Take a moment with me and step into this scene. You are now a first century Galilean. Its pay day so you stop and buy a few barley loaves and while you are at the fish market, you hear the growing fame of Jesus, the carpenter from Nazereth, who confounds the Pharisees with unconventional but plain wisdom, and who reportedly heals the sick. He is only a few hours walk from your little town of Capernaum, so maybe it is time get your blind uncle Bartemeus and check the story out. You would probably take about five loaves of bread and a couple of dried fish, enough for a grown person to eat for about two days, to last through the journey. After all, it seems that every other person you know is going to take the same journey, and there is not a McDonalds between Capernaum and Tiberias.
When you arrive at the hilltop from which Jesus is preaching and healing, it is quite a sight.
There must be 5000 people trying to see him. That is the most people you have ever seen in one place. Herod’s new amphitheatre in the Galilean capital of Tiberius is supposed to hold 7000, but it hasn’t been filled yet. This little hilltop has temporarily become the second largest city in Galilee. There are people from all over – farmers from the hill towns, fishermen from little villages, a bunch of construction workers from Tiberius, who are mostly immigrants from North Africa or Syria. They are not kosher, I better steer clear. I’m getting hungry, how about you? I don’t know about sitting down to eat though, I bet some of these poor souls are hungry and don’t have anything. I don’t want to share and run out, or be impolite and eat in front of them. And many of them are Gentiles and I can’t eat with them. I think I will wait for awhile and see what everyone else decides to do.
Just as your stomach is really starting to growl, you are within earshot and can hear Jesus talking about food with one of his disciples. That fisherman seems to be explaining to Jesus how many days wages it would cost to buy food for everyone. Like you could buy enough food out here in the country side. Most of the folks out here can just feed themselves let alone this crowd. Wait, something is happening, some kid is giving Jesus a basket. It looks like he has about five loaves and two fish. Wait, that’s what I’m carrying. Oh, now everyone is sitting down, Jesus is motioning for us to all sit. He’s praying (fold your hands and be quiet!) It looks like they are giving the bread and fish to a few poor wretches up front. That won’t go far. So what happens now? I’m hungry. Hey buddy, where you from? Sepphoris, hey my mother is from there. You want a little bread? Oh, you’re good. (Turning to the other side.) How about you? Oh, you’re OK too? You like you could use a little bread, here take this. If that kid could share, we can give a little too. Eat up everyone!
My version is based on biblical exegesis and one simple idea. It starts with a simple question. Do you think 5000 people would go off into the country side and the only person to make any provisions was a small boy with his five loaves and two fish? The author of John tells us the people were following Jesus for healing, not because they were starving. They were likely poor and in need of their daily bread, but that doesn’t preclude people carrying some provisions if they are walking a few hours from home. I am making the case that the real miracle here isn’t necessarily creating lox and bagels without pre-existing matter, but rather - it is a wonder that a wary crowd of strangers could come together in trust and community; and share what they had. They moved from a sense of scarcity and selfishness to a spirit of sharing and abundance. This miracle should perhaps be renamed from the multiplication of the loaves, to the miracle of a small boy’s open-hearted sharing.
I have preached on this passage before and some people have found it disturbing, even disrespectful of Jesus to challenge the notion that he multiplied bread ex nihilo – from nothing. We can’t go back to the security camera to see what really happened and even John’s Gospel is vague as to the precise moment of the miracle. If Jesus defied the laws of science, I’m fine with that. (After all, doesn’t Wonder Bread defy nature by never molding?!) But he remains my Christ if he did not magically produce bread. To those who want a literalist interpretation of the Bible, I have two simple points. 1) There is no place in this passage where the Gospel writer says bread was created from nothing. The communal sharing explanation is just as possible. 2) What miracle does the world really need now? The miracle we really need is for people to stop living as if their neighbor is just part of the crowd. We need communal ideals that don’t leave some starving and others hoarding. We need a biblical faith that challenges excessive inequality and upholds a wise stewardship of our resources. That would be a miracle worthy of a messiah. The feeding of the 5000 is the symbolic act of communion, the living out what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community.”
That message certainly fits John’s message, since he makes the point that it is near the Passover. Passover is the celebration of the liberation of the people from slavery in Egypt. John is picking up the common theme from all four Gospels that Jesus is the new Moses. Jesus is on a mountain for this event, further linking Jesus to Moses, the Mt. Sinai law giver who structured and new community based on love of God and justice for the people.
You are probably wondering, “How does this speak to us today in the 21st century?” (I thought you would never ask.) I am going to take two weeks to answer that question. This week I want to share a few thoughts on making sure we have a global community with enough bread for all. Next week I will look at the spiritual component, where Jesus says he is the bread of life, and we will share communion together.
Many churches enact the feeding of the 5000 through the regular participation in community dinners, food pantries and other support services. While I was operating a homeless shelter in Poughkeepsie, every night of the year a volunteer group came in and served a meal for 60 people. It happened through rain, sleet, blizzards and even floods. The caring commitment of 35 volunteer groups was amazing, almost miraculous. Similar efforts exist all over the country and religious organizations are the backbone of this massive effort. In these difficult economic times we are discovering the limits of charitable actions and must think about the bigger picture of why so many people do not have enough food to eat, without food stamps or other supports.
I want to make three brief points about the economics, politics and environmental issues we face when trying to stop hunger. 1) Our global markets for food are broken and do not efficiently provide nutrition for everyone. For nearly a decade, the United States has been a net food importer, while relatively poor countries in Latin America are net food exporters. http://grist.org/article/us-about-to-become-net-food-importer/
At the same time, 40 percent of the corn produced in the United States in 2011 was burned In our gas tanks, and this is has been subsidized with tax money. http://www.forbes.com/sites/henrymiller/2011/06/07/ethanol-subsidies-dumping-corn-in-the-ocean-would-be-a-better-idea/2/ During the same year, the world food price index went up 30 percent. For you and I this means higher prices at the grocery store and restaurants, and shifting budgets. For billions of people in the world living on less than $2 a day, it means disaster. The Arab Spring was largely a big food riot in the most arid countries in the world. If these policies are not changed we will be plagued with great instability.
2) Most of our food supply is controlled by six very large corporations, and they are profit machines for investors, not humanitarian organizations. Here’s one simple example from the NY Times this week. The USDA was promoting meatless Mondays for school and corporate cafeterias. The goal was to reduce the unhealthy intake of meat and the environmental impact of factory farming. Big Agriculture now rivals Big Oil in environmental destruction. A few complaints by the Cattleman’s Association and an Iowa House Rep. killed a simple and wise health advisory immediately. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/26/us/usda-newsletter-retracts-a-meatless-mondays-plug.html
3) Global climate change is diminishing our planet’s food producing capacity. The Midwestern drought and Westerns wildfires should be seen as a potential humanitarian catastrophe in the coming year and a wake up call to urgently address all parts of our broken global food system. We can begin now in our own lives. Yes, keep supporting local food pantries. Also, get involved in the local food movement. Eat local produced food and try some Meatless Mondays. Northampton, and many of you, are already on the forefront of what our nation needs to do in lifestyle changes. We also need to be informed advocates for dramatic political change.
If ever humanity needed a miracle of manna from heaven or the multiplication of 5 loaves and 2 fish, now would be the time. Miracles don’t need to defy science, but they do need to defy broken economic, political and environmental systems. I believe in miracles because I believe hearts can change and justice can be done. I believe the feeding of the 5000 was a miracle, a miracle of building community and encouraging equal sharing. And I believe the messianic call of the Great Commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, is the essential spark of humanity’s spiritual and political evolution.