Feeding the multitude is the only pre-crucifixion story about Jesus that occurs in all four gospels. I conclude from that that the early church found it to be particularly important. In John’s telling of the story, it was close to Passover so you might imagine that the people were thinking of Moses. At very least, you might imagine that Jesus was thinking about Moses because he seemed to go out of his way to do Moses-y things.
Moses went to the wilderness, Jesus crossed to the south shore of the lake. Moses was concerned about what the Israelites would eat, Jesus asked Philip how they were going to feed everyone (even though he knew). Moses went up a mountain and so did Jesus. Moses parted the water, Jesus walked on it.
But something else takes place that sends the message that Jesus isn’t just like Moses; Jesus is more than Moses! Moses gave the law, but Jesus feeds the people. Instead of the law, Jesus demonstrates in a physical way that when we give ourselves away we end up with more left over than we started with.
John tells us that everyone’s hunger was satisfied. I was at lunch this week on a typically hot Phoenix day, and I asked the waitress to suggest a particularly light and refreshing beer. She nailed it. It was really quite nice. She came around later in the lunch and asked if I wanted another. Oh, yes, I wanted, I said, but had to get back to work. She replied that there is a difference between want and need. She nailed it again.
“They were satisfied,” John writes. The bread was distributed and the people were satisfied. Is this a story about hunger, a story about a miracle? Perhaps, but I think this is a story about justice; distributive justice. Distributive justice is not about everyone getting the same or everyone getting what they want: distributive justice is about everybody getting what they need.
One compelling interpretation of the story is that Jesus did not pull off a magic trick in which five loaves and two fish fed thousands with 12 baskets full of left overs, but that the “miracle” is that when everyone shared what little they had, and all were satisfied.
What is it you want? What is it you need? What would it take for you to be satisfied? Now ask the same three questions substituting your neighbor for you.
Here is a prayer for justice from the United Church of Christ:
Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world as your love would have it:
a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor;
a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them;
a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect;
a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love.
Give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.