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Spiritual Transformation and Feeding Five Thousand

Spiritual Transformation and Feeding Five Thousand


When I was little, I thought that today’s story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people was one of the most boring tales in the Gospels.  The one about how friends lowered a paralytic through a roof to Jesus’ feet — or the one about the demons screaming at Jesus and being driven into a herd of pigs — or even the healing of lepers and blind men — now THOSE were good.  But feeding a bunch of people?  Yawn.


And this story is in all four Gospels, sometimes twice.  There were plenty of opportunities for me to color pictures — and later to hear sermons — and later still to preach them myself — about this story.  Lots and lots of opportunities.


The sermons generally have talked about how we are called to feed the hungry.  You feed them, Jesus says. If we make a start with our limited resources, Christ will multiply our efforts.  Thousands will be fed.  


It’s a very good message.  But is there more?


The number of men fed is 5,000.  5,000 is a huge number of people.  It’s a crowd the size of a town.  Did the disciples count all those people?  Probably not.  Why, then,  5,000?


Until the middle of the 1st C,, 5,000 was the number of men in a Roman legion.  Later  that number switched to 4,000, another total associated with the stories of feeding the multitudes.  Could it be that the Gospel writers were alluding to this when they wrote?


We know that after the revolt of 66-70 CE and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, one legion of soldiers was stationed in Jerusalem and a second legion was stationed in Galilee.  The number 5,000, then, is associated with a huge amount of military power.


Looking at the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000,  what do we see?  There is another kingdom that is not the Roman empire or any earthly empire, and we can rely on that kingdom.  It will feed us.  It will give us enough.  We can choose to participate in this kingdom and to be fed by orienting ourselves to God, who is the ultimate provider of nourishment.


This is a spiritual transformation.  It’s a reorienting of life that places the welfare of our neighbors and of the planet as our foremost, our primary concerns,  But more than that, it’s a complete change in where we look for the meeting of our needs.  We count on God’s provision rather than our own.  We are not fed by “Caesar”, we are fed by Christ.


The orientation toward God as the provider allows us to take huge risks.  We can throw ourselves away in the service of justice, in the service of God’s loving kindness.  We can step out on a limb, spend our last dime, speak truth to power, risk everything, even life itself.  For God’s kingdom is eternal, and whether we live or die, we rest in God.


But it’s the simple act of feeding people, the simple, boring act that is central to all.  Feeding people is core to who we are in a God-kingdom awareness.  That’s what we do.  That’s what’s important.


Where will we put our unique wealth of creativity, skill, and determination?  Who will we serve?  Each moment gives us a fresh opportunity to decide:  right here and right now, will we serve Christ or Caesar?



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Simon Burris

Things that occur to me:

(1) The feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000 are separate events, so we should not say that the story appears “sometimes twice” in the same Gospel.

(2) Even assuming that the 4,000 and 5,000 figures given in the Gospels are not, in fact, real attempts to convey historical information, it seems unlikely (to me) that the figures are meant specifically to allude to Roman power in the way that you propose.

For one thing, the mere coincidence of numbers seems (to me) an insufficient bridge to get the reader thinking “Roman legion,” and then to get him to read “Roman legion” as representing “Roman power in general,” and then on to “earthly powers in general.”

But even more far-fetched (to me) is the idea that the intended audience of the Gospels, or that the intended audience of the oral tradition(s) informing the written Gospels, could be expected actually to know the precise size of a Roman legion. But I will admit that I could be completely wrong about this particular point: authors often do make overly-optimistic assumptions concerning their readers’ general knowledge.

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