Raising the Bread Limit

The little-known back-story to the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 includes some eerily contemporary details.  You see, while Jesus was teaching and healing the crowd throughout the day, the disciples had been meeting behind some bushes.  They’d noticed time rolling by and the dinner hour approaching – they knew something was going to have to be done about food: stomachs would begin to rumble, bellies would demand to be fed.

As the discussion progressed, the disciples took stock of what food they could find.  On the one hand there were five loaves of bread, and on the other there were two fish; and for some reason the group seemed to be dividing along the lines of the bread-guys and the fish-guys.  The bread-guys thought that perhaps they could order out for delivery and divide the bill among everyone gathered (including tip, of course).  But the fish-guys thought that it would boost the local economy (which was clearly in need of a boost, being a desert place) if they sent everyone out to local restaurants in the village to eat.

There was no meaningful discussion of the five loaves and the two fish because, well, they amounted to five loaves and two fish, and what they had on their hands was a group of about five thousand men, besides women and children.  And what can you do with five loaves and two fish if you have 5,000–plus people to feed?  You see, you have a limit – what you might call a ceiling – with what you can do with five loaves and two fish in the company of 5,000 men, besides women and children.  And that ceiling feels pretty low as the dinner hour is approaching and tummies are grumbling and you know that soon things are going to get ugly.

So there they were, huddled behind a mustard shrub (which, if they had taken notice of it, they would have recalled began its life as a tiny seed, maybe even the tiniest of all seeds, but here it was, full-grown, concealing their deliberations from the crowd, and from Jesus), there they were, arguing about what to do about the bread limit, so to speak.  Of course, they could not agree – order delivery; or send the crowd to the local cafes – etc, etc.  They talked about the pros and cons of each.  The restaurant guys started to call the order-out guys socialists, and the order-out guys accused the restaurant guys of owning corporate jets (both of which accusations were fanciful to say the least).

The restaurant guys pointed out that when you split the bill that way, you never get everyone to put in what he actually owes, and Peter and Andrew and James and John had repeatedly been called on to make up the difference, and the coffers were getting low, they couldn’t keep deficit spending like this.

But the order-out guys made the argument that if you want to encourage ministry you have to prime the pump a little, you have to at least give people something to eat, and in a desert place you can’t rely on market forces to do everything, since the market is not actually functioning at what you might call meaningful capacity, etc. etc.  And that a bit of deficit spending now would have a big effect down the line in the ministry it stimulated, provided you didn’t try to do it on the cheap, and provided that you didn’t just give all your stimulus funds to the bankers and trust that they would do the right thing.

But, that bit about the bankers was, of course, a digression.

On one thing only could the two sides agree – five loaves and two fishes were meaningless, insufficient, a recipe for disaster.  There was not enough on hand to do anything, except maybe to have a little nosh themselves, later on.

As the day wore on, the implications of doing nothing began to dawn on them.  They could see, from behind the mustard bush, that Jesus was looking around for them, as he wrapped up his sermon.  It was becoming apparent that they were needed, but, of course, they were hesitant to come out from behind the mustard bush, because they had no solution to the problem.  They could hear the crowd becoming restless.  They saw the women sending their children out to look for food vendors, a Mr. Softee truck, a Halvah guy, a knish lady, something, anything; but there was nothing to be had, and the children were returning to their mothers with empty, upturned palms and hungry eyes.  And the men were beginning to shift restlessly in their places, and to stretch and yawn and glare demandingly at their wives and their children.

And still the disciples debated.  And as they did they noticed how similar was their debate to the dynamics of parliamentary procedure in a bicameral legislature. 

Think, said the order-out guys, of the high quality of debate in the Senate, where the rights of a minority can be preserved. 

Think, said the restaurant guys, of the will of the people represented in their own House by men and women in whose wisdom and care the people place their trust.

Think, said one of them more slyly, of the coming election next year, as he dreamed about how much commercial time you could buy with thirty pieces of silver.  And although none of the others would admit it, they all did think of this very thing, but kept it to themselves.

All the while the clock was ticking, and dinner-time was approaching.

The take-out places in the village had heard about the gathering and were hoping for a big order, their delivery guys at the ready.  The restaurants, too, were on alert and had ordered extra supplies, and were eager for a brisk business, since things had been slow for a few years, what with the wars, and all.  The proprietors of both sorts of establishments looked down the road, but no one seemed to be coming.  They began to get nervous, and to suspect that this crowd would amount to nothing – little business, no money in the coffers, and a lot of left-over food in the walk-ins to dispose of when all was said and done.  And they began to down-grade their expectations.

Jesus had stopped teaching by now and was tending to a long line of people coming up to him to be healed of various illnesses and injuries, one by one, which he accomplished as he laid his coarse hands on their heads and prayed softly to the Father, as a light breeze rustled around him.

Making an excuse, and leaving Mary and Martha to tend to the needy, he slipped over behind the mustard bush to find his disciples engaged in protracted discussion, having staked out opposing positions.  If he had troubled himself he might have discovered a willingness to negotiate on one side, and a complete refusal to compromise on the other, but frankly, this made no difference to him.

What, he demanded to know, is the meaning of all this?!?!

And so the accusations began to fly.  Socialists!  Corporate lap-dogs!  Etc., etc.  Some people just can’t seem to say yes to anything, said one side.  That’s right, said the other, some people just can’t seem to say yes to anything!

Jesus looked at them and had compassion on them, because they were pathetic, and although few people would, in fact, have compassion on a group of men having a childish debate over a problem of their own making that is not really that difficult to solve, Jesus always finds room to have compassion, even for those who only barely deserve it.  Looking into their eyes, he could see the fear deep in their souls that seemed to whimper, “We don’t have enough!”

My friends, he said, do you not remember those days long ago when our ancestors were hungry in the desert, and there was no food and no water, and the your great-great-great grandfathers went to Moses with their eyes full of the fear that is in your eyes now?  Do you not remember how long ago Joseph supplied grain to his father and his brothers (who had left him for dead) when famine was all around?  Can you not recall the flavor of manna, or the sound of quails in great abundance where no quail had ever been before?  Can you not hear the sound of water flowing down the face of a rock, just from the place where Moses struck it?  Did God not lead our forebears long ago to a land flowing with milk and honey, as he promised he would?  Have you really been so deprived?  Has God not always given you what you need and, in fact, so much more?

One of the disciples interrupted:

But this is a deserted place, and the hour is now late, send the crowds away, Rabbi, so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.

Jesus could see that this was a teaching moment.  He said to them, They need not go away; you give them something to eat.

And he could see the hearts of the disciples – on both sides of the issue – sink when he said that.  He saw eyes shift nervously to the basket that held five loaves and two fish.  But the eyes did not linger long on the baskets.  He could see worry cross their brows – how could they have quit their jobs to work with this man who could not even see that you can’t feed 5,000 men, besides women and children, with five loaves and two fish?  What had they gotten themselves into?  And how would they get themselves out?

Looking at them with his compassionate eyes, he could see that all their lives they had assumed they had not enough, even though they had never gone hungry.  They had heard the stories of Moses and the manna and the quail and the water from the rock, but they believed they were fairy tales – nice stories for children, but essentially without meaning in the grown-up world.  He could see that they had allowed fear to control them for so long, calling it prudence or caution to disguise it.  And he could see that they had only a little faith, which was pretty sad considering all they had seen and done with him, but he was not surprised; thus had it ever been.

And he knew that a little faith is enough.  Men and women had done extraordinary things with only a little faith – it was enough to move mountains, so to speak.  Yes, a little faith would do.  And although they were frightened, they still had a little faith.

My brothers, he said, how will you ever form a church when I am gone, if you act like this?  How will you ever build up my kingdom?  How will you ever draw others to yourselves if you imitate the bickering and the bargaining and the faithlessness of the world?  How will people know that you are about something completely different from those who seek only power?  How will those who have only a little realize how much they can accomplish if you don’t show them?  How will the hungry know where is their hope if you do not feed them; if you gather in your groups, behind your shrubbery, engrossed in your own arguments, while tummies grumble, and the would-be saints wander away to look for food elsewhere?  How will the church thrive if you operate from a posture of fear and a presumption of scarcity?  How will you change the world if you cannot change the way you do business?  How will you do great things if you master only petty politics?

Feeling chastened, they looked at him with still un-comprehending eyes, with little hope, and the still strong yearning to simply put forth their arguments one more time.

Anticipating their objection, he said to them again, You give them something to eat.

But, they said, We have nothing; nothing but these five loaves and two fish.

Yes, he thought to himself, How will you ever become who you were made to be if you never consider the loaves and the fishes; if you never account for what God has already given you. To them he said, Bring them to me.  And he told the crowd to sit down on the grass.

And he took the loaves and the fish, he blessed them, broke the bread, and gave it all to the disciples to distribute.  And the rest, as they say, is more or less history.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

31 July 2011

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 31, 2011 .