David A. Davis
October 7, 2018
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The math doesn’t add up. Five loaves. Two Fish. 5,000 men. You don’t have to be a math wiz to figure it out; that the math doesn’t work. Old math. New math. No math. Calculator. Computer. It doesn’t work. Math doesn’t work when it comes to the loaves and fishes. “The multiplication” is how the story is sometimes described by the tradition. Certainly not a “multiplication table” but a table story nonetheless.
The math doesn’t add up but the numbers stand out. This gospel favorite is painted by numbers. 5 loaves, 2 fish. That’s 7. A great biblical number. When the leftovers were all collected, they filled 12 baskets. That’s a biblical number. Jesus ordered them to sit down in groups of hundreds and fifties. The total was 5,000 men. Some see here a military reference that gives a nod to those in the crowd who were looking for a conquering, victorious, ride in a big horse kind of messiah. Who knows? 5,000. Maybe that’s just a number that means a whole. I mean as in that’s a lot of people. A lot of people around and not a lot of food for them to eat.
The multiplication of the loaves and fishes is the only miracle told in all four gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. That repetition, in and of itself, offers an exclamation point on this story and its place, its place on the church’s shelf, the church’s oral history, the church’s story telling about Jesus, the church’s shared imagination. And “the multiplication”, the loaves and fishes, this indelible story from the life of Jesus cannot be summed up just with numbers. The story is so….so full.
That reference to the location as “a deserted place”? Mark repeats it three times. It is a deserted place where 5,000 people could show up for the day. “Deserted place”? “Deserted place” in scripture often connotes wilderness, arid, sparse, a dessert like place. But this deserted place has a nice green, a quad, a sitting place for a picnic of 5,000. There is also the sense in which the crowds did not just recognize Jesus but also the twelve. Jesus had sent out the twelve earlier here in Mark. Right at the beginning of this story, they are reporting to Jesus “all that they had done and taught.” When Jesus and the twelve went away by boat to this deserted place, Mark tells that many from all the towns recognized not just him, but them. The ministry of the twelve was attracting attention. People coming from all the towns around the sea of Gallilee. Crowds scurrying, scampering, rushing around the shore. So much so that they made it to the deserted placed before Jesus and Twelve who were traveling by boat. The deserted place; when Jesus arrived at the place there were already thousands of people.
When Jesus saw the “great crowds”, the bible says he had compassion on them. He had compassion on them because they were like “sheep without a shepherd.” They were lost. They were a wandering heard. They were a mess. It doesn’t say right then that he had compassion on them because they were hungry. This apparently was not one of those gospel crowds of sick people, or folks who couldn’t walk or couldn’t see or couldn’t hear. They were like sheep without a shepherd. They were lost. So Jesus begins to teach them many things. It doesn’t say what; maybe it was a Sermon on Mount kind of day, or one parable after another for hours, parable, or a day of questions and answers. Whatever he taught, it is day full of the gospel. A gospel day. A kingdom of God day. A God with us day. Jesus taught them many things.
At some point, as it grew late, as the many things being taught turned into many, many things, the twelve are ready to call it day. They were done. They were craving the deserted place and having it all to themselves. The twelve want to send everyone away so they could get something to eat. Jesus, of course, tells THEM to give the crowd, the great crowd, something to eat. The twelve are quick to complain that it would take a whole lot of money to order takeout for this many people; about 8 months of daily wage, they say. There’s that math again. A lot of money to feed the great crowd of not so lost sheep now already fed in a different way by a day of gospel teaching. Yeah, 5,000. It’s a lot of people.
Five loaves. Two fish. That’s all they have. Jesus takes the 5 and 2, looks up to heaven, and blesses and breaks and gives them to the twelve to set before the people. “Taking the give loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people, and he divided the fish among them all.” He took. He blessed. He broke. He gave. Just like another meal. You had to hear it. Take. Break. Bless. Give. Just like the Last Supper. “On the night of his betrayal, Jesus took bread, and after giving thanks, he broke it and gave it them, saying “this is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” (I Cor. 11) Take. Break. Bless. Give. And ever since, we remember that meal. But that night, that night of the Last Supper, when the twelve heard Jesus’ words, and saw Jesus’ actions, when they took the bread and the cup from Jesus, they had to be remembering another meal. That meal in the deserted place. They had to be remembering the loaves and the fishes. Remembering that evening when “all ate and were filled.” Were filled. Not just filled but satisfied. Fed by the very the fullness of a gospel day. Filled. Satisfied. A lot less lost having been found and filled by their shepherd. It was a FULL day.
And the twelve, they would never forget how the twelve full baskets came back. Never forget the great crowd. Never forget the multiplication. They were never to forget. The story is in all four gospels. You and I are not to forget either. Five. Two. Hundreds. Fifties. Twelve. Twelve and 5,000. A full day. So much more than the numbers. The story is so…..full. It’s a miraculous story.
Corrie Berg and I went to visit one of the children from church who was out of school and home recovering and healing. We went to visit one of our youngest sheep, one of the lambs. The young one showed me the daily devotional book that was sitting there on the coffee table in front of the couch; showed it to me like it was a most prize possession. It was a Veggie Tales Daily Devotional that included a small lesson for the day, a short verse from scripture, and a prayer to say. Now I won’t take the time to fully explain Veggie Tales but they been around since our kids were very little. If you would like to borrow our Veggie Tales VHS tapes, the Cook Davis household has quite a few. The young one was quite surprised when the old pastor new several Veggie Tales songs, my favorite being “God is bigger than the boogie man!”. We had a nice visit with mom and recovering young patient. At some point I asked the little lamb if I could offer a prayer, if we could pray together asking God to help the child keep feeling better each day. The answer, not surprisingly, was yes. But first, the youngest in the room, asked, required, instructed, me to read the day’s devotional from the well-worn book on the coffee table. It was a bit of wisdom coming from the little lamb. Prayer is good but let’s learn something first. Let’s learn something about God first. Let’s have a little something to grow on first. Let’s be fed first.
Before the multiplication, before the loaves and fishes, Jesus taught them many things. Before they were fed, he fed them. When the long gospel day turned to night, they were full. They were satisfied. Yes, it’s a miracle. It’s a miraculous story, And part of the miracle is how those lost sheep heard, learned, tasted the gospel that day. It never says what he taught them. But they must have learned something new about God, and themselves, and life, and the kingdom, and yes, they must have learned about him.
Jesus’s compassion is for the lost, the wandering. When things are all turned upside down, when life is king of tumbling, when it all seems like such mess, Jesus has so many things to teach. In a world and at time when being entrenched in your own ideas is hailed as a virtue, when making up your mind and sticking to it no matter what is deemed a path to success, when good conversation between those who differ seems like a distant memory and the laboratory of sharing ideas only a dream, would that Jesus would teach us something new. In a world and at a time so different than what most of remember about how things were, or how they were supposed to be, or maybe how we wished they were, would that you and I could be blessed by God’s grace with one of those long gospel days. Not in terms of hours, not some sort of all day thing, let’s not get all cra-cra here. How about this; that we might be blessed with a gospel moment that fills us, that’s satisfies us, that we might be fed with the fullness of a gospel day. That Jesus would still teach us something new.
A colleague once said to me that if on any given day, if he could read a little, write a little, and get his hands dirty, then it was good day. Similarly, if you learn something new from the gospel, it’s a good day.
It is a worthy table thought. A faith-filled prayer for communion. A prayer for wandering days. Take. Bless. Break. Give. And open my eyes, Lord Jesus, that I might see you afresh, see the world more like you want me to, and learn something new about the gospel and about me and about you.
When is the last time Jesus taught you something new?