Tuesday, June 19, 2012

John 6: The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Two chapters before the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the disciples returned from a food-run to find Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman. When they urged their Rabbi to eat something, he seemed disinterested: "I have food to eat that you know nothing about, he said." The disciples took him literally, of course - "Could someone have brought him food?" Jesus clarifies: "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work."

Isn't it interesting the way Jesus is consistently misinterpreted because his words are taken literally? In addition to this example, there have been several others so far in John's Gospel:

(1) 2:18-21. When the Jews in the temple ask Jesus for a miraculous sign to prove his authority for flipping the moneychangers' tables, he says, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." Of course, the temple he is referring to is his body, but the Jews don't realize that (and who can blame them?). "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple" they say.

(2) 3:3-4. Jesus tells Nicodemus, a Pharisee, that "no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." Nicodemus replies, "How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" Jesus responds by clarifying that he is talking about spiritual birth, not physical ("water") birth. 

(3) 4:10-14. When Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well, he tells her that if she knew who she was talking to, she would ask him for "living water." The woman is confused: "Sir," she says, "you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?"

With these examples in mind, is it not ironic that many followers of Jesus today insist on interpreting Scripture with the same degree of wooden literalism as Jesus' original hearers? Jesus' words in all of these examples were in fact true, but not in the literal sense. If the Word-made-flesh was willing to speak this way, is it not possible that the Word of God speaks similarly in other parts of the Bible? I'm not trying to suggest that we should automatically assume that all the stories in the Old Testament are only true in a spiritual - rather than historical - sense, but I do think we need to be very careful about interpreting the original intent of the authors. In these examples, Jesus' intent was to communicate spiritual realities through physical terms. If we were to insist on a literal interpretation of his words, we would not only disrespect his original intent but we would also miss his point entirely. We need to be careful not to make the same mistake with other parts of the Bible.

But, going back to chapter 4 - Jesus said "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work." In other words, Jesus said that his sustenance, his life, was found in doing God's will. Doing God's will and completing his mission was more important to him than anything else, which is probably why he seemed so unconcerned about food after telling the Samaritan woman about the Kingdom.

The reason I bring this up is because chapter 6 seems to talk a lot about food. In the first part, Jesus feeds 5000+ people with two fish and five small barley loaves, and in the last part he refers to himself as the essential food that must be eaten in order to experience everlasting life.

In verse 5, Jesus looks at the huge crowd and he says to Philip, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?" Interestingly, verse 6 suggests that he was fishing for a specific answer, as it says, "he asked this only to test him."

What was the answer Jesus was looking for? Probably not the one Philip gave, which appears to demonstrate either (a) a lack of faith or (b) another example of someone taking Jesus too literally. I have to wonder if the answer Jesus was fishing for was something along the lines of, "We don't need to buy them bread, Lord, because the true food - the food of doing the will of God - you can offer in abundance." Such an answer would demonstrate that Philip had been paying attention in chapter 4, but instead he responds the way most of us would - and who can fault him? Feed all of them, Jesus? Are you kidding me?

But Jesus can feed all of them, and he does. He takes a boy's lunch pail and multiplies its meager contents, providing more than enough to go around. Everyone eats their fill and there's even twelve baskets of leftovers. Jesus provides more than enough.

I take several things from this story. The first and most obvious one is that Jesus is powerful. As has already been established in John's gospel, Jesus has the ability to override the normal laws of nature - the ability to do the miraculous. The second is that Jesus is capable of taking something small and multiplying it. As Jesus says in all three of the synoptic Gospels, "The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed...which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches." This principle is true not only of the kingdom of heaven but also of our faith. As Jesus says, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed.."

There is something so beautiful to me about God using a little boy's lunch to feed thousands of people. It reminds me of what Jesus says in Luke 21 about the poor widow who offered two copper coins to the temple treasury. "This poor widow put in more than all the others," he said, "all these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on." Jesus seems to like embarrassingly small offerings - particularly when they come at personal cost. Such small seeds seem prone to blossom and flourish.

Lastly, it's fascinating to think about what Jesus is saying about himself through this miracle. Surely its not just coincidence when Jesus says later in this chapter that he is the bread of life. The bread that Jesus offers in the feeding of the five thousand isn't just lunch - it's himself. Like the small basket of loaves and fish, Jesus' offering of himself is a humble one that provides in abundance.

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