Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tough Texts - The Miracle of Generosity - Feeding the 5,000

A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.  When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." 

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?" Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.  11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost."  So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world." John 6:2-14  
I often confess my fear that the greatest skill I have acquired in the past 9 years of ministry is mastering the algebra that goes into ordering pizza for a group of hungry teenagers. It is more complicated than you might think, for example: ratio of middle schoolers to high schoolers, ratio of boys to girls, brand of pizza, the last time they ate pizza at youth group and then when you get all done you throw in one more large pepperoni just to be on the safe side.
When I read many of the stories of Jesus and the disciples in the Gospels, I wonder how many of them thought of themselves less as followers of a spiritual leader and more as caterers and event planners, as I do on many occasions.

You can hear the anxiety in their voices in the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand as it is written in the other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as they are confronted by a large hungry and demanding crowd…”send them away to the town so they can get something for themselves to eat…what are we supposed to do, take 200 denarii and buy them all something to eat ourselves?” But in each of these accounts, Jesus embodies the same confidence I have seen in sainted church ladies who always know that even though the potluck buffet looks slim, everyone will get to have lunch.

While this may be a text that brings up many questions for both adults and children, this is a wonderful story to read with children.

·         First, it involves math. We do a great illustration for children as part of our curriculum at my church where hanging on the classroom wall are 5,000 stick figures. The sight is breathtaking.  It is can provide an exercise in thinking about numbers, population and distribution of resources. Certainly even a young child can understand that 5 loaves of bread and two fish cannot be easily divided among 5,000 people.

·         It is a great story, especially as John tells it, because it is a child who has offered the food. In telling this story we can talk about how children would have come to hear Jesus teach, and that even a young person can make a difference to a community of people.

·         This is also helpful because it is about something that they have experienced for themselves - being hungry and wondering when they will get to eat. This might happen on a variety of scales for different children – those who have known true hunger and worried about where the next meal would come from, but even those who are too impatient at a restaurant or who suffer (as my son often does) from a long car ride with snacks forgotten on the counter at home. Hunger is such a basic human experience that all children should be able to relate to it . (More so than demon possession which is an entirely separate category of miracles in the Gospels)

Obviously the question that makes this a tough text is whether or not this feeding miracle could have really happened. If you want to have a conversation about miracles in the Bible with a child (or rather if they want to have one with you), this is one of the best to start with. Here are some things to keep in mind:
·         It is helpful to talk about a miracle (in the Bible) as something that teaches us what God/Jesus wants for the world. In this story we learn that God intends for there to be enough for all, and that where we see not enough, God will provide abundance.

·         When a child asks if something really happened in the Bible (which my own son does frequently) it is sometimes helpful, particularly if you yourself have questions about whether or not something in the Bible is historical, to use language about how God has the power to do anything, and that God uses that power in the world for good. This is especially important in our readings of the Gospel of John, where these kinds of signs are used as a means to show the power of God and Jesus as the true Son of God.

·         If your child asks you whether or not you believe this miracle happened, you should feel free to tell them what you believe – and it is even okay to tell them that you are still trying to figure it out for yourself.  What you can model for them is an adult who is still seeking to understand the Bible and to engage with scripture even when it seems hard. That is far more important than giving the right or wrong answer.

A popular interpretation of this miracle that is especially helpful in teaching it to children has nothing to do with the metaphysical or the math – rather a belief that the miracle was in the sharing. By the example of the boy offering what he had, others too brought out what they had and gave it freely to those around them who were in need. There was always enough, the crowd just needed to be compelled to share with those who were in need.
Ironically, just as I was first developing my pizza algebra, I took a group of high school students for a week at the Heifer Ranch, an educational facility of Heifer International. Part of that week included a night in their Global Village (see the video below). This experiment in sharing and the scarcity of resources was cut short by severe weather that moved into the valley that afternoon. Sent back to our lovely comfortable lodge for the night and assured of pizza on its way for our dinner, I took aside some of my boys who were strong factors in my pizza algebra. I talked with them about what it means to share what we have been given, how we recognize the needs of those around us first, and how they needed to step back and make sure others had what they needed before they served themselves. It was an earnest moment - shattered by the 20 pizzas (for 22 people) that soon walked through the door - but one I know they took to heart.

As someone who is willing to believe in biblical miracles, it would seem to me that  this kind of miracle of generosity is exactly what we are all looking for in our current age, and it is a lesson that our children (all children even) need to be taught.

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