Feeding of the Five Thousand

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B
Proper 12/ Ordinary time 17, Year B


As some of you know, I’m putting together a book of sermon notes on passages in the Bible, and I just finished this draft of the chapter about the feeding story in John. I’d be interested in your comments.
Blessings, 
Stan

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John 6:1-21
It’s often overlooked that the three most important interests in Jesus’ ministry were education, health care and food security.[1] The last of these three is never seen more clearly than in the feeding stories of the Gospels.

The first thing that is important to know about the feeding stories is that they are among the most significant in the gospels. Feeding is the only miracle that is shared in all four gospels, and two of them may have told it twice. Both John and Mark have two feeding stories each. So, either (a) both of them thought the story was so important that they wanted to share it twice (which would attest to its significance to the early church) or (b) Jesus did more feeding than most of us had assumed (which would attest to its significance in the ministry of Jesus).

The story is laden with symbolism, some of which is apparent to “normal” readers (whatever that means), and some are not. I’ll point out a few of the most important, but John starts right at the very beginning adding little interesting messages.

Notice, for example, that it begins with Jesus getting off of a boat at the Sea of Galilee. All of the four gospels agree on this. But John adds that it was also known as the Sea of Tiberias. Why did he do that? Probably because Tiberias was one of the most hated and politically volatile cities in Palestine, and he wants the reader to take note of that. It had been in existence for only a few short years, built by Herod Antipas in 20 c.e. at the edge of the Sea of Galilee (and Jesus’ ministry was probably somewhere around 30 c.e.). What made it a hated name, and avoided by many locals was that it was built upon a local Jewish graveyard and was therefore considered unclean to observant Jews. Only people from outside of Israel (and sellouts within Israel) would ever dare to live there.

Additionally, between the time of its founding and the time of Jesus, it grew rapidly to become the largest city in Israel, surpassing even Sephorrus, which had itself only been built a few decades earlier. This meant that in less than a hundred years Israel had three major cities, all demanding resources from the surrounding farms and villages. Among other things, this put increasing demands on the food supply of the region and contributed to an upswing in hunger throughout Israel. It was in turn exacerbated by the pro-city economic policies of Antipas, which forced rural farmers to either give up some of their produce to feed the cities or pay a tribute on what they did not give. So, the more they grew the more they had to pay in tribute to the powerful urban centers. Farmers could lower the amount of tax they paid by not growing as many crops, but that would also lower the amount of food they had for their own personal consumption. They lost either way. Bible scholar Obery Hendricks, describes the economic life of first century farmer this way:

Most peasant farmers had land holdings of less than six acres, of which on average only 1.5 acres were available for cultivation, hardly enough to support a family. That is, if they were fortunate enough to have saved their farms from outright seizure by the Romans, or from dispossession for tax default, or from the machinations of the Herodians and their cronies who, it is estimated, owned one-half to two-thirds of the land in Galilee. To make ends meet, most farmers either had to hire themselves out for wages to supplement their meager crops, or go into debt, which was usually a worse alternative. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers often fared even worse, ending up in prison or enslaved by their creditors. [2]

When food production went down, it did two things. First, it simply lowered the amount of fruits, vegetables, and grains that could be consumed and made the region grow incrementally more hungry. Second, and more interestingly, when huge percentages of the grains were taken out of system, it made the prices of the remaining grains go up. It’s simple Econ 101: when there is more of something the price goes down and when there is less of something it goes up. So, there was less food to go around and the food that was grown cost more to purchase for the families who didn’t have direct access to it themselves.

In many ways this is a story that could be told of many in the world today. Following the global economic “reforms” of the 1970s and ‘80s, much of the farming in poor and developing countries of the global south was reoriented from production for local consumption to production for exports. In some instances they were pushed to sell larger and larger portions of their wheat or other grains to the government or middle people, which would then export it to the wealthy, usually northern, countries. In some instances they would cease food production altogether and grow instead something like hemp or coffee. In this activity, a great many people made--and still do make--a lot of money, but it should be noted that the same two principles that exacerbated hunger in ancient Israel still held: taking food off of the market meant that there was less of it, and what remained went up in price. So, overall, while many people benefitted from globalization and the rise of the global “free” market, by and large the poor farmers of the world became more poor.

When the ancient farmers of Israel were unable to pay the tax, they did have access to a convenient loan program for the large, wealthy land owners to the small, poor ones, to tide them over—but it was often as high as fifty to sixty percent interest! With this vicious combination of taxes and loans, whenever there was a bad harvest either from drought or unseasonable rains, many farmers would simply lose everything and have to sell themselves as slaves to their creditors. High rates of interest were one of the key tools used for creating poverty and debt slavery in the ancient world. This too has a contemporary parallel. Leaders of third world countries in the global south took out huge loans in the 1970s, under the belief that they could export enough to the north to pay them back. In the eighties, two things happened at once to destroy that dream. First, the wealthy countries of the global north went into a recession and cut back on purchases of the products that the poor countries were trying to sell, driving prices downward. Second, partly because of the recession and partly because of the US Federal Reserve tightening credit, the interest on the loans went up. So, the costs for their loans went up and their income to pay on them went down. Poor countries fell into an economic black hole from which they have still not quite recovered. To keep them paying on their loans, the wealthy and powerful countries, and the multi-lateral banks that they control (like the World Bank and the IMF), made stringent, draconian demands on the poor countries that many people of faith and conscience today believe to be a modern version of slavery. Different, but in many ways similar to the demands imposed on small farmers in ancient Israel by Antipas and large land owners.

All of this background is tied closely to the feeding story and is related to why John wanted you to know that this took place close to the hated city of Tiberias. Have you ever wondered why it was that everywhere that Jesus went he was swarmed by great crowds of people? Where did they come from? When he is in the towns, you may not see the thousands, but there are still hoards of people flocking after him. Even allowing for some exaggeration from the Gospel writers, it still is an interesting phenomenon. Where did they come from? These stories were for the most part in the middle of the day. Don’t they have jobs?

The answer is “no.” These were people who were driven off of their land by poverty and hunger and oppression by their rulers. They often were not able to pay the demanded tribute and feed themselves at the same time and got desperately in debt and finally lost their farms. [3] Some, in fact moved back onto their own farms as indebted workers, but many just became homeless, beggars, prostitutes, thieves, and day laborers. When they heard of Jesus, teaching, healing and feeding in the region or neighborhood they flocked to see him. So, when he got out of the boat at the beginning of our story, and the crowds saw him, they clamored for him, wanting to see or experience some of the healing signs that they had heard had taken place through him.

Notice that out of the blue, John mentions in passing that this took place near the Passover. Why did he think that was important to mention here? Of course, part of it was probably because he wants the reader to think of Jesus as the new Moses, who also delivered bread (manna) from a mountain (Exod. 16:4, cf. John 6:31-33). But it is also likely that once again John wants us to feel the politically charged atmosphere surrounding this event. In a fairly consistent way, whenever John makes note of an event being close to a Jewish festival, he has Jesus present some kind of controversial teaching that subverts and undermines a traditional teaching that is held by the religious authorities, and the result is often a confrontation with those authorities (cf. 1:13ff; 7:2ff; 10:22ff; 12:1ff)”[4] While in this instance the religious authorities do not show up until after the feeding story, the provocative, confrontational nature of the feeding is nonetheless clear here as well.

Here is where the story gets very interesting (I bet you thought it was interesting already). When the crowd comes up the hill toward Jesus and his disciples, he leans over to Philip and asks, “Where can we go to buy enough bread to feed these people?” He already knew the answer to that question when he asked it, but he did it anyway to see what Philip would say. And Philip comes up with the straightforward economic reality: No place. Nowhere. It’s impossible. He says that to feed these people would take six months of wages, and nobody--certainly not the rag tag crowd that followed Jesus--had that kind of money. Even if Judas had not been skimming donations from the till, they still couldn’t do it. Six months wages (or eight or ten, depending on the various translations) are guesses. In the Greek it says two hundred denarii. A Denarias was about one day’s wage for a common laborer, so Philip is saying it would take two hundred days worth of work to feed these people. That’s a pretty precise statement. Why not be more general as numbers often are in the Bible? Philip’s precision is interesting. I think that in addition to just simply saying that this is a chunk of change, it is likely that Philip is also making an exasperated statement about the outrageousness of the escalating prices in his day. He’s making a statement about the impossibility of buying food to live on in an age of stagnating wages and inflationary prices. And if so, he is certainly correct.

As an aside, I also find it interesting that Jesus asked the “where” question, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” But Philip answers a different question, “How much will it cost to buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus question assumes that they will buy bread and can buy bread. Philip’s answer makes it clear that he doesn’t think they can buy that much bread, no matter where the bakery is.

Before Jesus could say anything, Andrew, Peter’s brother says—also sounding exasperated and futile—”Well, we have a boy here who has some fish and bread.” It’s not altogether clear in English, but his choice of words indicates that he also thinks this is a lost cause. The words “boy” and “fish” are diminutive, that is, a “small boy” and a “small amount of fish.” Also, the use of the term “barley” loaves has a negative connotation because only the very poor and the very desperate would lower themselves to eating this tasteless bread. Translated into more clear English, he’s saying “We’ve got bubkes here, zilch. Our resources are tiny. The market’s gone to Hades and just to illustrate that for you, look at what we got: a little kid with a couple of fish and some really smelly barley, which taste awful and I’m not going there.”

Then Jesus does an odd thing. But before we get to it, let me say what Jesus did not do. He did not offer communion. That is, when he took the loaves, broke them, gave thanks, and gave them…, he was not imitating some form of pre-communion, even though the Gospel writers, writing many years later, certainly had it in mind, and even though approximately 487 gazillion preachers have said he did. Whatever else he was thinking of up there on the mountain, it is all but one hundred percent certain that Jesus did not have the Celebration of Holy Eucharist on his mind while he was breaking bread and handing it out. If he did, what would be the point? The crowd that gathered there that day would have no idea what he was talking about. Almost every Bible scholar on the planet (with the possible exception of my cat, but that may just be her) believes that the Gospel writers retrofitted that theology back into the actions of Jesus because that was what they were thinking of, not Jesus.

Now what was Jesus thinking of? If the accounts can be accepted, he was looking out onto a sea of faces, all poor and almost all hungry. They represented the wide swath of the bottom of Israelite society of the day. They were probably far more than 5,000 people, because in those days they only counted men, not women and not children. So a good guess would be at least ten thousand, perhaps as many as twenty. Again, if the crowd estimates can be accepted, by any accounting that would be an incredible amount of people.

Look again at the four acts described before the actual feeding itself: he “took,” “gave thanks,”[5] “broke,” and “gave.” While these probably are not images that prophesy upcoming Holy Communion, they probably are images that hearken back to traditional Hebrew gestures of a gracious host welcoming guests to his banquet table (except that Jesus’ guest list was a bit larger than most).

Think about the first two words, “took” and “blessed.” These are welcoming acts, and in a typical first century Jewish family, these are the acts of hosting. The last two, “broke” and “gave” are acts of serving and they are acts done by a slave (or worse, a wife). Notice that before Jesus either welcomes or serves, he has everyone in the crowd “recline” (anepeson [anapípto]), which is the posture one takes in a banquet, not an ordinary meal. To recline means that the host has to lean down to serve you. It is also the posture that Jesus takes later in the last supper, when he also serves. In doing this, Jesus in a subtle, almost radical way, has symbolically taken on the role of both master and slave, husband and wife, and welcomes everyone to the table.[6] When he does that, the participants almost certainly realized that something very special was about to happen.

So far, he is doing two things. First, he is embodying the majestic vision of the “Messianic banquet” of the Hebrew prophets, who were in turn envisioning the Jubilee, when all of God’s creation that has been broken and disfigured by human corruption and greed, will be returned back to the order of harmony and justice that God had originally intended. In the days of God’s final dispensation, a celebration of justice and equality will break out all over the land, and it will be symbolized by the one thing that most common people lack: food. There will be a great and glorious banquet on the mountain tops, which will be attended by all who can walk or crawl (and some who can do neither).

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
   a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
       of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
                                                                            — Isaiah 25:6

Most significant for a Christian interpretation of this act is that throughout his ministry, Jesus many times—here included—became the vision of the banquet. He acted it out in his behaviors with others and embodied its salvific meaning. He had, in fact, a reputation as a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Mt 11:19). It was considered a criticism by his enemies, but a beacon of what God intended for the earth to his supporters. He “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1–2) and in so doing he becomes God’s magisterial welcome mat to sinners (which we should remember, included people who were sick, contagious, old, non-Jews, immigrants, criminals, and women) to enter in and become a part of the true end for humanity, the “kingdom” of God. The Last Supper, instead of pointing backward to this feeding story, was actually pointing forward to the coming eschatological banquet when he says, “I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18; cf. Luke 22:28–30).

Second, Jesus is also not just symbolically being the new realm of God embodied on earth, he is modeling a way to create it. “The Kingdom of God is within you,” he once told them, and here is what it looks like. Notice how he does that. He holds up the little boy and distributes his paltry offering in front of everyone, and suddenly there is an abundance of food. There are a number of scholars today who believe that what happened in the various feeding stories was much less magical than they sound in the preaching of most sermons, but far more miraculous.

It’s very likely that what happened was something like this: Jesus took the little boy and he set him in front of the crowd and said, “Hey, hey, all of you. Listen up. Look up here, focus. Okay. Now I know that all of you are very poor. All of you have felt like you have been caught up in the economic crash that drove up the prices of food and drove down your income. We all know that. And all of you are afraid that you don’t have enough even to survive on your own and you’re afraid to spend anything. Now, I’m not going to give you a long lecture about Keynesian economics and how major economic actors need to step in and invest and spend and loan until the smaller actors can get their faith and trust and security back. Rome may get around to something like that one of these days, but until then, I’m going to try something else. Something that might work in the long haul. Something that might bring in the Kingdom you’ve all heard so much about. I’m going to put this kid out here--with his frankly dismal offering--for all of you to look at. He’s offering to give us everything he’s got and I want you to see that. And then I’m going to break up his bread and give thanks to God for it and start distributing it to all of you, andwell, let’s see what happens. Alright? So bow your heads I’m going to pray” and he starts praying.

And then, I think, as the bits and pieces of food are handed down the aisle, one person starts to think to himself, “Y’ know, the wife did make me this sandwich and packed me this thermos of coffee, and I probably don’t need all of it, so I’ll break it in half and pass it down with the barley.” And then the next guy says, “Well, I do have this banana that I forgot to check at the gate when I came in, and I don’t need all of it,” so he breaks it in half and passes it down. And then there’s the guy who picked up the box of Oreos at the Seven Eleven that morning on the way out of town to the rally. And the one who won the turkey at the meat raffle at the Grange meeting last night. And the one who remembers he still has a piece of that fruit cake left over from a party last year that never went bad. And so on, all down the line, until all the loaves and fishes had been passed around and the disciples gathered up twelve baskets full of leftovers and party favors.

Goodness. Now that would be a miracle!

[1] The list is probably slightly exaggerated, but close enough to make the point.
[2] Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted (Doubleday, 2006) p.
[3] See Amy Jill-Levine, “Visions of Kingdoms” the Oxford History of the Biblical World, Ed. Michael D. Coogan (Oxford University Press: 1998), p. 364.
[4] Homiletics, “Jesus Doesn’t Use IVR!” July 30, 2006.
[5] Actually the synoptics say “blessed” (eulogēsen); John’s Gospel says “gave thanks” (eucharistēsas), but the difference is not great enough here to quibble.
[6] In the words of John Dominic Crossan, “Long before he was the ‘host,’ he was the hostess.” The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), p. 404.