Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21
… 8Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.’ 9The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; 10he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. 11The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. 12His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake….
I have been troubled by Magic Jesus for most of my Christian life. Every time anything startling happens, there he is, working some more magic— although people call it a miracle. But it is magic. It moves stuff around just like Harry Potter does. It moves stuff which, just as in Harry Potter, we know can't be moved like that. How then can what the Bible says be true, instead of being Harry Potter: Draft One?
I understand the appeal of Magic Jesus. He lets us read the text without too much reflection or work: the Bible says it, I believe it. Believing in Him means that we are not ostracised, or even persecuted, by His many followers. And I grew up with the story of Magic Jesus. If it were true, everything would be all right in the end. I have emotional loyalty to the story. Or is that "loyalty" simply one more reluctance to grow up and live in harsh reality?
And belief in Magic Jesus appears to give him, and therefore God, lots of power. We say we believe in Jesus because of God, but many of us believe in God because of Jesus, and a Magic Jesus bolsters God's claims to power.
The problem with the power of Harry Potter, despite Harry's goodwill, is that he uses the same power as he who must not be named. He does a violence against the physics of reality, which is all too easily a violence against other people. Gentle though he is, his power is of the same order as the satan of the series; there is no qualitative difference beyond Harry's goodwill and the ill will of the other.
It leads me to wonder if Magic Jesus is just like the rest of us; if he is living by the myth of redemptive violence. He just uses his power for "good," although we are slowly beginning to realise that this is not possible with a power based in violence. Of course, we rebel at the notion that Magic Jesus is violent. He dies rather than use violence; put up your sword. So why then, does he use a violence against the laws of physical reality? Even the Bomb, with all its violence, abides by the laws of physical reality.
The answers I have concocted to deal with the places Magic Jesus appears, have been an uncomfortable amalgam of the way people of Jesus' time tell stories, of the fact that stories get exaggerated, and of a belief that people of that time were credible and naive. That seems credible; plenty of us still believe things about him that cannot possible have happened, unless God has been lying to us about the basic structures of reality. In my discomfort, I've concentrated on the meaning of the stories rather than on the facts they misrepresent. After all, there is a lot in them.
What I mean is this: Herod holds a debauched feast— they're all perving at his stepdaughter— and he has John the Baptist killed rather than break his promise to her that she may have anything she wants as a reward for her dancing. So Matthew tells a story of another feast, a much more splendid feast, which accepts every one— the crowds, instead of only the elite— which is full of compassion and healing instead of murder, and is in a deserted place (get it?) which can't help but remind people of the Exodus times in the desert. He feeds people in the desert, like Moses, and rather more spectacularly than Moses: The manna in Exodus 16 is just enough, regardless of how much you gather. It goes off if you keep it overnight. But here there are twelve baskets full left over. And the bread did not float down from the sky, it came from Jesus breaking. (Get it?)
And just to make sure about all this, in case we don't get the message, Jesus then walks on the water, over the top of the place of ambiguous and often evil forces (the home of Leviathan) and in a chapter or so, he does the same work of magic feeding again. But this time the numbers of people and basket reflect a curiously Gentile tone, whereas in this week's reading they are 5 and 12, the numbers of the Torah and Tribes of Israel.
In Chapter 13, we've just been hearing about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like! The message is of the Feeding is plain: this Kingdom is better than Herod's kingdom. Herod's kingdom is a travesty of what a kingdom can be.
So there is a lot to see in this moral tale. Dare I say fairy tale? Because that's what it is, if we read it literally. "But what if it's true!?" shout the friends of Magic Jesus. "What if it really happened? Can't you see the power of God breaking in?"
To which I ask, "If God breaks the laws of physical reality, what separates this god from the capricious gods of Babylon, and all the other herodic empires, who did end runs around us by changing the rules of the game to suit themselves?"
And do you notice that the Kingdom of Chapter 13 is like leaven hidden in flour, and like a single seed planted in a field. And that it is wasteful, apparently, with seed sown everywhere and lots of it stolen, and the crop infested with weeds. The tone of the Magic Jesus story, which follows, is at odds with this immediately prior description of the same Kingdom.
What if the nature of God is not to impose, not to make Trumpian tweets which try to break all the rules? What if God is gentle, not violent, and is inviting, persuading, and transforming. Full of forgiveness. What if God trusts us to be healed of our violence because we can one day transcend it and grow beyond it? What if God is calling us to us to be real human beings who abandon our violent beginnings? Could we grow enough in our consciousness that we could live beyond, and overcome, our innate violence which stems from our animal beginnings of survival at any cost? That would be a miracle.
I ask myself what would lead people to tell a story of such contrast to Herod's feast. And I wonder if there was a feast with Jesus; a feast of such startling transcendence of our usual humanity, that The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the only way to express it.
Here is a man who validates people. Unlike Herod and Trump, he does not pretend to be for the people so he may pander to the elite and reap their favour. He has compassion upon the crowds. It means the sick are no longer invalid— separated and walled off— from the source of power in life which is community and love. I'm not just playing with words here. I have seen how the validation of a person and their needs can lead to the most profound healing, including physical healing.
What if the story is true? A crowd did follow him into a lonely place, and it became late, and lots of folk were going to have to try to buy food in the local villages, or go hungry. It needs to be a largish crowd for this to happen. We can't just have the Benjamins and their uncles and aunties. We need a crowd large enough to have Hatfields and McCoys, a Whitlam and a Kerr, along with a few Trade Unionists and maybe a Boss or two. here need to enough people to be in the presence of strangers, so that our prejudices and protective behaviours can rise. We need a crowd, with all that implies.
What if in his teaching and caring and validating, people did share the food they had? Those of us from the congregations of Magic Jesus have been taught to ridicule such a suggestion as shallow, weak, and a betrayal of his power. We have learned it serves only to demonstrate our lack of belief.
I think the shadow of Magic Jesus often blinds us to the truly profound and miraculous moments in our midst. Imagine Gough Whitlam and John Kerr sitting and eating a meal together in a fellowship of one mind, good will, and love. (If you come from the United States, try replacing the names with Obama and Trump.) Imagine me in true fellowship with a black person, an hour or two where white privilege ceased to exist. Most of us struggle even to see, let alone confess, that privilege.
An experience like that is life changing. How could you express it? The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to the Great feast of the Last Day foreshadowed in The Exodus. It is a complete contrast to the kingdoms of today.
We can assess the evolution of the story in various ways. We can reject everything I have said because the story, as now told, would therefore not be true. I can't help but reflect that the Magic Jesus followers, who are most likely to level this charge, are often the ones who most observably indulge in their own evangelasticity. Stories are not facts. They are metaphors with message, and always interpretation. To critique the stories of another time and culture using our own categories, and think that this is adequate, is simply naïve.
Or we can assess the story as an attempt to transmit a stunning experience of heaven-now. That is, to relay to us an understanding (akin to John's understanding of eternal life) that the kingdom of heaven had ceased to be simply an idea, and for a little while, had been actual Heaven. We can easily miss this because the Gospels talk constantly about the Kingdom of Heaven (or God) because they are deliberately, constantly, relentlessly contrasting God's kingdom with that of Herod and all the others. The Kingdom of Heaven was simply to say Heaven, with a pointed reference to the kingdoms it was not.
Even in our culture, where you can buy Heaven on a stick, there are times when we speak of an experience as being like "heaven now," or "heaven breaking in." The story of the feeding critiques them all. Heaven is not a feeling, not a worship high, but healing, compassion, equality, validation. That's a miracle which is more than what Magic Jesus performs by merely multiplying loaves.
In the Magic Jesus story, people still push and shove. You don't have to be healed, even for a moment, or to relate to the black man or the Muslim next to you, because Magic Jesus does it all. He just suspends the rules of reality for a while and you eat your fill, and go away unchanged. And as in John's reading of the story (John 6: Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.) looking for more bread because nothing about us has changed. We saw nothing but magic because we did not change.
When Jesus is a man who has imagined God, and thus seen God, in startling new ways, the real miracle happens. People are changed and healed. The old violences and separations— the murder upon which our culture is based begin to be transcended. The leaven grows.
So the Feeding of the Five Thousand is a story of Heaven. It is the story of humanity being redeemed— not a story of hope, or of how things could be— it is a story of an hour, a few minutes perhaps, when people lived in Heaven.
James Alison says "Heaven is a dwelling in the Father which is possible only for those for whom death has come to be a non-definitive, non-toxic part of their story." (Raising Abel p63) And a crowd of people, on one particular day, lived together in that story. Eating together let them step, for a while, out of the old death defined way of being human.
It is toward this that the completely non magic, fully human Jesus leads us: Freedom from the fear of death, so that we can be fully human.
Andrew Prior (2017)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Previously on One Man's Web
Matthew 14:13-21 - Feeding 5000 (2008)
Matthew 14:13-21 - Feeding Broken Dreams (2011)
Matthew 14:13-21 – Compassion (2011)
Matthew 14:13-21 - A Feast in the Face of Death (2014)
You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.
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