Miracle, Metaphor & Military Might

Paula Northwood August 2, 2020

Scripture: Matthew 14:13–21

Quaker author Parker Palmer tells about an unusual experience he had while flying. He writes:

After a speech in Saskatoon, I boarded a 6 a.m. . . . flight home to Wisconsin. Our departure was delayed because the truck that brings coffee to the planes had broken down. After a while the pilot said, “We’re going to take off without the coffee. We want to get you to Detroit on time.”

I was up front where all the “road warriors” sit—a surly tribe, especially at that early hour. They began griping, loudly and at length, about “incompetence,” “lousy service,” etc.

Once we got into the air, the lead flight attendant came to the center of the aisle with her mike and said, . . . “I know you’re upset about the coffee. Well, get over it! Start sharing stuff with your seatmates. That bag of [five] peanuts you got on your last flight and put in your pocket? Tear it open and pass them around! Got gum or mints? Share them! You can’t read all the sections of your paper at once. Offer them to each other! Show off the pictures of kids and grandkids you have in your wallets!”

As she went on in that vein, people began laughing and doing what she had told them to do. A surly scene turned into summer camp!

An hour later, . . . the attendant passed [Parker’s] seat, [and he] signaled to her. “What you did was really amazing,” [he] said. “Where can I send a letter of commendation?”

“Thanks,” she said, “I’ll get you a form.” Then she leaned down and whispered, “The loaves and fishes are not dead.”[1]

Of course, during a pandemic that kind of sharing would not be welcomed, but we remember those days.

Of all the stories in the Bible, the story of the loaves and fishes is certainly one of the most familiar for many of us . . . so familiar that we think we know the lesson. Various interpretations include: It’s a miracle story about Jesus’s divinity or it’s a metaphor about sharing and generosity or (and this may be the least familiar) it’s a temptation story inviting Jesus to lead a military coup. So, which is it? Miracle, metaphor or military might? That’s the title of this sermon.

If we call it a miracle, then we get to embrace this God who defies our understanding and goes beyond our human limits. We worship a God who makes a way out of no way, and that can be deeply comforting. We also get to embrace the narrative that all these miracle stories tell, which is that God is a God who provides, who never runs out of sustenance, freedom, health or hospitality, and who shares these all willingly—even lavishly—with us. There’s a reason there are 12 baskets left after everyone has had their fill. The message is that this God never runs out and always has more than enough. Great message, but the magical thinking goes against our modern sensibilities. We don’t necessarily need a miracle to think about God as ineffable.

If we understand the story as metaphorical, we don’t have to wrestle with whether we believe in science-defying supernatural feats. It simply means that if we share what we have there is enough for everyone . . . in fact more than enough!

Pope Francis has gotten some flak for how he’s talked about the feeding of the five thousand. He called it a parable and said, “The parable of the multiplication of the loaves and fish teaches us exactly this: that if there is the will, what we have never ends. On the contrary, it abounds and does not get wasted.” Sharing our resources and generosity is a great lesson for how we ought to treat each other.

But here is what Episcopalian priest Martin Smith [as quoted by Rev. Dan Smith] asks:

“Why did five thousand able-bodied males converge on Jesus when he had sailed over the Sea of Tiberias with the twelve into the uninhabited hill country?” [Smith] then invites us to imagine “what this would look like to Roman intelligence officers . . . . [Smith] writes, “they would have been very aware that the feast of the Passover was near in which Jews celebrated their liberation from Egyptian oppressors. Jewish insurgents often launched their rebellions just before Passover when feelings were running especially high about the shame and misery of being under [Roman] occupation. Secondly, the gathering was in the wilderness, which, as we know from the Jewish historian Josephus, was the traditional mustering place for rebels, out of range of military surveillance.” . . .

Smith continues [that they would] “see five thousand men, not just milling around but, according to [the same story in the Gospel of] Mark, drawn up in strict formation, in groups of fifty and hundreds. . . . This was a militia of five thousand able bodied males assembling in platoons. . . .

Every gospel tells the story of the feeding of the five thousand, but we get a new perspective from the Gospel of John 6:15:

“When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” This was an attempt to muster an insurgent rebel force and to compel Jesus to assume military leadership. . . .

Smith . . . points out, the story of the feeding of the 5,000 men is, at heart, a temptation story. The men want Jesus to assume authoritative rule, to seize power over as opposed to a power with, to resort to time tested methods of political gain, like slaughter, plunder and other violent tactics as the most efficient way to bring about God’s reign of justice and peace to earth. [What these different versions of the story cover up is the deeper] collective sense of fear and powerlessness. [They] wanted Jesus to take their problems and solve them because they [were at their wits’ end and] didn’t know what else to do. . . .

How often do we long for someone to tell us [what to do so that we] “don’t feel so powerless in the face of staggering needs in our community and world? Jesus doesn’t fall into the trap; he doesn’t want to be their king. He doesn’t want to tell them what to do. Instead, he wants to figure it out with them. He knows that they . . . are hungry not only for the real bread of physical nourishment, but also for the bread of solidarity, the bread of possibility, . . . the bread of feeling that no matter how hungry any one of them is, none will be satisfied until all have a [piece of it], together. [Jesus is] saying, “we all get hungry” and in so doing he turns the dynamics of power and powerlessness, [of fear and courage, of victim and rescuer] on its head!

[It’s not just about having enough food but also about the] hunger we all feel for the power to make a difference, to have right [and just relationships.] . . . When we start to despair in our powerlessness, or worse become apathetic toward social needs, or when we start pointing fingers at others whose problem it is to solve, we ignore our own appetites and our own responsibility to be partners in change. . . .

Ultimately, this story of feeding the 5000 changes the script from one of expected and forceful domination to effective and thoughtful collaboration. In the face of all those men, Jesus turns to a little [child]! In the face of all that [male bravado] wanting to charge the mountain, Jesus says, [“have a seat on] the grass.” He does this in order to build a new kind of power, not just with men but with children and women as well. He wants to build power with the hungry, not for hungry, which means that we need all to recognize a hunger within ourselves. What’s more, he wants us building power with God, and he ultimately wants us to learn to trust as Smith says, “that our world, God’s world, has more than enough, it has thrilling superabundance. On condition that we cooperate by changing the agenda from . . . overpowering, to feeding! . . . [And] acting in trust creates an amazing quantity of leftover!” . . .

Imagine trusting in our shared hunger that we all can have an equal place at the table and that we all have gifts to bring—[all genders, all colors of skin,] homeless and housed, hungry and well-fed. Imagine acting with trust in our capacity for all of us to give and share what we have, whether food, or money, or time or talent. . . . [Imagine loving each other enough that we stop the violence.] Maybe the question for those of us who are well fed is this: [what do we hunger for] and what will truly satisfy us in the face of our own powerlessness? . . . Until we can get a better sense of what acting in solidarity is all about, until we can know what it means to act with and not for others, to speak with and not for others [maybe we need to slow down and be silent and listen.][2]

Whether or not Jesus molecularly multiplied the bread and fish like an amazing miracle or if the crowds managed to open up their baskets and share with their neighbors, this story opens up the possibility that change can happen, not by force but by looking within and around . . . not by looking for a savior but realizing that there is more available to us than we realize. Margaret Mead stated, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Let’s be a part of a small group thoughtful, committed citizens called the church.

Maybe the disciples, like us, needed to be reminded that even when think we do not have what is needed, what is needed is still at hand. It will come from God. It will come from our neighbors. It will come from those least expected, because in God’s economy, that’s how it works. What you have is enough because it is never all there is. God is extravagant!

We get to witness the love of God every time we come up short and yet things still get done. Take courage my friends, trust in God, do your part—pray, march, sew masks, volunteer, use the telephone, canvas, vote!—for we do have what we need to get through this time in our story. May it be so.

[1]Parker J. Palmer , “Loaves and Fishes Are Not Dead,” On Being, April 6, 2016, https://onbeing.org/blog/loaves-and-fishes-are-not-dead/ (accessed August 4, 2020).

[2]Dan Smith, “Feeding 5000 Men,” First Church in Cambridge, May 6, 2012, https://www.firstchurchcambridge.org/media/feeding-5000-men (accessed August 3, 2020).