So have you heard this story before? I’ll bet you have. The feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14: 13-21) is the one miracle of Jesus told in all four of the Gospels, and pretty consistently, too. When we were all kids in Sunday School this was probably just another of those “magic Jesus” tales. You know: Jesus does something really cool and mysterious so people will know he’s the Son of God. As we get older—and we’ve heard this story more times than we’ve had eggs for breakfast!—we have to look for a new meaning in it. I guess some TV preachers might interpret this as “put your faith in Jesus and he’ll turn your meager holdings into an abundance.” I’m sure some of us would like to believe that, but experience and the rest of the Gospel tell us that this just isn’t what Jesus is all about.
What’s making this story difficult for me at the moment is Jesus’ compassion (and don’t forget he’s just learned about the beheading of John the Baptist, so he’s pretty bummed out) is leading him to cut short his boating trip, engage with a crowd, and start curing their sick. With the death count from COVID-19 reaching over 147,000 Americans this week (to say nothing of those who have perished around the world from this disease), I sure wish Jesus would get himself back here and start curing the sick now. We are all part of the great hungry crowd, hungry for security, healing, and hope and desperately wanting a sense of the normal and the familiar.
In the story the disciples come to Jesus with their concern for the crowd. What if all these people go hungry? Shouldn’t the folks be sent away to provide for themselves? But Jesus turns it all back on the disciples. You’re concerned about these folks..? Okay. Cool Then you guys give them something to eat. Ah! They say. But we don’t have enough. So what’s the Messiah to do in a situation like this? He makes all the people sit down on the grass. He takes what has already been provided and blesses it. That’s to say, he says grace. He gives thanks to the Father for what has already been given rather than whine and lament about what is lacking. He prays in the spirit of God’s abundance, not in the spirit of human scarcity.
Well son of a gun! It turns out there was enough for everyone after all. In fact, there was more than enough. The disciples are able to collect twelve baskets of leftovers. Hey! Did you ever wonder where they got the baskets? What if some clever folks actually had the foresight to bring their picnic baskets with them? What if the miracle here was not the multiplication of food but the creation of a caring and sharing community? Suppose some of the families sitting on the grass opened their baskets, and then looked over and noticed their neighbors had nothing. Maybe they invited them to share what they had brought because they realized that all blessings come from God, and in God’s Kingdom we all look out for each other.
In this time of pandemic it’s real easy for us to lament about what we don’t have. We may see church attendance sliding off because people don’t want to social distance, wear face coverings, or not have their familiar sanctuary in which to worship. We’re begging God for a healing, but we already possess the means of killing this virus just by keeping it from spreading. God has already provided. We still have each other, we still have the Gospel, and we still have our God-given imaginations to find ways to make this time of quarantine and uncertainty bearable. We still have Jesus’ command to feed and care for each other—even if caring means standing six feet away.
Perhaps it sounds hackneyed and trite, but our ability to count the blessings of God is one of the strongest weapons we have.
May God bless you and keep you safe!