Do you think about food a lot? Are you already thinking about what you will be having for lunch today?
If an alien were to come from another planet, and land in the North Western parts of our planet, it might be forgiven for thinking that the human race is obsessed with food.
It would find endless advertisements on billboards, in magazines, and on TV, for all sorts of food. It would see vast supermarkets, filled with an infinite variety of things to eat; numerous cookery programmes on TV; and in any reasonable sized town, it would find streets full of restaurants, pubs and fast-food outlets, offering dishes from different countries and cultures, or based on different ingredients.
Our alien might also conclude that, for humans, the need for food is all about being healthy, living a long time and (especially for the female of the species) being attractive to the opposite sex. It would find that magazines and newspapers are full of articles about food, what it can do for you, or the harm eating the wrong things can do. For instance in one issue of a Sunday paper, I found a booklet about how to eat for health; an article entitled “How to live to 140” by a man who believes a special very low calorie diet will extend his life span by 60 years; and a photo feature in the colour supplement about overweight Americans who pay out up to $1400 for “A Cruise to Lose” – a Caribbean cruise with a guru who will teach them how to lose weight.
And of course, magazines and TV are full of stories about how young women, especially rich and famous ones, contract food-based illnesses like anorexia nervosa and bulimia, because of their unhappiness with their lives and their bodies.
Now, if our alien had landed 2000 or more years ago, in the world in which the Bible was written, it would have found a very different attitude to food. There would be concern about food, but not about health, or slimness or variety. What it would find would be a very basic concern with getting enough food to survive.
There is a lot in the Bible about food; and for those who wrote the Bible, and for Jesus, food, and especially the most basic food, bread, was a symbol of God’s generosity and care for creation. It stands for the provision God makes to meet the basic needs of the human race – physical, emotional and spiritual. And a feast or a banquet – enough food to meet our hunger and more to spare – stands for the ultimate provision for all our needs that we will find in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus himself used the basic everyday food of his culture – bread and wine – to stand for himself in the Last Supper which we repeat in our service of Holy Communion. The bread reminds us of Our Lord, taken by God, blessed by the Spirit, broken by betrayal and death on the cross, and raised to share himself with the whole world throughout time. Today’s Gospel story of the feeding of the multitude is linked with that supper and that symbolism, and was considered so important by the Gospel writers that it appears in all four Gospels – in some of them in two different versions.
Now, if you were a Biblical scholar, you would look at this story and find links with the Old Testament stories of the giving of manna in the wilderness and Elisha’s miracle. You would seek find deep symbolic significance in the fine detail of the number of loaves and fishes, the number of people present, and the amount of crumbs left over; and you would seek parallels with the story of the Last Supper, the institution of the Eucharist, and our present day services of Holy Communion. Now, although these scholarly investigations may be very fascinating, I am not sure that it makes things very interesting for us.
I also don’t think it is very profitable to try to decide what actually happened on the occasion our Gospel story describes. There are two basic approaches to the interpretation of miracles. One takes a literalist approach, and says everything happened just as it is described, and we must accept this as the Word of God. The other is a reductionist approach, which dismisses anything supernatural as unscientific, and attempts to find a rational explanation for any miracle. Thus, the first approach would say that what actually happened was that the loaves and fishes were multiplied by an act of God’s power to provide food for everyone; the second would say that when the little boy generously offered his food, everyone else was shamed into sharing the food they had brought, so there was again enough for everyone.
Both of these approaches actually miss the point of the Gospel, which is not to give a historical account of what actually happened, but to demonstrate who Jesus was, and to inspire faith in him. We have to read behind the actual incident to understand this. So, when Jesus repeats and goes beyond what Moses and Elisha did, the story is telling the reader that Jesus is greater than, and the fulfilment of, the Law and the Prophets.
But there are always many levels of meaning to Bible stories, and the more we read them the more meanings we find. So, let us look at this story another way. It talks about a very basic human need – to be fed – and asks, “How do you deal with this?”
Jesus asks his disciples this question, and receives different responses. Philip stands for the attitude – very common today – that you need lots of money to solve any problem. But, as he soon realised, even the largest amount of money he could think of – a whole years wages – would not be sufficient.
Andrew stands for the practical approach – what you need are the proper resources. But he wasn’t very keen to offer his own resources, and what was available was clearly not adequate, in his opinion.
The small boy, however, stands for a response of uninhibited generosity, which gives everything you have to meet the needs of others. Jesus’ response to this generosity – which stands for God’s response – is to take what is offered sacrificially, and to use it to far greater effect than we could do on our own.
That the passage is not actually about physical hunger is made clear in the following passage (which you may hear over the next four weeks ) in which Jesus speaks of himself as “The Bread of Life”. It is talking about people’s spiritual hunger, that hunger which Mother Theresa said is the real hunger of the Western world, and which is becoming more and more acute. It is the hunger to be needed, to have our talents and our selves valued, to be loved and appreciated just as we are.
Jesus’ response tells us that God is not the least bit interested in how young or old we are; whether we are fat or thin, sick or healthy, poor or wealthy, nor whether the rest of the world thinks we are fashionable or attractive. God accepts us the way a good parent values his or her child, for what we are and what we have the potential to be; but most of all, for what we are prepared to give of ourselves in love and generosity to others – because in that way we imitate our heavenly Father.
And if we offer what we have – our material and spiritual resources, however limited – then as our reading from Ephesians tells us, through the Spirit God will be able “to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine”.
I have a tape of songs, which we used for a Parents and Toddlers service, and on it there is a song about the feeding of the multitude. It’s not as profound as the meditation I used earlier – but it is more memorable. The words go like this:
More than five thousand men plus their wives and kids -how could they feed so many?
I’d a hunch – use my lunch. Crunch, crunch, crunch, they ate my lunch!
Next time you find yourself looking at the food in front of you, and worrying about whether it is healthy or not; or whether it will help to extend your life span; or make you more attractive or fashionable – just remember the little boy on the hillside and his generous act. Think to yourself “crunch, crunch, crunch, they ate my lunch” and remember what God can do with you, just as you are, if you are prepared to offer yourself sacrificially. But most of all, remember the boundless generosity of God, and that what matters in God’s eyes is the way in which we imitate that – and that God doesn’t care one tiny bit what the giver looks like.
And thank God for it.