When my three girls were young we lived in a suburban community of 300 homes outside of Washington, DC. That community was also near Tyson’s Corner which is a big, no humongous, shopping Mall an office center. Even though we lived on the outskirts of a city, though, and not far from Tyson’s, near our home was a farm, Evans Farm. It was the last holdout in a region that was, not so many years previously, all farmland. One particularly long and hot summer day, I packed a picnic lunch for the four of us, my three daughters and me. Then I put into little baggies the pieces of stale bread I had been saving. We headed for Evans Farm to feed the ducks that lived near the pond there. My plan was that we would pet and feed the little duckies, then spread our blanket under a kind shade tree and enjoy a meal and the summer weather. It would be one of those quality times with the kids.
Imagine three little girls in shorts and tennis shoes, jumping from the family van, clutching their little sandwich bags. Now further imagine ducks the size of small deer— encircling my girls as soon as those little tennis shoes hit the ground. These were not little duckies, oh no! These were large, killer ducks. They met my daughter’s frightened stares eyeball to eyeball. The ducks honked loudly, viciously. A few of the really aggressive ones, grabbed the baggies from my daughters’ hands. The girls broke through the horde of ducks and ran screaming to the nearest picnic table, which they climbed in short order. From the relative safety of the table top they shrieked: “Let’s go home now, Mommy.”
Often in Jesus’ ministry don’t you think he faced the crowds—eyeball to eyeball—and listened with fear to their honking--heal me, feed me, take care of me. Probably sometimes he ran to the nearest hill, or mountain top to get away. I imagine he might have silently but prayerfully suggested to God, his father in heaven, “Let’s go home, NOW, Daddy.”
Our scripture passage begins in fact, with Jesus having separated himself from the mob that had begun to follow him from town to town. He did that by rowing to a “deserted place,” perhaps his own version of a picnic table top. The Bible tells us that he had just learned of John the Baptist’s murder. His cousin and friend John, was dead. He needed time to be by himself.
Yet, for Jesus there was no such thing as having time to grieve. Here came the ducks lined up at the water’s edge, squawking their wants and needs. Jesus, of course, being who he was, the Son of Man, could not, or would not ignore the people. The text says that Jesus had compassion for them. which for us, would have been a stretch. We would need to lick our wounds for awhile before being able to look after the needs of others. But Jesus, sighed and then he rowed his boat back to the shore. He healed the squawking masses until the lightening bugs began to blink their Morse code, peoples’ stomachs started grumbling, and for the first time that day people’s need for food outweighed their other concerns.
That is when, the Bible says, Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish. He blessed the food, broke the bread and distributed what he had to the crowd—and it was enough to feed 5000 men and women and children besides.
This story comes on the heels of five parables that Jesus tells about God’s extravagance—the sower who throws seeds on the good ground, the bad ground, on rocks, and in the weeds; the mustard seed that produces a great bush; the woman who made bread with three measures of flour. So in the feeding of the 5000 we have one more example of God’s extravagant generosity.
Now I will warn you that I am a skeptic. If there is a way to interpret a miracle story so that the miracle part gets left out, I will do that. The fact that I am not a literalist used to bother me, but I have come to believe that it is possible to be a skeptic, or a non-literalist, and still be a Christian. Theologian Marcus Borg says, the verdict is still out whether or not God, god’s self is a literalist.
If you are a literalist, though, then the miracle of this story is in the multiplication of the bread and the fish. The insight we gain is that God so loves us that God takes care of all of our needs. The fact that there were leftovers—enough to fill twelve baskets, tells us that not only does God take care of our needs, God takes care of our needs and then some.
If you are a literalist then you can go to sleep right now, because you have heard the message you need to hear. I respect your mindset. If you are a non-literalist, though, then WAKE UP! We’ve got work to do if we are going to interpret this story to satisfy our skeptical minds.
We non-literalists, when we consider this story, try to find a rational explanation for all that bread and fish. A non-literalist approach has us first thinking about how the multiplication of the loaves and fishes might have happened without a direct intervention from God. So, we consider the crowd that surrounds Jesus. These people were practical. They did not just dash out of their houses when they heard that Jesus was near. They did some planning. Before he took to the road, Stephen paid a visit to his neighbor Nathaniel. He asked Nathanael to look after his goats. Then, Stephen thought about how he was bound to get hungry before he returned home, so he slipped a couple of dried carp wrapped in linen, inside his satchel.
Amos asked his son to feed the chickens and gather the eggs, then he grabbed a loaf of bread. He folded it into the cloak that he then draped over one arm.
We non-literalists assume that is the way it was. Each person in that crowd had had enough forethought to pack at least a light snack. They brought along some food to keep from getting hungry on their way back home.
Now let’s take a look at the crowd that day. We know crowds, right? Think about the crowds at airports, or at a concert. The people in the crowd surrounding Jesus are impatient and annoyed, just like that. They are impatient to be healed; impatient to hear a word of hope; and they are annoyed that there are so many others there, all competing for Jesus’ attention. The hot sun sears the tops of their heads. There is the stench of sweaty bodies.
The text before us is a sad commentary on human nature. As far as we know, not one soul comes forward to say, “Gee, Jesus, sorry about your cousin, John. I’m sure you must feel terrible right now. Is there anything I can do?” No one offers him a cloak to sit on. Oh no. They are out for themselves. Isn’t that just like hungry ducks, and isn’t that just like people?
Isn’t that just like people? Do you think it is part of our nature to be selfish? Maybe one day scientists will discover a selfishness gene. Maybe they already have. For sure selfishness, is like a disease. Like a disease, it is contagious. You know, you are at a department store wanting to buy socks. But people are circled around a table of shirts—and there is this sign-- 50% off. You catch the selfishness virus! You join that circle, and grab for shirts, too. You buy two! But you never wear them, and you wonder--Why did I DO that?!
So it is that day, the tone has been set. Selfishness has set in. Jesus has his work cut out for him. Surrounded by the squawking mob, Jesus talks about the love of God. How God sees us through the difficult times. He smiles at even the loudest of the complainers. Maybe he moves among the people and gently lays a hand on that person, you know the one who is pushing and shoving and making rude gestures. It’s Jesus’ wordless way of saying, “Be still, now.”
Slowly, Jesus’ way prevails. People stop their grousing. Maybe Jesus or one of the disciples, leads them in singing a hymn. There’s a lull in Jesus’ teaching and healing. People make eye contact with friends and neighbors. They wave. Exchange hugs. Then Jesus and his odd traveling band, who have no income to speak of, make the ultimate gesture of love in community. They share all they have with the crowd.
People are so inspired that they pull food stores from their clothes and their satchels and share that, too: more bread, dried fish, figs, and dates. Skins filled with water and wine are passed around. Jesus blesses the spread before them. It is obvious that what we have here recorded in the Bible is the first ever potluck dinner!
Later, the facts of that event would be embellished, as stories are always embellished: Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish so that Five thousand plus were fed.
That’s a non-literalist interpretation of our story, but I retract what I said earlier. This interpretation does not preclude a miracle. In THis version the miracle is not the multiplication of bread and fish, it’s the transformation of people. A mob has been transformed into a community.
Theologian, writer, pastor and activist William Sloane Coffin says as regards miracles: “I can report that in home after home I have seen Jesus change beer into furniture, sinners into saints, hate-filled relations into loving ones, cowardice into courage, the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. In instance after instance, life after life, I have seen Christ be “God’s power unto salvation,” and that’s miracle enough for me.”
. May it be so for you and for me. Amen