Reflection 7/26: Loaves and Fish
Dear Beloved Community of St. John’s,
I have heard the story of Jesus’ feeding the multitude so many times, that when I encounter it, I tend to let my mind wander someplace else. The story is in all the gospels; it’s preached at least once a year from every pulpit. I remember being taught this story as a child. I remember that the translation used the word “fishes,” and I had been taught that the plural of fish is fish; but fishes was okay because it was in the bible. I’ve meditated on this story in its literal and metaphorical understandings. And I have read with a shake of my head the writers who want to come up with a plausible, even scientific explanation that avoids the fact that this is a miracle story, not appropriate for fact checking.
So, as I gather my thoughts and prayers for preaching this week, I’m trying to take a step away from the tried and true, so that neither you nor I will go to a place of aimless wool gathering. Here are some of the questions I’m thinking about:
In what ways are we hungry, and which of those hungers are hard or easy to satisfy? Does our answer to those questions seem right to us, or are we thinking about hunger all wrong?
The story is about abundance. What is abundant in our lives, and what is scarce or parched? Do those answers seem wrong or right?
Christ’s followers recognized the miracle, but the people who were feasting on Jesus’ food from heaven—what might they have been thinking?
Who might Jesus have been trying to teach/impress (his followers or the crowd or both), or was he just trying to feed lots of hungry people who touched his heart?
It seems obviously foolish to follow Jesus out to the mountain without packing food. Ancient people were used to taking provisions when traveling. Which kind of people are we: those who take “food” along with us, or people who live off of what can be improvised along the way? What does that say about us? Do we like what it says about us?
Is this account more like a story (a structured narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, occurring within an identifiable environment of place and time, so that we can suitably imagine what has been left out); or is this story more like a parable (a story that is framed in such a way, that nothing is left out but the essential core of the teaching)? How does the type of story help us determine its larger meaning?
What makes this particular story so compelling that it is difficult to remember when we heard the story the first time? Even if people know little of Jesus’ ministry, this is a story that most people in our culture are liable to know and recognize.
If this story were updated into a 21st century context, what would that look like? Just as many plays and musical works written centuries ago have been put into other settings, can we do something like that to this story? What do each of the elements mean in a contemporary world: Jesus, loaves and fishes, journey to the mountaintop, followers, left-overs, obedience, leadership? How this story transcends ancient time to our own has an impact on how we might understand it both as present day truth, and something larger than the world we customarily inhabit. That is, truth beyond the ages.
In asking these questions, I’m not trying to replace this beautiful, powerful bible story. Yet, getting us out of the rut of its over-familiarity can enhance its durable teachings in our own lives of faith.