PENTECOST 8, July 30, 2006
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick. Then Jesus went up on the hillside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Feast was near. When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Eight month’s wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up. “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them. Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.“ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew into the hills by himself.
PLENTY OF GRASS
This is one of those stories that makes you wonder. The author loves to give details. Barley loaves. 5000. Eight month’s wages. Pickled fish. Plenty of grass! There are many surprising stories in the New Testament that seem to make good sense in their contexts, especially those in which a person with strong faith experiences a healing. This one, however, seems to have no real point, just a gracious wonder-worker caring for ill-prepared pilgrims. The reader may wonder whether John himself had had plenty of grass!!
The story reminds me of a surprising modern story with appropriate parallels. A young man whom I had hired to work as a network supervisor returned to his native Tanzania to be married. The event was expected to be grand because his father was the bishop of the Lutheran Diocese on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I was startled, however, to hear, in his retelling of the event after he had returned, that 5000 people were invited to the wedding! They didn’t serve barley loaves and fishes, but rather goat and rice. Now, my wife, who is prone to detail (perhaps, like John) was less interested in what the celebration was like than she was interested in knowing how many goats were needed for 5000 people. At first, she too thought that the groom, in telling such a story, might have been on plenty of grass, but then she began to calculate very carefully. Assuming, using American standards, that one might serve 100 people with a goat, she reckoned that 50 goats were slaughtered. When she learned that only 17 were used, she was awed at what tiny bites, by Tanzanian standards, the celebrants must have enjoyed!
Missing the spiritual
It’s possible to get lost in the details, but I think that this story has a broader context and meaning, both for John and for us. This is not the first story in which Jesus’ followers fail to grasp what he is all about. All too often, there are thoughts about taking power with the sword, or sharing authority when Jesus takes control, or having a leader who can provide for all one’s physical needs, perhaps as Moses once did with Manna in the wilderness. If Jesus could be a kind of bread king who would assure that no one would ever hunger and thirst again, this would be the one on whom to stake your hopes. The closing line of the story is a great one. Jesus sensed they were about to “force” him to be their king! In world history, there are many such examples, when people made someone their ruler (Joan of Arc, for example), and they accepted gladly.
Jesus, however, understood all too well that if he let people claim him as their physical provider, they would miss the reason for his coming. His intent was to point them beyond their physical needs to their spiritual ones. He wanted them to look not merely to bread, even barley bread, the most meager sustenance of the poor. In the Temptation story, you will remember that Jesus himself sets the stage by challenging, “man does not live by bread alone.” Rather, he says, we live by God’s word for our lives, his message of love and forgiveness which changes us from mere animals to those who care for their fellow human beings. The bread you will eat, John tells us Jesus said, is my flesh. In a profound spiritual sense, Jesus wants his followers to understand that their communion with him, their participation in his very life, will lead to new levels of maturity and understanding.
This is true in our lives as well. I remember a funny story about a class that I taught at the Lutheran Seminary in Novosibirsk, Siberia. There were 20 students in this class, from many different Russian republics. Most of them were relatively poor, and had only the basics in terms of food and clothing. One of the students was from the Island of Sekelin, once a part of Japan, but now owned by Russia. His parents regularly sent him a small wooden crate of dried fish. In one of the truly odd experiences of my teaching career, while I was lecturing, he would throw a dried fish across the room to a student who gave him the high sign. I permitted this because it seemed to be part of a cultural norm which was foreign to me, and with which I perhaps should not get involved. Occasionally, I was even thrown a fish, although I was not fond of them. This particular student was very well liked, and perhaps you can understand why. He was a kind of fish-king to his classmates, and they depended on what he provided for them.
In less peculiar ways, we also expect things from friends, associates, colleagues, parents, and children. Not only do we hope for favors, but also sometimes we feel we are owed things. We think that perhaps our needs can be met by what others give us; that in some ways, we can be fulfilled by things we long for. However, we all too often miss the mark of our high calling by settling for things instead of longing for changes in our lives, qualities and spiritual gifts which can provide dimensions we deserve to embrace.
There’s another broader dimension in this story that takes us beyond the details to appreciate what was happening in that and in many other settings. Many of those who followed Jesus were like vagabonds, carrying their belongings in small baskets. They followed itinerant preachers like Jesus because they didn’t have a lot going for them. They were free to hike nine miles in Upper Galilee to see what Jesus was doing, to follow the crowd, to sit in the grass. They were loners who lacked community; more significantly, they were isolated individuals who needed to belong to someone.
In this sacrament of sharing, more is taking place than the distribution of five barley loaves and two fish. Here in Austin, this September, we’re preparing for 50,000 people to sit on the grass, and maybe smoke some grass, while they listen to the Rolling Stones. In the process of hearing the music, experiencing the ambience and camaraderie, individuals will become part of a community. In Jesus’ setting that day at Bethsaida Julius, 5000 people, and perhaps many more, when women and children are included, sat down to begin to share. Perhaps they had picnic baskets with them, with chicken “sendviches” and pickled fish, but it also may make some sense to see Jesus’ sharing being matched by the sharing of others. It was a communal happening which I think Jesus was rather good at, bringing people from their lonely lives to discover the joy and fulfillment which come from knowing that you belong to someone and to each other.
At the heart of it, this to me is the power of the Christian experience, to know that alone as we sometimes find ourselves, even in the midst of extended families and communities, we do belong to each other. We celebrate this belonging in the Eucharist when we eat and drink together and know that not only is Jesus present with us as we do so, but we are present with and for one another. Through his body we become one body, forgiven and forgiving, the broken made whole.
It is sad how cruel we sometimes are to one another, even though we claim to be united with Christ. We condescend to disenfranchised minorities who want nothing more than to belong. We ignore victims of atrocities in Lebanon or Iraq, innocent bystanders whose lives are destroyed by our bombs or the bombs of those we support, simply because we are too busy to be concerned with all the trouble created in our world. Yet we are one with these people, part of their human family, and, in many cases, fellow members with them of the body of Christ.
Beyond the details in this story like “plenty of grass,” there are broader issues all too often neglected by us, issues like plenty of spiritual depth and plenty of community. It is clear that you and I easily succumb to the lure of affluence, the false promise of things, just as it is also certain that such dead ends prevent us from experiencing the kind of relationships and community which give life that lasts. In today’s story, Jesus is throwing you a fish, but he doesn’t want to be your material provider. He wants you to see beyond the details…to claim his loving lifestyle as your own… to embrace his promise for a life that lasts. There’s plenty of grass here. Sit down. Jesus is talking to you.
Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus