Coptic Icon - Christ Feeding the Multitudes
I think that there is something unsaid in today’s Gospel that we are meant to understand. In the feeding of the five thousand (John 6.1-5) we hear Andrew tell Jesus that there is a small boy with five barley loaves and two fish. But this prompts a question: ‘How did Andrew know what the boy had to offer?’ I think that the answer has to be that the boy has overheard Jesus and the disciples talking urgently with one another about how to feed the crowd. And he has stepped forward to offer through Andrew his own food for sharing. Jesus takes the offering and magnifies it. Out of this seemingly inadequate offering comes enough food for all.
The feeding of the five thousand is therefore like a parable. You might say that that it is a lived parable. Remember that there is a pattern to the parables. They go like this:
Orientation: We learn about a situation
Disorientation: Jesus turns our expectations upside down
Reorientation: We have a new way of thinking.
Let’s look at it in this light:
Orientation: Here we have a situation in which we learn that there is a practical problem, how to feed such a huge number of people who have been following Jesus. There is not enough money in the common purse even to buy something as simple as bread for such a huge number.
Disorientation: Jesus takes the boy’s offering which plainly cannot be enough for everybody, yet he lifts it up this small quantity of food, blesses it and begins to break it and distribute it.
Reorientation: We learn that somehow there was enough food. Some Bible scholars speculate that those present were shamed into sharing what food they had, and, with everybody contributing a little, a little turned into a lot. Others see the explanation as a straightforward miracle like the providing of manna for the people wandering in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. I don’t think that we have to choose between these explanations. The point is that a gesture of faith led to God’s gracious provision of all that they needed. The boy had stepped forward to offer what little he could, and God, through his Son, had done the rest. It could have been the power of God moving the hearts of those gathered; it could have been a direct miracle of multiplication. The text itself points towards a miracle – in verse 14 we hear the people exclaim that the event is a sign full of meaning. If we struggle to understand, we can console ourselves that the disciples themselves were left baffled – see Mark 8.14-20.
We need to stay with the reorientation. We find ourselves facing huge problems in the world. Warfare, famine, disaster. Racism, religious fanaticism, disrespect for human life at its most vulnerable. The Church itself can seem weak, divided, introverted. Christians may be tempted to despair. What can they do, they wonder? How can they make a difference? The reorientation invites us to remember the small boy.
He stepped forward to offer what he had, and somehow, after the blessing of the Lord, it turned out to be enough. Let us step forward took bringing what we have. It may seem little enough to us, but it is the spirit of the offering that counts. Jesus is with us still. He takes what we offer, blesses it and uses it within his own great self-offering. If we can step forward in faith then we will find time after time that our offering is multiplied many times over.
Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest of St Mary's, East Finchley, in north London.