The multiplication of food happens all the time in our kitchens.
I am the chief cook at home, and one of my favorite things to do is to go the refrigerator and see what is there for leftovers and then concoct a way to make something completely new and different from them.
A bit of mashed potatoes? Combine that with an egg, some scallions, garlic and a generous amount of parmesan cheese and you’ve got the makings of some tasty potato cakes.
A chicken breast and thigh? Pull the meat off the bone, dice it, saute’ some onion, celery, and make a bechamel sauce. Add in some herbs, pimento and a splash of hot sauce and you’ve got a creamed chicken to serve over those potato cakes.
It’s not miraculous, to be sure, but it does happen. By the time I’ve worked up the leftovers into something new I discover that I’ve made enough to still have leftovers again!
That happens mostly because I underestimate what it is that I have to work with in the first place. How it multiplies on you in the process of cooking still always seems like a sort of a mystery to me.
The miraculous feeding by Jesus of the multitudes is the only story that is included in all four of the Gospels. The details vary a little from Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, but the essentials of the story remain the same.
You have one huge needy, hungry crowd.
You have what looks like too little food to even begin the task.
The solution the disciples come up with is always to dismiss the crowds and turn them to their own resources.
The solution Jesus proposes instead is to take whatever it is we have at hand, break it, blessing it, and begin serving it up and sharing it amongst those gathered.
In the end of Jesus’ directions being followed, leftovers are gathered, both as a sign of abundance and to prove that there is sufficient for all to eat their fill.
There was clearly something very important about this event!
A little delving into the history of that time and the circumstances in Judea at the time helps us understand it, particularly as John tells the story.
We are by the Sea of Galilee, which John reminds us is also called the “Sea of Tiberias.”
That is an ownership claim by the Roman Emperor. This sea and all that is in it belongs to Rome now.
We know from historical records that under Roman occupation at the time of Jesus, the Sea of Tiberias was being seriously over-fished to supply Rome with a salty fish sauce called Garum. It is a fermented savory sauce, something like Worstershire sauce. A hungry Rome savored it.
We also know from records of the time that under Roman occupation, typically 25% of all the grain crops grown in Judea would have being required as tax apportionment and shipped back to Rome to feed the population there.
It is significant that John identifies what the child has to offer.
Barley was the least desirable of all the grain crops grown, and so it was the grain most often “left” for the people of Galilee to feed themselves.
The fish the child has may well be cast off remains of the production of the fish sauce that Rome craved. Garum is made by salting the fish and drying them in the hot sun until they would “weep” the clear liquid that becomes the sauce. Once the extract was collected, the rest of the fish could be discarded.
So, what is it that the boy has to offer to Jesus for his lunch?
This is what Jesus has to work with – the cast off and the dregs. This is what he transforms into abundance.
And who does he do the miracle for? Well, these too are the cast offs and the dregs of the Galilean people. The ones who have come to find him, bringing the sick and those in need of his touch.
Something is happening here that not one of the Gospel writers wants us to miss, and that is what makes this story so hard to preach.
What does Jesus get to address the needs of this world? He gets the leftovers!
What he’s got never looks like it will be enough for the crowd before him or for the task at hand.
What this world has to offer to the Son of Man is not its finest or its best, but rather what it decides it doesn’t want for itself!
However, whatever Jesus takes into his hands, (all the gospel writers maintain) is more than enough!
When you give something to Jesus, no matter how inadequate it may appear, whatever he takes and blesses is what God somehow makes work!
In the end, in fact, you discover that you’ll have some leftovers, and you’ll have to figure out just what to do with them!
How this all happens is always a mystery to us. Something we can’t quite explain.
Despite Jesus showing us this directly what happens when we place what we have in his hands, we still find ourselves underestimating what it is that we have to work with.
It happens all the time.
I hear it all the time.
We talk about the needs of the congregation, or the needs of the community and we start to talk about how to address those needs and the litany of “What are these among so many?” begins.
“I have nothing, I can’t contribute.”
“I’m too old for this sort of thing.”
“I’m sorry, but I have issues.”
“I’m too busy.”
“I’ve already given and I’ve done my bit.”
“We should let the younger folks do it.”
“I’m not ordained.”
“I don’t know enough about the Bible.”
“This is not my gift.”
“I’ve got too much on my own plate right now.”
We look at the challenges laid before us, in our communities, in our schools,
in our neighborhoods and in our churches and we find ourselves echoing what those first disciples said as they looked at the crowds and at what they had on hand.
“But what are these among so many…”
“Sure, we’ve got a few things going for us here, but what are they among so many needs?” So many issues? So many people? So many demands?
The point of this story is clear.
When you deliver whatever you have at hand into the hands of Jesus, commit them to God for God’s use, God will take whatever it is and somehow make it work!
If you keep those things to yourself, lock God out of the picture, then what you have in hands will never be enough, not even for yourself!
The miracle in this story is not just one of feeding the hungry.
The miracle is also about the opening of the imagination! It is about inspiring faith on the part of the Disciples.
The miracle is inextricably tied to the world in which these people find themselves, where they are marginalized and left only the dregs. Where the rich and powerful sap the resources of the land for their benefit or export them to others who do not live there.
“What are these among so many?” they ask, as if Jesus was going to agree with them?
As if Jesus was going to say, “Oh, is that all you have, five loaves, two fish, excuse me, I didn’t realize it was so small.”
From Jesus we hear, “What have you got?” and “Let’s get to it.”
Jesus knows that God the Father is a lavish God. A God who creates still all that exists and as such provides generously for this world!
God the Father is always giving, always creating, always more generous than we know how to comprehend.
Jesus knows and comes to show us that God is indeed a generous God. That part of his nature is not diminished!
Our God is capable of taking what looks wholly inadequate for the task at hand and somehow transforming it into what is needed right now and then some!
But we’ve got to stop thinking, “We have nothing.”
If the child had not opened his hamper, and said, “Here Jesus, take my lunch!” – This story would never have unfolded, never would have been told.
We’ve really got to stop thinking we have nothing, or not enough!
We’ve got to stop thinking about how we can procure for ourselves, and begin thinking about how we will see the abundance provided by a generous God and how it should be shared by all – with all!
Which of us will be the child of God who will open his or her hamper and say, “Here Jesus, let me share what I’ve got!”
Instead of just lifting the lid and peeking inside and making the determination on your own, “I don’t have enough!.”
“Enough” as it turn out, is always an elusive amount, is it not? It becomes more and more elusive the more you try to pursue it for yourself, decide when “enough” is yours.
See, here’s the blessing we miss in this story.
How do you think that little boy felt as Jesus accepted his offer?
How do you think he felt when Jesus took what he had and made it go out to the multitudes?
Can you imagine the little boy beaming with pride. “I was part of that!”
“Jesus took what I had to offer! It didn’t look like much to me, but he said it would be plenty!”
“Wow, look at what Jesus did with what I gave him!”
Look at all the people fed, and the happy faces, and the satisfied and hopeful looks.”
Did you ever think about the joy that must have come when the child put what looked like so little into Jesus hands, and then watched as miracles unfolded?
This is a story not just about miraculous feeding, it’s also about the opening of the imagination and the beginning of faith and hope for a different life.
What do you believe?
What do you find yourself saying? Doing?
Do you peer into the hamper of your life and say, “What is this, my gifts, my abilities, my resources, my talents among so many needs in this world?”
Or will you dare to open your hamper to Jesus, and offer what is there for him to bless, break and use in this world.
If you do, then just you wait.
It will happen.
The miracle will take place. You’re going to have to be part of the crew trying to figure out what to do with the leftovers, because there will always be leftovers!