July 29, 2012
John 6:1-21 (Common English Bible)
6 After this Jesus went across the Galilee Sea (that is, the Tiberius Sea). 2 A large crowd followed him, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. 3 Jesus went up a mountain and sat there with his disciples. 4 It was nearly time for Passover, the Jewish festival.
5 Jesus looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward him. He asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” 6 Jesus said this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do.
7 Philip replied, “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.”
8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, 9 “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?”
10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. 11 Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. 12 When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten.
14 When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world.” 15 Jesus understood that they were about to come and force him to be their king, so he took refuge again, alone on a mountain.
16 When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake. 17 They got into a boat and were crossing the lake to Capernaum. It was already getting dark and Jesus hadn’t come to them yet. 18 The water was getting rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When the wind had driven them out for about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the water. He was approaching the boat and they were afraid. 20 He said to them, “I Am. Don’t be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and just then the boat reached the land where they had been heading.
2 Kings 4:42-44 (CEB)
42 A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing the man of God some bread from the early produce—twenty loaves of barley bread and fresh grain from his bag. Elisha said, “Give it to the people so they can eat.”
43 His servant said, “How can I feed one hundred men with this?”
Elisha said, “Give it to the people so they can eat! This is what the LORD says: ‘Eat and there will be leftovers.’” 44 So the servant gave the food to them. They ate and had leftovers, in agreement with the LORD ’s word.
The London Olympic games began this weekend, and of course they’ve been in the planning stages for many years. There’s a 2009 report you can find on the Internet about food service at the games. The London Olympic organizing committee expects to serve more than 14 million meals at 40 different locations over the course of the Olympics and the Paralympics which follow them.
In the Olympic Village alone, the organizers expect to need 25,000 loaves of bread, 260 tons of potatoes, more than 92 tons of seafood, 35 tons of poultry, more than 112 tons of meat, almost 20,000 gallons of milk, 21 tons of eggs, 24 tons of cheese and more than 370 tons of fruit and vegetables.
Any time you get a group of people together for any length of time, food service becomes an issue. Jesus and his disciples had not been trying to attract a crowd – just the opposite. Jesus was trying to get away, to refresh and renew himself or perhaps to spend some time sharing his wisdom with his inner circle of disciples. But because of the miracles he had performed, a crowd was trying to follow him.
Jesus had compassion on the people, and knew that many of them needed food. They’d been following him for what amounted to a nine-mile walk. Jesus turned to Philip, one of his disciples. The reason he turned to Philip was that they were in the area of Bethsaida, and Philip was originally from that area, so it was logical to think that Philip might have friends nearby or at least know what was available.
Jesus asked Philip where food might be gotten to feed the crowd.
But, as John tells us, he was really just testing the disciples. He already knew what was going to happen next.
Phillip answered, “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.” Philip is pointing out the huge size of the crowd. You can’t just call up a friend and expect that friend to have enough food for thousands and thousands of people.
Even a local merchant, in the days before refrigeration or modern transportation, wouldn’t have nearly enough prepared food for that purpose.
But along comes another one of the disciples, Andrew. It is one of Andrew’s best qualities that we frequently find him introducing people to Jesus. He introduced his brother Simon, later known as Peter, to Jesus. In the 12th chapter of John, some Greeks are looking for Jesus to learn more about his teachings, and while the Greeks first approach Philip it’s Andrew who brings them to the Master.
In today’s story, also, Andrew is introducing someone to Jesus – an unlikely hero, a young boy carrying five barley loaves and two fishes. Perhaps the boy was from nearby – not part of the crowd that had been following Jesus, but just someone who’d happened onto a big crowd and, like any young boy, had a natural sense of curiosity. If he was from nearby, he might have been carrying some cooked fresh fish. But fresh fish was a rarity. In Jesus’ day, there was no refrigeration or modern transportation, and so fresh fish was only consumed near the water. The fish most people ate most of the time, according to the commentator William Barclay, were small fish that had been preserved by pickling. Barclay said it’s likely that the boy had two of these little fish along with his five barley loaves.
In both of our Bible passages today, it’s specified that the bread is barley bread. In Bible times, bread could be made either from wheat or barley – but barley was cheaper, and it was the bread most often used by the poor. In fact, some barley was used to make bread, and some of it was used for livestock feed.
Anyway, Andrew did well by bringing the boy to Jesus, but he wasn’t quite up to the task of realizing what he’d done. He said, “all this boy has is five loaves and two fishes, and what good is that?”
Jesus had the people sit down, and they began passing out the food. Now, what happened next was clearly God’s doing, and clearly miraculous. But Barclay, writing back in the 1950s, offers another possible explanation – only as a possibility, and he still believes it was God’s doing even if it worked this way. Barclay believes that some of the people had probably packed food with them before undertaking such a long journey, and that as the food started to be handed out perhaps it encouraged some of those people to share.
That explanation reminds me of the old story about Stone Soup, which you probably read or had read to you as a child. Sometimes the story is told about people, sometimes about animals. A traveler comes to town – if the story is about animals, he’s usually a fox – and, when no one will give him anything to eat, he says he’s going to make some stone soup. He gets someone to loan him a great big pot and gets some water and puts it over a fire. Then he takes a stone out of his knapsack and throws it into the pot.
He keeps tasting the water, talking about how good the soup is, but it would be a little better if it just had some potatoes. And someone is curious about what stone soup would taste like, so they eventually trade him some potatoes in return for a taste of the soup once it gets finished. Then the fox says the soup needs just a little bit of onion, or celery, or a soup bone, or what have you.
Eventually, everyone in the village has contributed something to the soup, which by this point tastes delicious – and we, reading the story, realize it has nothing to do with the stone. Everyone, including the fox, eats their fill of soup, and then the fox puts the stone back in his backpack so that he can make another batch of stone soup in some other village down the road.
But we realize the fox is a con artist, albeit a good-natured one.
I don’t like Barclay’s stone soup explanation for the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, especially since John clearly says that the crowd saw that Jesus had done “a miraculous sign.” I don’t think this is just a case of people sharing. I think this is clearly being presented to us as something miraculous.
I’m guessing that you’ve heard the story we read from John about Jesus feeding thousands with five loaves and two fishes. But you might not be as familiar with the other, similar passage we read from 2 Kings. I know I wasn’t.
There’s a famine in a place called Gilgal, and the prophet Elisha has a few house guests – well, not just a few. He has 100 prophets sitting before him. Originally, he tells his servant to cook them a big pot of stew. That leads to a first miracle, prior to today’s lectionary passage. One of the vegetables gathered for the stew turns out to be poisonous, but Elisha throws some flour into the pot and says the stew is OK, and the prophets eat the rest of it without incident.
But the gathering went on, and more food was needed. Just as in the case of the boy introduced to Jesus by Andrew, help comes in an unassuming way from an outside source.
A man named Baal-shalishah brings Elisha some bread – 20 loaves, as well as some extra grain. Elisha tells his servant to start handing it out to the prophets, and the servant – like Andrew – says it’s not going to be enough.
Elisha says that not only will it be enough, but there will be leftovers.
Both of these stories, you will notice, involve leftovers. Notice that I don’t say “waste,” because the leftovers didn’t go to waste. At Jewish feasts, according to Barclay, the custom was that you didn’t eat everything; you deliberately left something over for the servants.
That’s why, in the tale of the five loaves and two fishes, the scraps were gathered up, which is why we know how much was left over. In those days, most people carried a basket with them at all times. It was called a kophinos and was sort of bottle-shaped. Each of the 12 disciples would have probably carried such a basket, and the fact that there were 12 baskets left over suggests to me that perhaps it was the 12 disciples who went around collecting the scraps.
When you were growing up, and your mother was trying to get you to clean your plate, did she ever talk about the little children who were starving over in China, or Africa, or some other part of the world?
LEAMIS International Ministries, the group with which I’ve taken my foreign mission trips, was co-founded by a woman named Debra Snellen. Now, before founding LEAMIS, Debra was at one point in her life a missionary to the Inuit – the people we sometimes refer to as Eskimos. She lived with them for two or three years.
Living with the Inuit in the cold conditions up north instilled in Debra an appreciation for food, and how precious it can be in a situation like that, and how much food we put to waste in our society. I’ve been with Debra in situations where people left a lot of uneaten food on their plates and just threw it away. Debra’s way too nice a person to make a scene about it, but if you know her you can just see those gears grinding and the little wisps of smoke coming out of her ears.
And we do waste a lot of food in this country. A 2004 study by the University of Arizona said that 14-15 per cent of America’s edible food is untouched or unopened; we throw away $43 billion worth of edible food. Another survey, by Cornell University, found that 93 percent of respondents acknowledged buying foods they never used.
Rutgers University in New Jersey, which has one of the largest food service operations of any college in the country, also has one of the best and oldest food recovery programs, going back to the 1960s. Food scraps from the various cafeterias and dining facilities are collected, ground into pulp, processed to concentrate them and make them easier to transport, and sent to local farms for use as livestock feed. It costs Rutgers $60 per ton to send trash to the landfill, but only $30 per ton to process these scraps, so the university is being a good steward both of its food and its money.
Jesus used the five loaves and two fishes to feed 5,000 – although it was really more than that. In the patriarchal culture of Bible times, when you counted a crowd, the only people you counted were the adult men. So there were 5,000 plus women and children.
In the story we read about Elisha, 20 loaves fed 100 prophets, and perhaps that number doesn’t tell the whole story either.
These are stories of God’s provision. We see problems from a very human perspective, and sometimes we forget that with God, all things are possible. The other part of that passage from John, which we didn’t talk much about, finds the disciples frightened by a storm, and Jesus walking on the water towards them. He tells them, “I Am. Don’t be afraid,” and that as Christians is all we really need to hear.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to plan or be practical. In fact, we need to be good stewards of whatever loaves and fishes God has put in our basket. We need to waste less and give more, and find creative ways of helping those who are hungry.
But sometimes, when it seems like the situation is desperate, like there’s no way to put food on the table, we need to put our trust in God, who can take whatever small amount we have to give and use it to feed the world.