“They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.”
Mark 6:42-44 (NRSV)
Like Thomas Jefferson, I’ve never seemed to have much patience for the Bible’s miracle stories. They’re difficult to deal with. To my modern mind, it’s hard to imagine that seas can part, food can appear from nowhere and that the dead can be raised.
It’s so tempting for me, in my very modern way, to domesticate miracles – like reducing the feeding of the 5,000 miracle to an idyllic picnic or desert potluck. Not that thousands of human beings sharing isn’t miraculous. It is. In the four Gospels, there are six accounts of this miracle. Six! It must be too important a story for it to be about people sharing their lunches. Miracles are tricky that way.
In the Gospel of John account of the miracle of feeding the crowd, the disciples estimate that the crowd is so large that not even six months’ worth of paychecks would be enough money to feed the mass of people assembled. By expressing the amount in such stark terms, what I think the disciples are really saying is, “We don’t have enough money to feed all these people.” And Jesus is saying, “Exactly. Isn’t that great?”
Isn’t that just like Jesus?
One disciple retorts with what I hear as screaming sarcasm. “There’s a boy with five loaves and two fish,” he says. Imagine! Five thousand hungry people on the side of a mountain, and only five loaves and two fish in sight to feed them with. But it seems that this is exactly what Jesus wanted. The funny thing about God is that we are called to be God’s hands in the world at precisely those times when there’s a whole lot of nothing to work with; which is to say, God calls us all of the time. God even sets God’s communion table so that we come with nothing. It seems that God likes it best that way.
God also likes to turn things on their heads. Jesus’ disciples, who expected to be the ones to provide what was needed, found themselves surprisingly dependent upon the generosity of a small child. The Gospels’ accounts of this miracle indicate that the boy gave over his lunch with the kind of abandon and generosity that we only associate with God. It is just the kind of juxtaposition that God seems to enjoy best. Jesus’ faith is placed in a little child to stave off what might become a riot if the crowd is not fed. This is the same kind of juxtaposition we find ourselves in as church when we advocate in the halls of power in Washington, D.C.
This story about feeding 5,000 with so little is, among other things, a story about perspective. The disciples’ main mistake in this story, I think, is that they have no idea what it is that they have. Namely, they have a God who can feed many on nothing. A God who created the universe out of nothing. A God who put flesh on the nothingness of dry bones. “Nothing” is God’s favorite material to work with. Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as “nothing,” “insignificant,” “worthless,” and says, “HA! Now THAT is something I can work with!”
It is our poverty that we are asked to bring to God, not our treasure, because whether we think we have it all or we think we have nothing, we are all of us beggars fed at the table of God’s mercy. What do we have? Five loaves, a couple of fish? Not much. We believe that even when we want to make a difference in the world, we have to arrive fully prepared, fully equipped and fully funded.
I hear often from church folk and non-church folk alike that Lutherans, any faith community for that matter, can make no real difference in Washington. “Why bother?” I’m asked. Compared to big lobbying firms and corporations, they have a point. By comparison, we don’t have money, or connections, or power, or, often, technical expertise. What do we have? Five loves, a couple of fish? Only a smidge shy of nothing even on our most prosperous days.
It’s on the darkest of days when even bishops suggest that all is hopeless in the halls of power, when I’m dismissed by a member of Congress because I don’t come with deep pockets, when I’m ridiculed by a think tank because I attend to this work from a place of faith and not a place of “real” expertise, when I’ve received the tenth angry letter from a fellow Lutheran who is frustrated with me for even considering advocacy as a legitimate vocation, when I feel that we as the church simply don’t have enough power to change things for the better. It’s on those darkest days that I re-read this miracle story.
This tricky little miracle story – the one told six times over in the Bible – says otherwise to the “why bothers” of the world. In this story we glimpse God’s inverted economy of free bread and fish paid for by, you guessed it, nothing. This is part of the juxtaposition I mentioned earlier. It is out of nothing that God will create something, even something as big as justice and peace. It is a tricky little miracle for sure.
In the last days before Easter, as we await the biggest miracle of them all – the bringing forth of life from the vast nothingness of death – may we remember that our nothingness is all that God asks or needs.