[We used Bagels and Lox as a part of an object lesson during the Sermon, one possible (and tasty) contemporary rendering of loaves and fish.]
This morning we are going to look at three ways of reading or understanding this text.
a. The Manna Society
A women in our church recently shared with me a book she came across that (I hope) we will be studying in more depth this fall. It’s called Manna and Mercy. Among the topics dealt with in the book is how God desires to mend the universe, and part of this includes offering manna to all who need it.
How many of you remember the story?
The story of God providing Manna for the Children of Israel comes from the Old Testament Exodus 16. I think our story in Luke shares important similarities and differences with this older narrative.
First, they both take place in the desert, or Wilderness, where no sustenance can be found. In fact, both of these are connected.
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger. (Exod 16:2-3).
Second, God miraculously provides food in both cases. In Exodus there is Quail in the evening and Manna in the morning. In the Gospel Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish.
Then the LORD said to Moses, I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. (Exod 16:4-5).
Finally, both stories teach that God is concerned with details of life. God can be trusted to provide daily bread for us. This is evident in the Exodus narrative by how much they were allowed to take.
When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, What is it? For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat. This is what the LORD has commanded: Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents. The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.
But what about the differences in these two narratives? What do you notice?
One difference I notice is where this bread comes from. In Ex. it is from YHWH who is somewhat impersonal in this particular narrative, offering the food in a way that is miraculous yet disconnected from human hands.
On the other hand, in the Gospel of Luke, the miraculous is no doubt a part of the narrative but the role of the disciples is essential. Jesus, through his very Jewish gestures, and the disciples through their gathering the food, organizing the people, and distributing multiplied loaves and fish.
A second difference I notice is the amount of bread that is left over. In the first narrative there is no excess, in fact excess is strictly prohibited.
And Moses said to them, Let no one leave any of it over until morning. But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted. (Exod 14:20-21 NRSV).
Whereas in the second there is an over abundance of the gift.
What Exodus shows us is that Interventions can come in the desert by way of food. God heard the complaining, the grumbling bellies of the Israelites and fed them. This is, as Daniel Erlander calls it, Manna Society. It’s a picture of a community that has all of its needs taken care of directly by God.
But there is an under current of passivity in this Exodus passage, there is a level of consumption rather than participation.
Moses and Aaron are both intermediaries in the story, discussing back and forth with YHWH how best to deal with the complaints of the Israelites but they have no role in distributing the food, just in giving the policies around it. God does the work here. Exodus 16 is as much about showing that God is trustworthy, hears complaints and responds, as it is about anything.
And so when we get Luke’s narrative about Jesus we carry the undertones of the similarities, but we also must take note of the differences. In Luke there is a strong emphasis on participation rather than simply consumption.
b. Feeding the 12
Now let me offer you another version of this story (one that I think help to get at the meaning).
JESUS AND THE FIVE THOUSAND (A FIRST-WORLD TRANSLATION) by Peter Rollins
Imagine that JESUS WITHDREW PRIVATELY BY BOAT TO A
SOLITARY PLACE, but the crowds continued to
follow him. Evening was now approaching and
the people, many of whom had traveled a great
distance, were growing hungry.
Seeing this, Jesus sent his disciples out to gather
food, but all they could find were five loaves of
bread and two fishes. Then Jesus asked that they
go out again and gather up the provisions that the
crowds had brought to sustain them in their travels.
Once this was accomplished, a vast mountain of
fish and bread stood before Jesus. Upon seeing this
he directed the people to sit down on the grass.
Standing before the food and looking up to
heaven, he gave thanks to God and broke the
bread. Then he passed the food among his twelve
disciples. Jesus and his friends ate like kings in
full view of the starving people. But what was
truly amazing, what was miraculous about this
meal, was that when they had finished the massive
banquet there were not even enough crumbs left
to fill a starving person’s hand.
It might look something like this:
[Elder’s come to the front and together the three of us eat Bagels and Lox in front of the congregation]
Now this rather shocking twist in the story makes Jesus out to be inhumane and selfish. It’s one thing to criticize our political leaders, CEOs, and other popular figures for not living up to their words, for not caring for those who they said they would look out for but it’s quite another thing to point the finger at Christ and his disciples.
And I agree with this.
Is this passage really about Jesus feeding the 12?
No, of course not.
But this is how the world can often see us reading and interpreting this text.
The church is the manifestation of Christ in the world.
And so how we act, how we treat others, directly reflects upon other’s understanding of Jesus.
The presence of Christ in the world is said to be directly encountered in the presence of those who gather together in his name. In very concrete terms, people learn of Christ through those who claim to live out the way of Christ. However, if Christ is proclaimed in the life of his followers, if the body of believers is thought to manifest the body of Christ in the world, then we must stop, draw breath, and ask ourselves whether the above tale reflects how Christ is presented to the world today, at least in the minds of those who witness the lifestyle of Christians in the West.
And so we, as Christians, (we’re all in this together whether we want to be or not) this passage may often be presented to the world as Jesus and “Feeding the 12.” As one reading of our sermon title suggests.
c. Participating in Sharing
I want to suggest that this passage, and the entire thrust of our discussions around the Gospel of Luke summed up in short passage (the proper one, not the made up one). [This story appears six times in the Gospels].
First of all it is clearly about who Jesus says he is, and what his mission is.
God intervenes in the world through the incarnation, through his son Jesus Christ. In other words, the miraculous is personal and human.
It’s the ordinary and the weak who respond faithfully to God’s work, lives are changed, people are healed, fed, debts are cancelled, sight is restored, people are given their dignity back, sinners are forgiven, and everyone is invited in to be a part of this growing community.
Yet, it doesn’t stop with Jesus’ mission. It get extended to his followers.
Unlike in Exodus 16, where everyone stands back and let’s God do the work, now in Luke 9, Jesus draws his disciples into sharing this work. Jesus’ ministry is about extending participation in the justice of God to his followers, they, we are the ones who are to help bring this into being. Hunger, Quite literally, is a serious issue not just in our text, but today in our world.
Each year, 3 million under-five children die because they are undernourished.1 Far more children live with undernutrition than die from it. For infants and young children, the effects of chronic malnutrition in the early years of life are largely irreversible.
In the United States, 11.7 million children live in households where people have to skip meals or eat less to make ends meet. That means one in ten households in the U.S. are living with hunger or are at risk of hunger. (Stats from Bread.org)
This has serious relevance.
Among all the issues we debate within the church, hunger and poverty are the key concerns God continues to point us to within Scripture. In fact, I might goes as far to say that there is no other issue that is more important biblically than issues related to poverty and feeding the world’s hungry. (Not war, not purity and holiness, not homosexuality, not sexuality, not tolerance, not substance abuse, not consumerism – though of course these things are important as well).
It is my conviction that it is up to the church, it is up to us, to carry this mission out (in a variety of ways).
We cannot allow our lives to reflect this second interpretation of the story.
d. The Feeding of the Twelve
But, let’s try another version.
[Elder’s come up and now serve Bagels and Lox to the congregation]
Back to the part about how we, as a collective community, “restored partner people,” or simply “the church,” are invited by Jesus to “Give Them Something to Eat.”
This is in fact what I think this passage turns on.
It seems to me that this passage is about participating in the kingdom activity of feeding people. It’s about the 12 (trying to) feed the 5,000.
Jesus says, “Give Them Something to Eat.” And they don’t exactly get it the first time around, they try to answer this question with logic rather than poetry, they try to understand all this with clear cut math. Even still, though they don’t get it the first time he doesn’t write them off, but has them gather the food, organize the people and distribute the food. They are still invited into the shared work of the kingdom even though they don’t fully get it.
It’s as if the kingdom of God works like this: When you come to a question, to a problem, know that there is already an excess, and act upon the problem from that perspective. Know also, that we as the church are called to respond however we can.
This passage is not about hoarding but the excess of the kingdom of God.
The disciples are invited into the process of sharing this with the crowds.
And by extension, so are we.
When we hoard things a stench begins to rise.
When we pull our resources as a means of providing for those in need, things get multiplied.
Luke shows us that the disciples finally get it in Acts 2:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:44-47 NRSV).
Participating in kingdom sharing won’t always add up or make sense to a “business as usual” mindset. There are other things we might rather spend our energy on debating, or our money on resourcing. Even the disciples here still don’t fully get it, they still haven’t fully been converted to thinking in the way Jesus does. The kingdom is not exactly clear cut math, but we wouldn’t expect that by this point. Things don’t add up, five loaves and two fish don’t equal 5,000 mouths fed, at least not when you’re using a calculator.
This is a message, and a lesson, for the disciples. God provides, and will provide through you, through us.
And so we can’t read Luke 9 as if it were Exodus 16, this is not consumption but about participation.
Nor is it about about Jesus and the disciples sitting shoveling their faces full of food. Or we the disciples ignoring these deep calls of Scripture for our own issues we want to chase.
No, the math doesn’t add up but everyone eats, and the disciples are the ones entrusted to, as the Scripture says Jesus gave them the food “to SET Before the crowd.”
They were invited to share in the vocation of sharing. They extend the hospitality of the kingdom.
They will not simply be people who need bread, but who give bread. Who share their loaves and fish, who are a part of God’s radical redistribution and multiplication to those who need it. They learn that in the kingdom of God they can be a part of the answer not only to their own requests but to the needs of others.