loaves and two fish, and again with seven loaves and a few fish; once with twelve baskets of remaining bread gathered and in another five baskets. Perhaps it was the accounts of different incidents, but I suspect not.
That I should choose to see the story as showing how the actions of the least of us, even the actions of a small child, might inspire an open handed sharing is obviously not the only way to look at the event. Yet even if you are one of those who consider that Jesus would not have been constrained by the laws of nature, for me the real issue for the rest of us, who most certainly are constrained by physical realities, is more focussed on how the story might inspire us to relax our attitudes to minister to the needs of others.
When the disciples came to Jesus to ask him to encourage the crowd to leave so that they might find food and shelter, did you notice that Jesus in some way might have almost been reminding them that they had not first shared what they had? ….And Jesus replied, “They don’t have to leave. Why don’t you give them something to eat?” Now note how the disciples replied: “We have only five small loaves of bread and two fish.” The passage doesn’t say so but I wonder if Jesus answered that by raising his eyebrows and spreading his hands in question.
John Churcher has written a thoughtful commentary and sermon on this event and I would like to share one short paragraph:
“Which is more powerful and of greater compassion, for me to sit back and to look on this incident of the feeding of the 5000 in terms of a heavenly conjuring trick for which I sing self-indulgent songs of praise to the interventionist God residing somewhere out there? Or is the power, the compassion and the miracle in this story for each one of us, as incomplete as we are, to realize that by living the values of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, the hungry are given something to eat; the thirsty are given something to drink; the strangers are truly welcomed; the naked are given clothes to wear; the sick are taken care of; the prisoners are visited?”
In these terms, this story is not primarily about multiplication of the loaves, it is more about generosity. A moment’s reflection might suggest for those of us who are not saint like, generosity ebbs and flows. A huge disaster for example can awaken our conscience. Wasn’t there an increase of giving for the Christchurch earthquakes, as there was for the more recent earthquake in Nepal. If we stop to think of the people affected, a hurricane on one of our nearby Pacific Islands, or for that matter a tornado or flood affecting a nearby neighbourhood we don’t have to remain selfish.
Suddenly the tightfisted can become openhanded … but because they, like many of us, are human with all the weaknesses that entails, dare I suggest that a few months later they may well be back to being tight-fisted. Just remember they could do worse.
Perhaps the sometimes generous are not as bad as those of us who use their religion to insulate themselves from need. It is only religion by proxy if we gather in Church each Sunday to pray for the sick and the lonely – and avoid the sick and the lonely for the rest of the week. It is also religion by proxy, if on one hand we talk in awed terms of Jesus feeding the five thousand yet on the other spend more on eating out than we would dream of putting in the offering plate or than giving as a gift to Christian World Service or Oxfam. If we have five loaves and two fish, and the plight of the hungry is set before us it is not Jesus’ way to ensure that those two fish and five loaves may be consumed exclusively by ourselves.
There is a well known saying with a number of variations. In one of the more popular versions it is: “Don’t tell me about your values. Show me what you do with your money”. This even raises some interesting questions about how whole congregations allocate the money they collect each week. In those budget planning exercises that most Church leaders grapple with each year it is always worth asking where the emphasis actually lies. Could it be that virtually the entire budget is consumed by building and administration. Admittedly there are tradesmen to be paid, salaries of Church workers to meet and buildings to maintain. Yet if the whole purpose of our chosen faith is to reflect and live the values Jesus proclaimed by word and action, it may just be some change in emphasis is required.
No doubt on this occasion the disciples would have been hoping for Jesus to give comforting direction to the tired and hungry – but religion as Jesus would have it – is more than just words, it is the living of one’s true values. For some they will see the miracle of the loaves and fishes as a convincing example of Jesus’ power, something perhaps to wonder at for being totally beyond our ability to emulate. On the other hand there may be those who find in this story an insight into the values Jesus lived and invites his followers to share.
Because we are at different stages of the faith journey there is no point of insisting that we should be similarly affected by this or any other story about Jesus. On the other hand the Christian journey will have much more relevance if we aim for a first hand rather than a second hand faith. At the very least this story of the loaves and fishes might give some reason to encourage us all to seek our own individual interpretation and application in our own living. Whatever Jesus might or might not have been able to accomplish, we are clearly unable to cause loaves of bread and fish to miraculously multiply in a physical sense, but the lesser miracle of seeing others for the first time as those whose needs we might begin to meet with our own limited resources, might be miracle enough for this day.