In many churches yesterday, congregants heard the story of feeding the thousands, supposedly, with “five barley loaves and two fish.” Some years ago, as I listened to the account of this event in John’s Gospel, I thought to myself “I bet lots of people who congregated in hopes of seeing Jesus perform one of his ‘miracles’ brought a little snack in case they got hungry waiting their turn to be healed from something.” At each subsequent service where this story has been read, I’ve become more convinced that it was human generosity and a willingness to share that was the “miracle.” A couple of months ago, the Gospel reading at my church was about Jesus’ interaction with a woman who had been bleeding internally for many months, who came up behind him, touched his robe, and asked him to help her. Jesus ignored his disciples who urged him to move on to help the daughter of an important citizen who was deathly ill. Instead he touches the devout woman and she stops bleeding. When she and the others are awed by his powers, Jesus corrects them, insisting to the woman “Your faith hath made you whole.” In John’s account of the hungry thousands, we’re told about there being a little boy who has the bread and fish for himself but gives it up to Jesus who then “took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted.” At the end of the day, Jesus instructs his disciples to go around and collect any left-overs “so that nothing will be wasted.” We’re asked to believe that there were several containers of left-overs.
In his brief homily yesterday, the priest said he believes the crowd could feel Jesus’ love for them so they extended themselves and shared some of whatever dibs and dabs of food or drink they had in their knapsacks or pockets. He also stressed the relationship between material food and the spiritual food available to us when we are generous with what we have. Instead of holding on tightfistedly to what is “ours,” we openhandedly relinquish ownership so that those less fortunate than we can feel better. Surely this is a “healing” that works both ways. In our story, there must have been many who perhaps didn’t have any extra food on hand or who were too eager to draw near to the man who seemed to have strange and amazing powers to help. In any case, they arrived eager to be “fed” in spirit. So maybe the aura on that expanse of grass where they reclined to listen to and witness awesome healings performed by Jesus took over and people shared. So it was their faith that let them feel a love of community. The “miracle” was feeling generous of material food because of feeling seen and loved by a stranger who knew of their untapped capacity to share. And the “left-overs” prove that generosity then or now defies theories of “zero-sum gain,” so prevalent in today’s world so often ruled by greed.
As I held out my hands to receive what I thought would be one of the little round, tasteless wafers from a member of the congregation, I was taken up short by what got put into my hand. It was a tiny triangular wedge and I registered where it had come from. At a pivotal moment in the liturgy, the priest raises a large round host wafer and breaks it into little chunks as he recounts what happened at the last meal Jesus would share with his disciples where he broke their hallah loaf into pieces and handed them to the twelve disciples. Chances of a given member of my very large congregation’s getting one of the resulting shards are very slim, yet there one was being put into my outstretched hands by a woman I know to be a staff member at my church. No longer believing in “coincidences,” I returned to my pew deeply moved by what was happening to me and all of us walking quietly up to the alter rail to be “fed” physical bread. The physical really felt like a stand-in for the spiritual significance of the moment.
I went home satisfied.