I have to admit that I rolled my eyes when I read this week’s readings and saw that the Gospel appointed for today was the Feeding of the Five Thousand as told by St. John. It’s one of those stories that’s a little too familiar; some variation of this story is told a total of six times across the four Gospels! Also, John uses it as the springboard for a a lengthy discussion about bread, and the Lectionary doesn’t want us to miss any of it, so when I see this reading I brace myself for weeks of Sunday Gospels about bread. But, honest as these feelings may be, it’s not exactly a helpful attitude. The fact that this story appears so often in our Scriptures tells us that it says something important about the heart of God. The fact that John uses it as a jumping off point for a long discourse should tell us something about just how important he thought this story was to what God was doing in and through Jesus. So, it’s worth a closer look.
The story itself goes like this: Jesus crosses the lake to get a break from the crowds, but they follow him there. The disciples realize that they’ve got a problem on their hands: the people have followed Jesus across the lake without thinking ahead to meals. Asking around for food, they find one boy who has five loaves of bread and two fish — a generous offering on his part, but hardly a dent in the need of the people gathered. But Jesus takes it and blesses it. And when the disciples distribute it, they are shocked to find that everyone is able to eat their fill, and there are even twelve baskets full of leftovers! When the people realize the scope of what just happened, they rush Jesus and he is forced to flee.
So then, what is it about this story that made it so important to the Apostles?
Jesus’ miracles often function as practical parables; as much as they do something real in the moment (cure a disease, protect the reputation of a host, or feed hungry people), they point to something beyond the physical reality: the spiritual reality of the Kingdom of God. As E. Frank Tupper notes:
The crux of the ministry of Jesus centered in his proclamation of the inbreaking Kingdom of God, and the miracles of Jesus happened in conjunction with his message of God’s gracious rule already dawning in his ministry. The mighty works of Jesus are not central in themselves but belong within the center of Jesus’ embodiment of the Kingdom of God. (A Scandalous Providence, 196)
This reframes our question in a way that might help us get closer to at least a provisional answer: This particular miracle was so important to the Apostles because it revealed something particularly important about the Kingdom of God. So now we ask, what does this story tell us about how God’s Kingdom works?
To start, there is the crowd: This is not a miracle done for a chosen few or for a religious elite, but for the undifferentiated masses. And so, this story tells us that God’s Kingdom is for everyone who chooses to show up.
The miracle is also entirely grace: One could look at Jesus’ actions in this story as rewarding foolish behaviour; the crowds have rushed out into the desert completely unprepared. And yet, God still has compassion on them. There is nothing merited about this gift. God gives because God is love, without consideration, condition, or partiality.
Additionally, this is a miracle of multiplication, rather than creation. Jesus doesn’t turn stones into bread, but rather multiplies the boy’s offering. In God’s Kingdom, simple, small acts of generosity can bear fruit beyond our wildest dreams. Could Jesus have done it differently? Sure. But God delights in multiplying the impact of human generosity; it’s as though God holds a space in the loving divine dance for us to join in.
Next, it’s about food, the most basic of human needs. As the story continues in the Gospel, we find out that it’s not just about food, but still — even as metaphor or sacrament, bread is still bread, food is still food, and hunger is still hunger. There’s a saying that goes, our vocation is where our abilities meet human need. I think there’s something of this here. God’s Kingdom cares about human need.
Connected to this, there is abundance. Out of the boy’s small offering, Jesus creates abundance: not just enough for everyone but for twelve full baskets worth of food to be collected after the meal. This story above all others argues against any ideology of scarcity. There is more than enough for everyone in God’s Kingdom.
And finally, nothing is wasted. There is a superabundance of God’s blessing here, and none of it is to be lost. None of it is wasted.
If we put these details together, we can perhaps start to see just why this story was so important to the earliest Christians. It speaks to a divine Kingdom that is for everyone without prejudice or favoritism, loving and generous, compassionate, and that transforms our smallest offering into an abundant blessing. This is the life into which we are called, both as recipients and as participants.
What can we say in response to such an offering, into such an invitation? I can think of no better words than those offered at the end of today’s Epistle reading:
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.