MIRACLE OF THE LOAVES
I have known the stories about “loaves and fishes” from childhood but perhaps I’ve missed something. So I go back and start re-reading, keeping myself open for a spiritual experience.
Among the four books of the Gospel, there are actually six such stories in which huge crowds are fed with loaves of bread and fishes. (See the complete Bible stories and compare Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-45; Luke 9:10-17; John 6: 1-17; compare Matthew 15:32-39; Mark 8:1-10; and compare Matthew 16:5-12; Mark 8:14-21; Luke 12:1; see also a similar story in 2 Kings 4:42-44 – one click.)
First off, I start by reading to find out if Jesus actually feeds the crowds as proclaimed by the headings added nearly two millennia later in the Today’s New International Version (TNIV). I find that Matthew, Mark, and Luke leave the question wide open and don’t actually say Jesus fed the crowds.
Perhaps once a crowd was seated by Jesus in discrete groups of 50 or 100, they were obligated by a hospitality code to share whatever provisions they had made for their travels with those in the same group who either had not thought to make provision or who had run out of food. I admit I didn’t think of this interpretation myself – I read it elsewhere.
Or maybe the people in the crowds did not feel obligated to share; rather, they were inspired by Jesus’ teaching to be sharing and generous – such unusual behavior in a crowd would be something of a miracle.
So what is the point of these stories if Jesus does not actually feed the crowds?
By comparing John’s loaves and fishes story to the others, I find there is freedom built into the other accounts (the Synoptics). John’s story is more rigid because the author makes a point of giving “explanations” for the loose ends in the other accounts. Could there actually have been a field of grass in dried-up Palestine where people sat down to eat as asserted in the Synoptics? John explains yes. Did Jesus actually feed the crowd? John explains yes, that all the extra pieces of bread that were gathered up at the end of the meal came originally from the loaves Jesus had. Was it a miraculous “sign”? John explains yes. Could the puzzling act of “gathering up broken pieces” have meaning? John explains yes, that this was necessary to prevent waste.
At this point I rebel, because the baskets of leftovers could have been better recycled among the crowd of thousands than among Jesus’ much smaller band of disciples and their households. There was no need to gather up this bread – the picnickers would have been happily stuffing the extra pieces into their pockets and bags and baskets for later. Couldn’t they find room for 7 or 12 more basketfuls? (Maybe not?) Is the author trying to make Jesus look stingy by taking back bread? Later I realize that Jesus had generously given away the last of the loaves he had in his possession and needed to restock the supplies for his group. Perhaps the apostles asked for donations?
Did he make a miracle?
I had not realized to what extent the Gospel loaves and fishes stories leave a lot to the imagination because from childhood I had always filled in the details myself. (“When I was a child I thought like a child.”)
As I go over it this time, I am dismayed at first at the many explanations in John, finding them constricting, and making his version of the story too much like a fairy-tale, but then I understand that John’s version, because of its inflexibility, is even more effective in channeling the reader into a realization that she does not know what is happening in the story.
All four books set up a framework with he-did-this and he-said-that, but when I get to the main event, the “multiplication of the loaves,” I am left with . . . NOTHING.
In my mind’s eye, I can see the loaves mysteriously popping out of the ground, falling from the sky like manna, or materializing in Jesus’ palms. But actually the stories say nothing about how the loaves appear. NOTHING. When I reach the heart of the story, there is nothing. I am confronted with a mystery.
Why do the authors leave this vacuum? It would have been so easy for them to describe exactly what happened. What happened?
The disciples set the loaves in a basket and set it a few meters from the edge of the crowd. As Jesus said the magic words, the basket began to shake and the loaves slowly rose up like there was something pushing under them. More loaves! The loaves rose higher and higher, faster and faster. Then the loaves tumbled out of the basket and the loaves that had been under them tumbled out and the loaves that had been under those tumbled out, faster and faster, achieving a rate of one per second, until a mountain of bread loaves was formed as high as Mount Rushmore. The crowd became terrified by this magic stunt and ran off.
No, the Bible does not say that or anything like it. It is puzzling why the Bible accounts are incomplete. These loaves and fishes narratives are often characterized as testimony. Where’s the eye-witness account? What were the authors thinking?
As I try to fathom how the loaves might have materialized and I become aware that there is NOTHING that explains it, I become aware of nothingness. That all of life is as insubstantial as these stories, as insubstantial and surreal and impermanent as a dream. Life is ephemeral, it lasts but an hour. But given the plenitude of loaves and fishes stories, life would seem to come in episodes, somewhat repetitive, but still ever new, ever continuing.
I am reminded of the words of the song, “It’s life’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know life at all.”
As I become aware that there is nothing at the center of the stories, I find there is nothing at the center of my being, except awareness. I become aware of my own awareness. I go from complete immersion in the loaves and fishes stories and incorporating them into my world view, to doubt, to awareness of nothingness, to realization of impermanence, to awareness of awareness, to release and detachment.
How did I get all that out of a few loaves and fishes? I dunno. Jus’ kinda got carried away I guess.
So it would seem the stories can be a vehicle in which the reader undergoes a process of transformation and is led to greater awareness.
In these stories we have Jesus-as-good-example-saintly-deity capable of dispensing blessings to the living. This deity should not be confused with sky-god, creator of all good and evil, capable of bringing harm, and noticeably absent from the loaves and fishes stories. The authors write about Jesus, an example of goodness, in all likelihood, knowing they are constructing a story. While any description of a deity is necessarily subjective, perhaps the authors of the loaves and fishes stories were deliberately constructing a subjective deity (in the Buddhist tradition as I understand it), one who exhibits admirable qualities, and is used for the purpose of instruction or a transformational spiritual exercise.
What I took away with me was not the idea of Jesus-as-figure-in-belief-system, but rather an impression of his (her?) amazing qualities of peacefulness and generosity. (About “her” – Jesus is often portrayed in a genderless fashion in religious art, as is Buddha.) It’s interesting to realize that in these loaves and fishes stories, there is no “creator-god” and no theology. Once the framework of the story leads us into nothingness and fades away, we are left not with a theology, but with the remembrance of Jesus’ Way:
Jesus deals with the difficult situation he finds himself in – facing a crowd of thousands, many getting hungrier by the minute, first of all, by intelligently telling everyone to sit down in groups.
Then, he quickly centers himself (gazes “heavenward,” that is, toward the “expanse” – perhaps meaning he directs his consciousness inward to his divine connection – this could also mean inward to the “expanse” or “vastness” of his own awareness). He “gives thanks” for the food he already has (TNIV), and likely “gives thanks” for the entire situation and all present. He shares what he has – the very last loaves in his possession (gosh!). He expects good to unfold.
It is interesting to reflect on what Jesus does not do: He does not launch into long-winded prayers of petition to a god. He does not hold a church service. He does not organize a ritual animal sacrifice to appease and bribe “wrathful sky-god” or make any kind of sacrifice. He doesn’t lament that he doesn’t even have enough bread to feed 12 apostles. He doesn’t get upset. Rather he is at peace.
This is a new approach that Jesus has – centering, giving thanks, sharing – peace-filled. That crowd would never forget what happened next as Jesus walked among them carrying his bread and somehow the kingdom came into focus, found its kingly center, and pivoted around him.
Mark’s story makes it clear that not all Jesus’ followers understood this new way. Even today they don’t.
Someone told me that I should add Jesus’ compassion for the hungry people. I agree. Jesus had compassion and this is an important element in the stories.
Further, I think Jesus’ Way is based on a firm foundation of trust in Providence and trust in the essential rightness of his own path, purpose, or destiny. Without that confidence the story would be different.
Jesus exhibits confidence in John by distributing his bread himself to the people (the Synoptics are different (TNIV)). Jesus could not have had this confidence if in his innermost being he was “a house divided,” that is, he was praying for good from a god he believed to be inherently demonic – untrustworthy, destructive, and cruel, in other words, a god synonymous with the material world. Jesus did not have this conflict in his thoughts (Matthew 12:25, James 1:6 (TNIV)).
And as for the mystery of how the loaves appeared – why would we expect to be able to view a moment initiated from within a place of timelessness? Why would we expect to be able to view the interface between time and timelessness, between material and Divine, between Self and Higher-Self? We cannot view this, and that is why the authors do not show us the loaves materializing. It is not a moment in history, but a moment in eternity. When we reach the center of a loaves and fishes story and we are confronted with the mystery of how the loaves “pop-in,” we begin to understand that this is a transforming moment. It can be any transforming moment happening anytime, anywhere – where heaven meets earth.
Did Jesus perform a miracle? I won’t say he didn’t. I feel impatient with people who cannot concede the possibility of miracles.
I can think of my existence as humdrum and tortured, or I can be aware of the many ordinary everyday miraculous blessings that just “pop into” the moments of my life.
If ever I am overflowing with this stuff of blessing, I can be a blessing.
Every moment holds an ordinary miracle.
You Can Do It (more loaves and fishes)