The Gospel Reading Today…, Lent 4 (B) – 1997
March 09, 1997
The gospel reading today, the fourth Sunday in Lent, is the “feeding of the multitude.” It is a familiar biblical story, the almost everyone has heard before. It is precisely because this story is so overly familiar that we should really take the time to listen to what it has to say.
A version of the feeding of the multitude story appears in each of the four gospels. The fact that all of the gospel writers have a version of the same miraculous feeding, tells us right away, that there is something very significant about it, so much that each gospel writer bothered to repeat it. It is a good thing that this story is repeated, because within this little story lies the essence of what Christian mission is about, providing bread for the world.
The mission of the church is to provide bread for the world. Yes, all Christians are in the bread business! It probably sounds a bit strange. After all, what is so significant about bread? The only time most of us think about bread is when we want a sandwich or when we see one of those silly commercials about which is better, white or wheat?
Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that bread is a universal symbol for all that is necessary to sustain human life. In some cultures this is easier to understand. Unlike in America, where “Wonder Bread” rules, many people in Europe and the Middle East go off to the baker each and every morning to get their “daily bread.” With this in mind, the fact that God has called us all to the bread business does not sound so strange after all.
Knowing our mission is about sharing bread with the world, we can ask the obvious question, “what is the bread we are to share with the world?” This is where the story of the feeding of the multitude comes to into play.
Throughout Christian history, there have been two seemingly contradictory interpretations of what this story means in terms of Christian mission.
- One view says, “This story is about one thing; Jesus Christ. He is the bread of life. The feeding of the multitude with material bread is purely symbolic, and tends to get in the way of the true “spiritual” meaning of the story.
- The other view say “spiritual bread,” humbug! This story very simple and earth bound and there is nothing “spiritual” about it. People in this world are hungry. Jesus gives them food. The only message is go and do likewise. The hungry people of the world need calories not sermons, “end of story.”
When we take either one of these extreme positions, we are short sighting our vision of Christian mission. Christian mission cannot be divided to neat little packages, “spiritual” or “material.” Human beings do not divide that easily. Jesus himself knew this better than anyone else.
It is true that Jesus is the true spiritual bread of life, he said so himself, later on in John, chapter six. He said “I am the bread of life. Those who come to me shall not hunger or thirst.” That same Jesus also said in this story “how are we to provide bread so the people may eat?” If we listen carefully to what Jesus says we will begin to see that the “spiritual” and the “material” are two sides of the same coin and cannot be pitted one against the other. To the seventy percent of the world’s population who are the “least of these” Christ’s brothers and sisters, Jesus should be shared in the form of food, water, money, shelter, clothing, medicine and education. In a world filled with needy and hungry people, Jesus does come to us as bread.
It is our mission to feed, love and care for our neighbor in the name of the one who feeds, loves and cares for us. The outward sign of bread sends us to minister to human need in a hungry world, the literal need for bread.
We must also realize with equal urgency, that there is another kind of hunger plaguing our world, a hunger of the soul. So often in our culture, we find people who have plenty to eat and food to spare. Many people have a nice home, 4 weeks paid vacation, 1.5 pets, 2.5 kids, new Voyager mini van or sparkling Jeep Cherokee. Yet sometimes behind the walls of suburban split levels and inside sophisticated urban high rises, people can sit and wonder, “is this all there is to life?” Much is made today of “seekers.” Those who materially have everything, but spiritually are hungry.
Human hunger is not just for food, it is also a hunger for meaning, for the assurance that there is a direction for living and a purpose for being. Helping to eliminate this kind of hunger is also part of our mission. We are called to share Jesus with a world suffering from plentiful meaninglessness and spiritual starvation.
In order to share Jesus, we need to provide a swelling place for him within our hearts and lives. It is impossible to introduce to the world someone who we have not met ourselves. Knowing Jesus as Savior gives meaning and purpose to life, he is true bread and those who fed on him will not hunger or thirst.
Our mission is to share God’s bread with the world, with seekers, in whatever form the bread is needed. Jesus is bread for the hungry, Jesus is bread for the soul. If we sit back and contemplate what God has called us to do, it may seem like a “Mission Impossible.” In the story the disciples probably had the very same thoughts.
They stood with Jesus before a hungry multitude, we stand with Jesus before a hungry world. Jesus gives the church the same question he gave to the disciples. “Where are we to buy bread so the people may eat?” The disciples replied, “we don’t have enough to feed this crowd, but here is a boy here with five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”
Today in 1997, the church often replies in similar fashion, “there is no way we can feed this world, we don’t have enough bread to go around.” Some may say the analogy between the disciples, the crowd and the church breaks down here. After all, the disciples had an unfair advantage over us. They had Jesus right there with them and there were only 5,000 people to be fed, and we have a whole world to feed. Besides, the biblical feeding was “supernatural,” with only five loaves and two fish. Jesus takes the loaves and fish and goes “snap, crackle, pop” and pow, instant lunch for thousands! How does Jesus expect us to do such a thing in the 20th century? That is “Mission Impossible.”
It is so easy for us to forget Jesus’ own words. Once after performing a miracle he told the disciples, “greater things than this you will do in my name.” It is true that we can’t just wave a wand, go “snap, crackle, pop” and give bread to the world. But who says we have to go “snap, crackle, pop?” Who says Jesus did?
The truth is, a miracle did take place when the multitude was fed, and whether the feeding was “supernatural” or not, is beside the point. Who knows, maybe it happened like this, Jesus and the disciples were sitting on a hillside, surrounded by a very large crowd. It was near lunch time and the people were hungry. Jesus said to the disciples “time for lunch.” The disciples look over the crowd and said to Jesus “mission impossible.”
The crowd and the disciples sat there, and sat there and sat there, waiting for Jesus to do one of his miracles so they did not have to lift a finger. Then a silence came over the disciples and the crowd, as a little boy stands up and pulled five loaves and two fish out of his lunch box. The boy seemed a bit nervous because thousands of people are starting at him, he slowly walked over to Jesus and gave him the five loaves of bread and two fish. Perhaps he said, in a simple and trusting way that is so common to children, “Here Rabbi, here is my lunch, we can all share it.”
Everyone was amazed, except Jesus, who simply patted the lad on the head and smiled. He took the little bit of food and shared it with the crowd. Seeing what the boy had done, and seeing the approving smile on Jesus’ face, others in the crowd began to pull their lunch sacks out of hiding and shared their food with those sitting near them. Lo and behold, there was enough to go around. After all had eaten, the left overs amounting to 12 big baskets full, were collected for distribution to those in need.
Was this a “supernatural” phenomenon? Maybe, maybe not. Was this a miracle? Definitely, Yes! Don’t believe it is possible? Don’t believe in miracles? Well, neither did the disciples as they sat on the hill bewildered about the task of feeding that was before them.
Luckily for the disciples and for us, there are still those among us, like the boy, who are simple enough and trusting enough to believe in miracles. The boy believed enough to simply share what he had, nothing more, nothing less. Despite the size of the need, the boy was not immobilized or overcome by it, instead, he reached out in faith and did what he could, never doubting that his little contribution could be used by God to somehow work a miracle.
Love like that, trust like that, (together they) are the stuff that real miracles are made of. Love and sharing are the ways God has given us to aid the multitudes who need our help. If everyone just share the little they have, that little will add up to a lot.
God has shown us through that little boy that love, like bread when shared is multiplied and needs and troubles when shared are divided. This Lent, as we contemplate the true nature of discipleship, let us remember the little boy who shared what he had been given.
Jesus is our bread for the hungry, Jesus is our bread for the soul. We need not worry that there will be enough to go around, because as the story tells us, the left overs from those who love and trust, will fill many, many baskets. AMEN
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