The story of the feeding of the 5000 is a unique miracle story. It's unique, because it's the only miracle Jesus performs that gets recorded in all 4 of our Gospels. No other miracle ends up being remembered and recorded by all 4 evangelists, not even miracles in which Jesus raises somebody from the dead.
And yet, as I was thinking about this story again this week, it occurred to me that the feeding of the 5000 is unique for another reason - it doesn't seem like it's a necessary miracle.
That is, in virtually every other miracle story, a person is having a crisis. Maybe they're sick. Maybe they're possessed by demons. Maybe they can't see or walk. In any event, it's obvious that the person needs help, and often, they themselves ask Jesus for help.
But we're not even sure these 5000 people are hungry! This is a crowd of people who apparently "kept following Jesus" around the Sea of Galilee "because they saw the signs that Jesus was doing for the sick." And if that's the case, then those folks:
- aren't out in the wilderness, where it would be hard to find food; there were villages all along the shore that easily had places they could find food (and indeed, in other versions of this story, the disciples suggest that Jesus send them into the towns to do just that...)
- probably have brought some of their sick friends and family with them, hoping that Jesus would heal them, just as he had healed others ...
- may simply have expected Jesus to teach them and give them some spiritual insights (after all, Jesus sat down, which is the traditional sign that he's about to teach...)
But then, Jesus brings up the subject of feeding all these people. And then, Jesus takes the 5 barely loaves and 2 fish provided by an unnamed boy, and proceeds to feed the whole crowd. And afterwards, he has the disciples gather up all the fragments of the bread and fish, and they fill 12 baskets.
But as far as we know, Jesus didn't teach the crowds anything that day. He didn't heal anyone. He just fed them, and then had to retreat up the mountain because they wanted to come and force him to be king.
It just seems like this miracle was unnecessary. After all, it was unexpected, in that nobody had asked Jesus for food in the first place. It was certainly surprising, in that Jesus fed so many people with so little food. And it may even have been distracting and confusing, in that Jesus was addressing a problem different from the ones that people in the crowd had probably been expecting Jesus to address.
And yet, this unexpected, surprising and distracting experience was a key turning point in Jesus' ministry. It was through this event that Jesus was able to:
- get people's attention in ways that perhaps he couldn't have if he had done the expected thing ... (after all, if Jesus has just healed and taught people that day, folks would have gone away figuring that Jesus would continue to behave in predictable, albeit miraculous ways...)
- start a conversation about what "bread" really is ... (which will go on for the next several weeks!; and that conversation is really about asking people to consider what's actually life giving in their lives; and that means thinking about their relationship WITH God, not simply what they can get from God ...)
- re-focus people away from the problem of the moment into a new way of living ... those folks in the crowd were probably rightly concerned about their sick friends; or needing to hear some words of hope; or maybe even being a little hungry! But sometimes, it's easy to focus on the crisis du jour, and lose sight of something bigger God has in store for your life. And maybe it took something unexpected, surprising and even distracting for Jesus to be able to do that ...
So I wonder if one of the most important take-aways from this story is bigger than miracles, or bread and fish, or even how God can do great things with very little. Maybe one of the most important take-aways from this story is the reminder that we, too, should be alert to the unexpected, surprising and even distracting things that God is sometimes doing in our lives.
At least for me, I know that I'm REALLY good at telling God what the problem is in my life and in the life of the world. I know what's wrong, and I have a pretty good idea of what I want God to do to make it better. And I tell myself that if God will help me solve this problem, things will be pretty much OK in my life.
But am I open to Jesus addressing a problem I didn't ask him to address? Or wasn't even fully aware that I had? Or that I'd just as soon Jesus NOT ask me to address? Are you?
Are we open to Jesus working in our lives in ways that we don't expect; that completely surprise us; and that distract us from the issues that we've wrapped ourselves up in?
Maybe for us, too, the story of the feeding of the 5000 is a reminder that sometimes Jesus' most important and impressive work in our lives happens when God:
- does something absolutely unexpected (and pulls us out of our ho-hum, yeah, this is what I expect God to do or not do in my life ...)
- surprises us with an abundance of something that doesn't seem necessary at the moment ... (sometimes, that's the only way to get away from a sense of "relative depravity" where I constantly focus on what I want or don't have...)
- distracts me from the problems that I keep harping about, so that I can see a bigger picture for my life, and the life of the world around me ...
It's also important to remember that John's Gospel always calls Jesus' miracles "signs". He never calls them "miracles." And that's perhaps because sometimes people respond to "miracles" by saying, "this is great. My problem is solved! Now I can get back to life as usual."
But when Jesus does a "sign" like this, it isn't to simply solve a momentary problem. And people are NOT supposed to get back to business as usual afterwards.
Instead, when Jesus performs a sign - in the Gospels or in our lives - the "sign" is intended to lead us into a new reality by confronting us with the unexpected. It's intended to surprise us, by opening us up to the abundance of God in our lives in spite of our needs. And it's intended to distract us from the problems of our daily lives, so that we can keep all those problems and needs in perspective, and see the bigger picture God has in mind for us and for the life of the world.