There’s a story in the Bible where Jesus and his disciples go into the wilderness. A large crowd followed them – like 5,000 men, not counting women and children. Diner hour was approaching and the disciples were concerned that the crowd needed to eat. Jesus told them to feed the crowd.
The disciples panicked. How could they feed such a large crowd? They didn’t have money, time, or access to that much food. What would they do?
Then a small boy came and shared his lunch. A few loaves and fish. All we’re told is that Jesus blessed the food, everyone was fed, and there was so much left over it filled 12 baskets. (Matthew 14:13 – 21)
There are two explanations (maybe more) for what happened. The most popular explanation is that Jesus performed a miracle by multiplying that kid’s lunch into a meal of abundance by causing more fish and bread to appear until everyone was fed.
The other explanation is that Jesus amplified the kid’s offer to share. When Jesus called attention – indeed, blessed – the kid’s sharing, the crowds did likewise. Within the crowd itself, there was a capacity that the disciples didn’t see and a solution to the problem.
What’s harder to believe, that Jesus could turn one lunch into food for 5,000 + people, or that people out in the wilderness would share a scarce resource with others?
Some things to consider
The hope in both explanations is that in God’s economy resources are abundant. There is enough. What is different is the source of the resources. Do the resources come from a supernatural act of God or do they come from a community of people, looking out for each other?
I like the second explanation because it empowers people to live as followers of Jesus. If you do what Jesus says the world gets better – in this case, if you are generous, hospitable, love your neighbor and share your resources, there is more than enough.
In over 25 years of ministry, I’ve witnessed countless people who were waiting for Jesus to miraculously resolve their problem/challenge/obstacle while they wait. There is an African proverb “When you pray, move your feet!”
At the same time, the popular explanation reinforces Jesus’ divinity – he can rearrange the atoms of the universe to make food for people. There is a place for that. The place is largely theological in the sphere of belief. But there are some unintended consequences. One unintended consequence is huge questions it raises around theodicy (i.e. if Jesus can do that why to people still starve to death). Another is that it reinforces belief over action. The trust is, we can believe all the right things and do all the wrong things. What we do matters.
Finally, compare the leadership of the disciples and that of Jesus. The disciples have a scarcity mentality – they focused on not having enough food, access to food, and money to buy food. As leaders, they were paralyzed.
How many times have you seen this in your church? Great ideas get killed because there isn’t enough _______, we don’t have access to _____________, and we don’t have money to get ____________.
It is important to act on faith. Yet,I have big reservations about messages like “If God doesn’t show up, we can’t accomplish our vision,” or, conversely, “If it is a vision you can accomplish without God, it’s your vision, not God’s.” The first explanation reinforces that view. The second explanation deconstructs it.
In the second explanation Jesus amplifies the model of the kid who shared. A kingdom value that leads to life. The resources are located in the community. Jesus calls people to do something that changed things for everyone. That is an important message that is central to the ethical framework that Jesus gives throughout the gospels.
In God’s economy there is an abundance of resources. When we follow Jesus, the resources we steward as individuals can serve the needs of the whole. Supernatural miracles are great, but they are not required for us to create the kind of world God wants. WE can do that
PREACHING TIP FOR PASTORS: If you are going to preach this text today (Spring, 2020), I recommend leaning on this second explanation to pull out some points that are relevant in this time. When I preach the second explanation in a theologically conservative church, I acknowledge the first, most popular explanation as such. I then name the second explanation as a minority reading – which is true. This allows me to explore various readings while sidestepping the objection that, somehow, by not emphasizing the supernatural miracle, you are saying that didn’t happen. Truth is we don’t know what happened beyond what the text say. Both explanations are consistent with what we know about Jesus’ life and teaching.