Sunday, October 2, 2011

Feeding of the multitude: where everyone eats the same, regardless of status, wealth or location

For I was hungry and you gave me food. -- Matthew 25:35

They all ate and were satisfied -- Matthew 14:20

I've heard the miracle of Jesus feeding the multitude discounted by saying it was not a multiplication of food as such. Rather, as Jesus took out food and began to feed people, others felt guilty and took out their own food to share.

Now I do believe in miracles and I do believe there was an actual multiplication of food. But I also think that seeing the feeding of the crowds as a miracle kind of lets us off the hook.

The traditional way of reading this story sees Jesus as the person who gives us what we need. Our role is simply to sit there, hands out, waiting for him to feed us. While everyone is connected to Jesus and He cares about everyone's needs, we see little connection between the different people he is feeding. Jesus is the sole provider.

When Jesus is seen as the sole provider, it can encourage an attitude where we don't feel responsibility for our neighbour. If our role is simply to get fed and Jesus is ensuring that those next to us get fed, then it's not our responsibility to make sure they have enough food. If someone isn't being provided for, we may presume that they failed to ask Jesus for what they needed. That is if we even notice. With Jesus in charge, we don't even need to pretend to care.

The de-miracalised version of the feeding of the multitude tells a different story, though, one that doesn't let us off the hook so easily. If people felt guilty and began sharing their food, then surely we too should share our food with those around us. Jesus begins the feeding, but it is our job to continue it. And if we fail to do our bit, those around us go without. We can't just wait for Jesus to feed people. We need to do our part.

Whether we see the feeding of the multitude as a true multiplication of food or not, it is still a miracle - one that we very rarely see today. A world in which not only everybody gets to eat, but everyone eats their fill is truly miraculous.

Even in church, we rarely get this. We're coming up to Christmas season and it's time for the Christmas parties to start. But does anyone think about ensuring that everybody can afford to go? Does anybody wonder whether the price put on the Christmas parties means some people are left out? Or what about going somewhere after church for a meal? Do they realise that there are people who can't go because they can't afford it? Or that there are people who have to eat something cheap, while those around them eat food they could never afford? Jesus told us to invite people to dinner who could not pay us back. And yet I wonder how many people miss out on ever getting invited to dinner (or get invited only the once) because they can't afford to have people over their house for dinner in return.

Yes, churches sometimes do a good job of providing "poor" people with free food. They can turn up at church, say they need food, fill out a form, answer some embarrassing personal questions and get some bags of nearly out-of-date food to take away with them. But that's not the kind of feeding that Jesus does. Jesus feeds everyone. He doesn't ask if they need the food or whether they can afford to buy their own. He doesn't make them admit to their poverty. He just feeds them. Everyone is fed the same. Everyone gets their fill.

And when it comes to the world stage, it's even worse. Instead of Jesus feeding the crowds, we have a small percentage of the crowds eating more than their fill and throwing away huge amounts of food, while others in the crowd are dying of starvation. It's almost like baskets are handed to each end of long lines of people for them to eat and then pass on. But instead of eating and passing on, they're taking half for themselves and throwing the rest on the ground. Doesn't seem at all like the kind of picture we are given in the Gospels.

Perhaps the closest we get to everyone being fed the same, regardless of status or wealth or geographical location, is a wedding. You go to a wedding and you eat the same food as everyone else. Nobody needs to know that this is actually the best food you've eaten for five years. Nobody needs to be left out because they can't afford it. Everyone eats. Maybe that's why Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a wedding banquet.

But the Kingdom of God is coming and is now here. And Christians are meant to be working towards the Kingdom of God. It's not good enough to simply sit there, hands out, waiting for Jesus to feed us. We are God's hands in the world. We need to be feeding other people. And while the idea of everyone having the same access to food and everyone eating their fill may sound like something you could only get it heaven, we still need to be doing all that we can to ensure that it's as much like that now as it can be.

When we pray for God's kingdom to come to earth, do we really mean it? Do we see it as something that God just does for us or something we are meant to be doing for others? And is it something we are just praying for, or something we are working towards? For if we do seriously want God's kingdom to come on earth, we need to be thinking about whether there is justice in terms of the food we eat. And if there isn't, we need to be doing all we can to change this.


  1. So much in this. We provide a free meal to whoever at our church of a Thursday evening and last week a couple dropped in who were living in a tent in the bush because someone had ripped them off. Hard to know how best to provide but they certainly left a lot drier and undoubtedly and not hungry. Easy to respond from a distance but when faced with it there is often not any simple solution. Thanks for your thought provoking writing.

  2. That's really great about the free meal every Thursday. It would be fantastic if every church could do this. But then, I'm not in any type of leadership position. And I imagine if I was, I would realise it's not always that easy.

    We used to have a lunch every second Sunday at our church. It wasn't free, but it was very affordable. (Although I imagine that what's affordable may be different for different people, especially if you add a couple of children or more.) But then it got changed to every month. And now, as far as I can tell, we don't have the lunches much at all. And I imagine that's mainly because there just isn't the people willing to do it.

    I've had times when I think I should have helped someone more. But you're right, when you're in a certain situation, it's not always to see the best thing to do. What sounds good in theory doesn't always look good in practice.

  3. "The traditional way of reading this story sees Jesus as the person who gives us what we need. Our role is simply to sit there, hands out, waiting for him to feed us. While everyone is connected to Jesus and He cares about everyone's needs, we see little connection between the different people he is feeding. Jesus is the sole provider."

    This false reading the situation was what made these poor Jews want to crown Jesus as their military king. Back then buying their daily bread cost a much larger chunk of their income than it does ours. Not only that, it was and is essential for running an army! These Jews wanted to crown Jesus and have him give them economic and military security against the Romans.

    But here's the catch. It's not really about food, Jesus job description, or our responsibility to feed each other. It's about who Jesus is. It's a metaphor.

    Who fed the Israelites Mana in the desert for 40 years? God did. Who gave them meat (quail) to eat when they needed it? God did.

    Jesus feeds the 5000 bread and meat (fish). Then he feeds the 4000. Then the Pharisees come out and ask for a sign! I think we as readers are meant to smack our hands to our foreheads and say "Duh!"

    Then Jesus teaches them some more in Matt 16...

    "5 When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. 6 “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
    7 They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”

    8 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? 9 Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 11 How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees."

    Then Peter says Jesus is the Christ, and later we have the Lord's supper when Jesus says the bread is HIS body, the wine is HIS blood.

    So while there are social justice passages we could look at in the bible, I'm convinced that the miracle of bread and fishes is a basic gospel sign, a hint at what is to come, and what we are to celebrate every time we eat together. It's thanking God for sending His son to die for us and save us; it's transforming the Kingdom of God from the blood of goats over door posts to the blood of His Son dripping off a cross; and it's relevant to us every time we eat any bread.
    "This is my body, broken for you..."