A young boy was once asked about his favorite Bible story. He replied, “I like the story where everybody loafs and fishes.” Well, this little boy didn’t get his facts quite straight, but this is a biblical story many have heard.
This story from John’s gospel is familiar. There are lots of characters: the hungry crowd of about 10,000 (the account says 5,000 men; this did not include women and children which elevates the number to 10,000); the nervous and doubting disciples; the good-hearted little boy; the five barley loaves and two fishes; and Jesus who pulls it all off. The whole story is in John 6:1-15.
There isn’t much left to the story to surprise us because we know how the story ends. And each time we hear it, we ask ourselves the question that is as familiar as the story: “Is it true?” In some sense, depending upon the answer we are prepared to receive, we will either hear or not hear what the story has to say.
I think it’s natural to ask the question “Is it true?” or “How can this be?” But I think that’s the wrong question to be asking. Miracles aren’t arguments or propositions to which there are “yes” or “no” answers. At its essence, a miracle is a message – an illustration or a demonstration of a message – that God chooses to communicate to us. A miracle is God’s extraordinary message in the midst of the ordinary. It’s an exercise, not in the supernatural or the irregular, but in communication. To understand a miracle is to understand something of God. To see a miracle is to see something of God.
So the better question to ask is, “What is the message here?” Often we are fascinated with miracles because they appear to be demonstrations of raw, naked, unambiguous power. But the essence of a miracle is not in its power, nor in its extraordinary capacity, nor in its ability to attract attention and high visibility, but rather in its capacity to meet and satisfy a need.
A miracle is a response to what is most needed. It is, at the heart, not a demonstration of power, but an answer to prayer. In the feeding of the 5,000, the immediate need of the crowd was met and satisfied by the wondrous extension of the loaves and fishes. But that wasn’t the miracle. The miracle was that in this the people saw “the prophet who is to come into the world.” Their eyes were opened and they saw Jesus as he was: God’s message to the world.
There is always a great temptation to spiritualize this story, to see the loaves and fishes and the feeding of the crowd as mere metaphors for the kind of spiritual refreshment that Jesus offers people. And there is some warrant in reducing the food services aspect of this story. A little later Jesus warns the people that they should not go after bread that perishes and spoils, but they should seek “the food which leads to eternal life.” He goes on to say, “for the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…I am the bread of life; anyone who comes to me shall not hunger, and anyone who believes in me will never thirst.”
It is not mere satisfaction of the appetite that Jesus offers; it is the substance, that “bread of life” which the world can neither give nor take away. What’s important for me to remember is that Jesus does meet that real need. He feeds the hungry, not with metaphors, but with food; not with resolutions and presidential commissions, but with so much bread and fish that there is abundance left over.
He met the physical needs of his listeners in such a generous and openhearted way so that, their stomachs being full, the hunger of their hearts could be addressed.
The message of the miracle is clear: God’s will is that none should be hungry. The gospel is never a substitute for the fundamental needs for survival. It is the will of God that those who hunger and thirst should be given food and clean drinking water and that they should be provided for generously.
The hunger and poverty of this world are not signs of insufficient godliness. They are signs that we continue to mismanage the resources God has given us. The poor rebuke the rich, not because the poor are morally superior to the rich, because they aren’t; but by reminding us that no one is truly rich while anyone is truly poor.
Jesus makes it clear that there is a real relationship between the hunger of the body and the hunger of the soul. The spiritual and physical are each part of the divine concern and the divine plan. Jesus fed the hungry on the mountainside. He did not ignore or make light of their physical hunger. He didn’t stop when that had been satisfied. He went on to meet the hunger of their souls.
What about the gnawing hunger of the soul? The miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 is that God is willing to provide not only bread, but the bread of life as well. Jesus offers not simply food to the hunger, but himself to us all.
Jesus not only fed the hungry on the mountainside with loaves and fishes, but by that act of charity, he was revealed to the crowd as God’s message of love to the world. To that world, he offers not simply sustenance without which our bodies cannot live, but sustenance without which our souls cannot live.
And there is enough for everyone.