Today we will use the familiar story of the miracle of the five loaves and two fish as a springboard into a discussion of miracles and myths.
The tale of the miracle of the five loaves and two fish is distinguished by the fact that it is the only miracle of Jesus that appears in all four Gospels, but contrary to my usual custom I will not read all four versions today--they are more than usually identical. I find the version in Mark to be the most complete:
King James Version (KJV)
31And he said unto them, Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat.
32And they departed into a desert place by ship privately.
33And the people saw them departing, and many knew him, and ran afoot thither out of all cities, and outwent them, and came together unto him.
34And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things.
35And when the day was now far spent, his disciples came unto him, and said, This is a desert place, and now the time is far passed:
36Send them away, that they may go into the country round about, and into the villages, and buy themselves bread: for they have nothing to eat.
37He answered and said unto them, Give ye them to eat. And they say unto him, Shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread, and give them to eat?
38He saith unto them, How many loaves have ye? go and see. And when they knew, they say, Five, and two fishes.
39And he commanded them to make all sit down by companies upon the green grass.
40And they sat down in ranks, by hundreds, and by fifties.
41And when he had taken the five loaves and the two fishes, he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and brake the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before them; and the two fishes divided he among them all.
42And they did all eat, and were filled.
43And they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments, and of the fishes.
44And they that did eat of the loaves were about five thousand men.
Now this miracle, sometimes referred to as The Miracle of the 5000, is closely followed in the gospels of Matthew and Mark by a nearly identical story, The Miracle of the 4000. This is Mark's version:
King James Version (KJV)
1In those days the multitude being very great, and having nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples unto him, and saith unto them,Now for today's Wikipedia commentaries:
2I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now been with me three days, and have nothing to eat:
3And if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way: for divers of them came from far.
4And his disciples answered him, From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness?
5And he asked them, How many loaves have ye? And they said, Seven.
6And he commanded the people to sit down on the ground: and he took the seven loaves, and gave thanks, and brake, and gave to his disciples to set before them; and they did set them before the people.
7And they had a few small fishes: and he blessed, and commanded to set them also before them.
8So they did eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets.
9And they that had eaten were about four thousand: and he sent them away.
Feeding the multitude
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
"These two miracles involve no healing and show the control Christians believe Jesus to have had over nature. In these two miracles Jesus multiplied food, in somewhat remote locations, while the Marriage at Cana miracle involved wine in a feast. Although these two miracles are often viewed as twin miracles, despite their similarities, each has its own distinct marks.
Jesus seems to have placed some significance on the number of baskets of leftovers from both miracles (the feeding of the 4000 and 5000): "'Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember? When I break the five loaves among five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up?' They said unto him, 'Twelve.' 'And when the seven among four thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up?' And they said, 'Seven.' 'And He said unto them, 'How is it that ye do not understand?'"(Mark 8:18-21) He never explicitly states the interpretation of the numbers, but it is clear from this passage that he attaches some importance to them."
Here I insert some comments about the difference between the miracles from Overview of Bible Study:
"Two nearly identical miracles performed under similar circumstances, probably only a few days apart, yet the disciples remained doubtful, and were surprised to find that the Lord could pull it off.
In both instances, Jesus drew crowds, who remained with him during long periods of teaching and preaching the gospel of the kingdom. They were in a distant place and evening was approaching.
In the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples, out of concern for the people, urged Christ to dismiss them, so that they might return to their homes, or to neighboring villages, and get something to eat.
In the feeding of the four thousand, Christ was the one who initiated the concern, and supplied the remedy.
It is interesting to note that, although Christ had fed five thousand with five loaves and two fishes only a few days before, his disciples were doubtful as to how he would feed four thousand with seven loaves and a few fish."
Now back to Wikipedia:
"The Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha is the site where some Christians believe the miracle to have taken place.
In Mark chapter 8, in the passage that describes Jesus warning his disciples to "beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod" (v.15), it is significant that in the course of the ensuing conversation, Jesus refers retrospectively to both the feeding of the 5000 (v.19) and the feeding of the 4000 (v.20). This creates a difficulty for those who interpret the two passages as if they described the same event twice.
The account of the miracle in John 6 is followed later in the same chapter by the conversation Jesus has with the crowds who had followed him to Capernaum. The main motif in the passage (v.26-59) centres on Jesus saying, "I am that bread of life" (v.48). Though there is no previous food miracle in John other than Jesus turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana, this section of Jesus' teaching might allude to a much earlier food miracle, that of the manna that was provided as food to the children of Israel in the wilderness at the time of Moses. More strikingly this miracle echoes that of Elisha who fed 100 men with 20 loaves of bread in 2 Kings 4:42-44 saying "For this is what the LORD says: 'They will eat and have some left over." The feeding of the multitude therefore may be seen as a demonstrative prelude to Jesus words, "I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger: and he that believeth on me shall never thirst." (v.35)."
Now let's talk about parables for a moment. Remember that we have discussed the idea that parables provide a mere veneer of truth on first hearing, and may only reveal their deeper meanings over time, after the significance, or resonance, of the story's symbols have had a chance to "sink in." Let's just pretend for a moment that the miracle of the fishes was not an historical event, but a parable, or, better yet, that it was an historical event with a metaphorical meaning just like a parable has. What is the metaphorical meaning?
Well, Jesus Himself provides us with one answer in John 6:35:
"I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger: and he that believeth on me shall never thirst."
"See? You followed me and I fed you! I fed your physical bodies with physical food. How much more, then, must your souls benefit from the spiritual food I have to offer?" What better way to impress a crowd with a spiritual truth than by sending it to straight to their stomachs? Do think they "digested this truth?"
I collected a few other slants on this idea:
From Shanda Renee's blog, A Journey for Christ, we read:
"Although the Miracle in the fishes and loaves was in feeding 5 thousand, I believe the story can be applied to our lives in so many ways. Believing that what ever little we have, is more than enough to do what ever it is God wants to be done."
from Overview of Bible Study:
"In the multitudes of hungry people, we have a representation of the spiritually famished state of mankind
In the compassion of Christ, we see hope for the perishing sinner
In the disciples bearing the food to the people, we see the design of Christian ministry
In the abundance, we see the fullness of the gospel
In the satisfaction of the multitude, we learn that personal partaking of Christ is essential to our happiness"
Hence, even in humanitarian acts of kindness on the mundane level, Jesus may be seen as a teacher--teaching, through example, that even our most ordinary everyday occupations resonate in eternity. To me, the magnificence of this miracle is not in the magic show, but in the lesson it teaches and the direction in which it points our attention--but we'll get back to that.
Now let's talk about miracles.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
"A miracle is an event attributed to divine intervention. Sometimes an event is also attributed (in part) to a miracle worker, saint, or religious leader. A miracle is sometimes thought of as a perceptible interruption of the laws of nature. Others suggest that God may work with the laws of nature to perform what people perceive as miracles. Theologians say that, with divine providence, God regularly works through created nature yet is free to work without, above, or against it as well."
It may surprise you (or not) to hear that there is some disagreement about the character of this miracle.
The following is from
Bread from Heaven: Loaves and Fishes: Natural Sharing or Supernatural Miracle?
"Today, I heard a homily that claimed what really happened about the five loaves and two fish, is that bystanders took out food they were hiding under their cloaks and shared it."
I myself thought of this interpretation years ago, and actually wrote a musical composition about it. The piece is a "klangfarbenmelodie" (German for sound-color-melody). Klangfarbenmelodie is a musical technique that involves distributing a musical line or melody to several instruments, rather than assigning it to just one instrument. In the case of my piece, it was a single chord that evolved and grew through the manipulation of instrumental forces. I was trying to capture the idea of a single loaf of bread multiplying itself, kind of like the cells of an embryonic virgin birth.]
"Jesus’ preaching inspired the melting of selfishness, and this was the true miracle according to this preacher. He went on to justify his reading that this was a miracle of sharing rather than a miracle of multiplication, because:
How many of us would go on a trip away from home for a couple of days without our credit card to provide food and lodging? If we wouldn’t leave home without making plans for food and lodging then what makes us think these people, in the crowd with Jesus, made no provisions? Were they any different that us? Therefore, Jesus changed their hearts and they shared all they had with each other. This is the true miracle.
This is appealing to people these days because we lack FAITH. We lack the Faith to believe that Jesus/God can do ANYTHING. So, those who subscribe to this interpretation hope to make the Gospel more palatable to modern men. But the above appeal to reason does not ring true for the following reasons:1) This passage does not say anywhere that the people had been away from home for more than a day. So the above pastor built his rationale on a false premise. Of course, people then, just like us, make plans to provide for themselves on journeys. But there is nothing in the passage that indicates this was anything other than a day trip. And the parallel passages in Matthew, Mark and Luke indicate that the people could have gone into nearby villages for food and lodging.
Luke 9:12 “and the twelve came and said to Him, “Send the crowd away, that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside and find lodging and get something to eat; for here we are in a desolate place.”
But Jesus had other plans.
2) There is NO mention that Jesus performed a miracle of convincing people to share. And we would have to believe that the disciples were so stupid and out of touch with their culture that they had no clue the crowd were all hiding food under their cloaks.
There is not the whiff of a hint that this is not a supernatural miracle of multiplication of the loaves. The Gospels say Jesus gave the food to the disciples who gave it and kept giving it to the people. Not a single word about the people giving food to each other.
Only one miracle of Jesus is recorded in all four gospels–the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Even the miracles of raising the dead are not recorded in every Gospel. While sharing is a wonderful virtue, it just is not a supernatural miracle. Why was this miracle so important that every Gospel writer included it?
Because this was a prefiguring, on a small scale, of the Eucharistic sacrifice. This is the supernatural miracle of the multiplication of the body and blood of Christ for the faithful at every mass, every day of the year, around the whole wide world; the Mass, the source and summit of our Faith. John, purposely locates this story right before Jesus’ discourse on the necessity of eating His Flesh and drinking His blood in order to have Eternal life."
As you can see, this author is mainly concerned with this miracle as an historical fact whose significance is that IT HAPPENED just like it is described in the text, as if the supernatural powers of Jesus were their own justification. Is this really the true significance? Is Jesus the legitimate SON OF GOD, the Messiah, anointed of the Father, merely because he can mass produce anchovy pizza?
The following is from a sermon by Unitarian minister Davidson Loehr, 15 September 2002, First UU Church of Austin; it takes an even more frankly materialistic perspective than the preceding referenced homily:
"This story about the loaves and fishes wasn’t an eyewitness account. It was written many decades after Jesus died. He was hardly known at all during his life, and never gathered large crowds, certainly nothing like hundreds or thousands of people.
If you take courses in the Bible, you’ll most likely learn that the story is understood as a story not about Jesus but about the church. It’s found in the gospel of Matthew, the “church gospel.” It’s a story saying the way a few words of wisdom, a few bits of spiritual nourishment, can feed thousands is because the church multiplies the loaves and fishes through the participation of its members.
Both with real food and with spiritual food, a church is a gathering of people who spread the nourishment to others. Over three hundred of you experienced some of this here last night, at that lovely church party where we fed hundreds of people. The same happens with spiritual food. Here’s a church with one minister and one ministerial intern, yet there are more than a half dozen adult classes, covenant groups, Tai Chi classes, men’s breakfasts, a whole host of offerings, plus e-mail chats and all sorts of discussions here and with your family and friends during the week.
Now just describing it that way, it doesn’t feel very miraculous; it just feels like potlucks and various kinds of classes. But there is something else going on . . .
Jesus died around the year 30. The gospel of Matthew, where these stories are found, was written more than fifty years later. What had happened during that half-century was that as the church began to grow, people came to hear its messages and they felt fed. They felt a kind of hole inside of them being filled, and it was a feeling they’d never had before. They found a community of people who were also asking questions about who they were, who they were meant to be, and how they were supposed to live. They felt their lives were being taken more seriously, and at a more significant and personal level, than ever before. And as they got fed and filled up, they wanted to feed others with the overflow.
And so they did. History says the early church had common meals like we had last night, that they fed the hungry and cared for the poor, both the economically poor and the poor of spirit, just as we try to do. In the version of Christianity that “won,” Paul’s sect, communion is a magical act involving eating the body and blood of a savior. But in most of the Christian communities even by the end of the first century, it wasn’t about that at all. The Christian communion was simply a common meal, much like what today we call a potluck. Early Christian documents (The Didache) never mention any association with the body or blood of a savior.
The miracle of the loaves and fishes was that the people who had been fed brought their own loaves and fishes to feed others, until the food that had first fed a few people began to feed a few thousand people. What does this mean in simple, down-to-earth ways?
I’ve heard some of our people here in their 20′s and 30′s talk about the small groups, or covenant groups, they have joined here. Some have said that after a month or two in such a small group they find that they’ve learned how to know and feel close to a half-dozen other people on a personal level, and they’ve never once talked about how much money they made or what they did for a living. They find their lives being measured by a new currency, a kind of personal or spiritual currency, and it feeds them.
If it ends there, they’ve just been fed. But when they start a new covenant group, or invite friends to come join them so that others are being fed, something miraculous is happening."
As you may remember from a letter of mine written to Anchorage Christian School, the question of miracles is of little concern to me. I'll remind you of that earlier comment:
"I have be honest--I don't really CARE about the whole evolution controversy: my whole life is a stream of little miracles, one after the other, such that it is no problem for me to accept the possibility of creation in a moment of time. In a supernatural world, created by a supernatural God, what DIFFERENCE does it make whether six days is an allegorical expression or a literal expression? The miracle is there regardless of how you think about it, and it defies us to achieve any rational apprehension of it. Faith is the evidence of things not seen, and yet it takes no faith to see the world right there in front of us--right now. Thank you God!"
So you see, once again, the miracle is not what happened but what it means as an expression of the personality and benevolence of Jesus as a teacher and an example. Sorry, I still DON'T CARE, if the miracle was in the supernatural multiplication of fish, or in the sharing of strangers united in a common good. Either or both is equally miraculous in terms of the level of perceptible divine intervention. The point here is that we can participate in miracles every day, if we give God the credit and the glory for every single article and aspect of our paltry existences.
Furthermore, the miraculous quality of this story leads us into myth:
The following is taken from a C.S. Lewis-Review of Lord of the Rings:
"The value of myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity’… If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. By dipping our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys in myth we see them more clearly."
So you see, to C.S. Lewis, making a miracle into an historical event does not enrich it with materialistic legitimacy, it "veils it in familiarity", as though the fact that something materially HAPPENED is the only way to make it true.
From C.S. Lewis' autobiography, Surprised by Joy (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 1955), 236, we read the following:
"I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion — those narrow, unattractive jews, too blind to the mystical wealth of the Pagan world around them — was precisely the matter of great myths. If ever a myth had become a fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this. Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another, but nothing was simply alike. And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time... yet also so luminous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god. But if a god — we are no longer polytheists — then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not "a religion," nor "a philosophy." It is the summing up and actuality of them all."
The way I see it, the problem with miracles is not that they occur, but that modern scientific man (I mean man from about 1600) finds it difficult for them (the miracles) to co-exist side by side with the materialistic truths we have come to know as "science". Thousands upon thousands of hours of thought and reams of paper have been devoted to the thankless job of reconciling the two, science and spirituality, once again, as if reconciling the two could somehow make either of them more real.
On this subject, Louis A. Markus makes these remarks in his article,
Why C.S. Lewis's books remain models for Christian apologists in the 21st century:
"The scientific community joins forces with the academy and the media to ridicule us for our belief in God's creation of the world, and perhaps to sigh together in disbelief that modern, educated men and women could accept as literal events the miracles recorded in the Bible. Certainly we've gotten better at answering such critiques; we tend to be less insular than we were in the past, and we sometimes manage to move from defensiveness to shaping the debate. But we're still fighting our battles on "their" turf, on a scientific and philosophical groundwork that was defined during the Enlightenment and all but completed by the end of the Victorian Age. Scientists such as Michael Behe have done a remarkable job at countering modernists' data, and law professor Philip Johnson has exposed the flaws in their logic, but we've yet to shift the playing field from the theories to the competing assumptions that underlie those theories. We've yet to educate ourselves, much less the culture, that many of the "givens" we take for granted (most notably, that the foundation of all true knowledge is material, empirical, and quantifiable) are as recent as they are unproven."
In conclusion, I have one more quote, this time from Myth Matters:
Thoughts on myth, spirit, and our times an interview with Joseph Campbell, by Tom Collins:
"[Myth] puts you in touch with a plane of reference that goes past your mind and into your very being, into your very gut. The ultimate mystery of being and nonbeing transcends all categories of knowledge and thought. Yet that which transcends all talk is the very essence of your own being, so you're resting on it and you know it. The function of mythological symbols is to give you a sense of "Aha! Yes. I know what it is, it's myself." This is what it's all about, and then you feel a kind of centering, centering, centering all the time. And whatever you do can be discussed in relationship to this ground of truth. Though to talk about it as truth is a little bit deceptive because when we think of truth we think of something that can be conceptualized. It goes past that. . . .
Because the imagery that has to be used in order to tell what can't be told, symbolic imagery, is then understood or interpreted not symbolically but factually, empirically. It's a natural thing, but that's the whole problem with Western religion. All of the symbols are interpreted as if they were historical references. They're not. And if they are, then so what?"
Yeah, so what? The Miracle of the Five Loaves and Two Fish, is a story of Jesus, vibrant with life and significance even after two thousand years. It inspires us to have faith in the benevolent generosity of God who continually supplies our needs to overflowing if we only look and see what we have been given.
Let us pray: Jesus, we stand before you once again in grateful obeisance and marvel at the rich gifts you shower on us out of your boundless bounty. Remind us always to be grateful for these gifts and mindful of their source. Amen.