The news from Capitol Hill is nothing short of disgusting, as a freshman class of Tea Partiers threaten the fabric of the democracy they clearly have no interest in serving. One wonders if any one of them paid attention in high school civics class or Econ 101. It's time to imagine another way.
We can get a glimpse of another way to respond to a crisis in the so-called "miracle story" of the feeding of the five thousand, one of the Jesus stories recorded in the Christian Scriptures. This way might not work on Capitol Hill, but it does offer a glimpse of a way toward the common good:
With this story from Matthew's account of the life of Jesus, we enter the realm of miracle. This story of the loaves and fishes shows up in all four gospels, in Matthew and Mark and Luke and John. We know that is not the case with other events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Each of the four gospel writers tell their story of Jesus in their own particular way, for their own particular community: only Luke and Matthew tell stories about the birth of Jesus, only John talks about the raising of Lazarus or the Samaritan woman. Matthew presents the Sermon on the Mount. When Luke presents some of that same material it is called the sermon on the plain.
But something about this feeding story captured the attention of all the chroniclers who gathered up the stories about this Jesus and recorded them for their communities. They all kept alive this story of the loaves and fishes. This is an important story. It was a story the early Christians told whenever they gathered to share some bread. They broke bread and remembered that day when bread was miraculously blessed and broken and shared all around. They broke bread and remembered that day, and they remembered the ancient stories about bread raining down from heaven on their ancestors, the bread called manna. They broke bread and told the story about Elisha and the barley loaves feeding hungry men. Bread miracles, hungry people getting filled up and satisfied, are important stories.
Wonderful stories of miracle and faith, stories of human hunger and divine satisfaction; miracle stories, true stories about God's abundant grace. But there are two problems with miracle stories. First, We get the wrong idea about the nature of miracle. And second, we get the wrong idea about the nature of God.
So first: how do miracles happen? What's going on here?
Now, I am a devoted student of modern biblical scholarship, of all that's gone on in the last 200 years right down to today's Jesus Seminar. I am grateful for the work of so many people like Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Riceour and Paul Tillich and Sallie McFague and Elizabeth Fiorenza and Dom Crossan. I am really grateful as a pastor and a preacher and as an observer of human life that Marcus Borg has managed to make biblical scholarship palatable and accessible for all of us, and especially for so many who had given up on the church. Thank God.
So, I don't believe in a supernatural transcendent being that swoops down out of the sky and intervenes in human events like a genie rubbed out of a bottle. But something happened with those loaves of bread, and those portions of dried fish, something that caused them all to cherish this story and pass it on. What was it? Did Jesus say something and multiply all the loaves at once? Or did it happen gradually, as the loaves got passed around? Did the loaves grow? Did they multiply like the broom of Disney's sorcerer's apprentice? Did the baskets fill up and keep filling up as each person reached in?
We don't know. Matthew doesn't tell us. And neither does Mark or Luke or John or anybody since.
What Matthew does tell us is that this miraculous feeding of the 5000 plus happened at a lonely place apart, a place, Matthew says, that Jesus finds right after he gets the news about John the Baptist. John is dead at the hand of Herod, his head served up on a platter.
Jesus had been telling the people about the new way of God, he had been using images like the found treasure and the mustard seed to describe the abundance and the sheer joy God intends. Jesus had been announcing a new day where the grieving rejoice, the poor inherit the goods, the good win in the end, and then he learns that John, the prophet who baptized him, is gone. The ways of the world, the ways of Herod, kill off the prophets of God, cut them down in the prime of life. Sobering news for Jesus, for all the disciples. And Jesus withdraws to a quiet place.
And the people follow. Just when Jesus might need to be alone, the crowds close in. And Jesus, showing them the largeness of God's heart, has compassion. Anyone else (myself first on the list) anyone else would send them all home. But he leaves his boat, goes ashore and mixes with them, blessing, touching, healing. Even at day's end, when the disciples want to call it quits and settle down for the night. This is when the real healing begins. Jesus knows they need food, and perhaps more than food, they need the nourishment of each other's company. They need not go away, he says. You give them something to eat.
And we move into miracle. No waving of a magic wand, no "Abracadabra, here's bread." Just "They need not go away. You give them something to eat." These words, not the incantation of a mere magician, these words are the words of miracle, the words of the kingdom of God.
Jesus works wonders here as he hands the task right back to the disciples. He asks them to stay, to gather up what food they have, and then he blesses it. He gives thanks, there is food, there is plenty, for all. And there is, more than enough.
There is something miraculous here, to be sure, something far more miraculous than the multiplication of loaves of bread and pieces of fish, something far more miraculous than numbers. The disciples start passing the food, as if there is enough for everyone, and somehow there is. Now, we don't know how this is so. Perhaps they all really like this idea of being together here in a quiet place and they decide to share the pocketful of olives or raisins or bread or dried fish that they each carry; perhaps everyone reaches into their pocket for their own piece of bread and adds it to the basket as it passes by.
Whatever it was, they all eat and are satisfied, full, blessed at the end of the day in the company of the one who gives them this amazing sense of plenty, this feeling of abundance in the face of loss. They don't feel hungry anymore. Imagine that. What a miracle. What a day. They had started off in a place of need, probably sad and afraid with the word about John, tired, sick, anxious, in need of healing, in need of compassion, in need of nourishment. And here they are, at day's end, full and satisfied with more than enough left over. They feel so full that they can be generous with each other. They feel large enough to give something away. What could be more miraculous?
Somehow, we don't know how. Jesus introduces this incredible, amazing, miraculous sense of plenty, abundance. Not only are their bellies full, but their hearts are too. So full that they keep telling this story again and again, to anybody who will listen. This is a story of the kingdom, just like those parables about seeds and pearls and treasure. This time, they feel the treasure in their own bodies, in their own spirits.
This is a miracle. We have no explanation. "How" is not the right question.
And, to get to the second problem with miracles, the problem about the nature of God: nobody gets let off the hook. Not the disciples, and not the crowd, all 5000 men and even those who did not come into the count, those who did not count, the women and the children. All of them are part of the collecting and passing and blessing and breaking and eating and giving. Jesus doesn't solve it with the wave of a hand. He says, in that piercing gentle way that nobody could ever forget, 'they need not go away. Let's all stay together in this.'
There is no superhero in this story. Nobody, no superman, swoops in and fixes the problem. Nobody gets to sit back and wait for some lightning bolt. Nobody gets to say: well, I've worked for my bread. God will provide for them. I'm tired, I'm hungry, let's eat; well, okay, let us pray for those less fortunate. Send the crowds away. Send the problem away. That makes sense. But nope. This does not make sense. God's new way does not make sense. It makes miracle. Listen:
"They need not go away. You give them something to eat." Miracle: a man full of the spirit of God, full of God even when he is full of grief. And this man, this amazing remarkable divine human Jesus invites the disciples to share in creating abundance. Not me, you, he says. Not my bread, yours. Not sometime or somewhere else, here, now. Stay, stay with all of them, stay with all of it, all that makes you so tired at the end of the day. You can do it. Stay with it. Collect it all up and bring it all to me. The miracle here is not a loaf of bread multiplying by dozens, not changing one loaf into ten or ten into hundreds. The miracle is not even full bellies. Miracle is allowing God's spirit to change us, to move among us and within us so that we change. It's just like bread and wine. Miracle is not that it changes into body and blood; the miracle is that it changes us. Collect it all up and bring it all to me. "They need not go away. You give them something to eat."
Imagine that. Everybody in it together, meeting the needs of all, serving the common good. That's the miracle we need.