This morning’s gospel of the loaves and the fishes is often presented in tones of wonder portraying 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 was only to be accomplished by a level of deep God-like knowledge and even then only if it is applied at what a visitor to this site once termed as operating beyond the job description of one’s personal pay grade, then we can only wonder and have no reason to 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 implies 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.
To most educated listeners the magic version appears unbelievable to 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.
So here we meet 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. In another place the people see an untouchable leper – yet Jesus sees a person who suffers and wants the touch of human hand to heal. Again the disciples see a prostitute getting into Jesus personal space – Jesus sees her as Mary – again an individual with a name – a woman who can be welcomed.
Remember when the disciples see little children bothering Jesus most of us can empathise with those bothered by children. Yet there is a difference. Jesus sees these children, who the disciples considered to be children getting in the way, 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.
According to new figures just published by Yale Global Online magazine (published by the prestigious Yale university) my home country New Zealand has the worst homelessness in the OECD. In the report we read “more than 40,000 people live on the streets or in emergency housing or substandard shelters” – almost 1 percent of the entire population. This happens to place us well ahead of second-placed Czech Republic, and close to double the rate in Australia, which placed third. “Homelessness is often considered embarrassing, a taboo subject, and governments tend to understate the problem,” writes Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division. Can I suggest our citizens do their best to avoid dealing with this issue. While homelessness is usually higher in developing countries and failed states such as Somalia, South Sudan and Syria, Mr Chamie also notes there are still hundreds of thousands going without in the world’s most stable and wealthiest countries.
Strangely it is as if we sleepwalk into crisis. It is true we sometimes stumble across the homeless. I guess we all have a quick glimpse of a hooded figure sleeping in a shop doorway, or more embarrassing, perhaps we heard the news a few weeks back of a man dying apparently of exposure in the grounds of a Methodist Church in neighbouring suburb of Manurewa. Or what about those tourists who wander off the main tourist track in Los Angeles and discover they are walking past Tent City? Several city blocks of the tents of the homeless is hard to miss.
We read in the headlines about the latest additions to the obscene numbers of armaments now owned by the richest nations and yet for some reason feel no particular responsibility for the refugees fleeing from the bombs used in our name.
For those of us who claim commitment to Christian compassion can I suggest it matters when in the midst of plenty, there are visible and serious cases of food shortages. This is why we should be concerned when there is any form of support for the new found policy of selfishness in Trump’s USA where the expressed aim is to reduce funding for aid projects.
Perhaps in these days when we have formalized and tamed the gospel to the point where we are no longer noticing, we don’t expect to encounter prophets these days, especially in the United nations.
Can I suggest that rather than argue over how Jesus achieved the feeding of the crowds that day it might be rather more relevant to glance in the direction of today’s crowds of hungry and desperate and ask the question about how we might respond. The modern day prophets in the UNHCR ( the UN refugee agency) tell us it is a crisis that must be addressed. An unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.
Remember our world where nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution.
Such figures year might seem so big they are capable of only eliciting dim incomprehension. Our miracle observed this morning might at least remind us that if we were to apply Jesus’ technique of noticing the individual –we might find ourselves looking at families as having 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 this 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.
To return to those interesting discussions about the validity of the loaves and fishes story as genuine magic type miracle. My personal 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 organize the repeat performance with all conditions the same, we cannot organize 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. 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 August 2017. Our context challenge is the still unequal distribution of resources and plenty who are hungry. Simple hand-outs may not even best the best long term answer because our sharing may need to include sharing the know-how and resources to grow and share the food so that at the end there will in fact be something left to gather. Can we lift our vision and start seeing from a new perspective?
Monday may be the test of Sunday!