The story of Jesus feeding a large crowd is one of my favourite miracle stories in the Bible. It’s also the only miracle story – other than the resurrection, of course – to appear in all four gospel accounts of Jesus’ life.
It’s a great story, and the general details are pretty consistent. A crowd has been following Jesus all day and, by late in the evening, they’re hungry. Jesus tells the disciples to feed them, but they have no food and not enough money to buy it. All they can find is some loaves and fishes. In John’s account, it’s a small boy who steps forward with five barley loaves and two fish. Hardly enough, but Jesus makes it enough. Indeed, more than enough because there are twelve baskets full of leftovers.
A miracle of Jesus’ creation, miraculously making food appear, or a miracle of Jesus’ inspiration, aided by the generosity of the small boy who was willing to share all that he had, a miracle certainly happens here. Yes, inspiring generosity enough, in a crowd that large, for everyone to share what they have so that everyone is fed is a miracle. I don’t think it’s explaining it away, but inviting us in, to be a part of the miracle – as we should be. And all are fed. And then some.
Let’s step beyond the miracle moment for a minute. Each of the gospels recounts the same ending: there’s leftovers. “Twelve baskets full” of leftovers. But no one says what happens to the leftovers. Do the people take them home? Does Jesus give the baskets to the disciples for later on their journey? Are they distributed to the poor?
I can’t bring myself to believe that “twelve baskets full” of leftovers is meant to be just a sign of God’s extravagant abundance and that’s all. Surely there’s a purpose for them.
So here’s a thought. Everyone who experienced the moment of this miracle took that experience away with them. The experience changed their lives in some way. They also shared the experience with others. So frequently to so many, in fact, that it was a powerful enough story and tradition to be included in all four of the gospels.
It’s that “ripples in the pond” effect, isn’t it? Like any action we take, the moment of the miracle is just the beginning of its impact on our lives. The leftovers are its residual effect, the thing we take away with us, even the thing that we share with others. It’s no wonder we should pay close attention to them.
Jesus didn’t just feed the multitude that day. Jesus fed everyone they touched and everyone they touched and so on. A few verses later in John’s gospel, we hear Jesus telling the people to look for a different food than the bread and fishes that they just received, a “food that endures for eternal life” (John 6:27), a food that Jesus can give them. Jesus said to them, “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35) and those who come to him will never be hungry. Maybe feeding the multitude that day’s a metaphor as well as a miracle.
The spirit is fed by more than the moment of an experience, it’s sustained by what we take away from the experience, live in our lives and share with others. Just so, the Bread of Life continues to feed us each and every day.