The Skeptical Miracle

Sermon for this week is based on the story of the feeding of the 5,000 found in Matthew 14:13-21. Blessings on you and yours this week.

The Skeptical Hopeful Miracle

When I was in high school I heard a sermon about this story of the feeding of the five thousand that had an interesting twist on the situation. The minister painted the picture in which the people have all come out to see Jesus, and now it is late, and the disciples are worrying about how to feed them. The way we traditionally read the story is that Jesus blesses the bread and it multiplies, becoming more bread and fish, enough for there to be leftovers. And the minister said what if it didn’t happen exactly the way we think. What if this group of people was like any other group of people, some had prepared and some hadn’t, some had plenty, and some didn’t. And those who did have food were afraid to share with those who didn’t, because they were afraid there wouldn’t be enough. But when they see Jesus standing up before the whole five thousand, with just five loaves and two fish, being generous with almost nothing, the people with food are inspired (shamed?) to share their own food, and it turns out there was more than enough.

It’s a beautiful way of explaining the parable, and at 16 it was one of the best things I could hear. I was skeptical and full of doubt, and this was something that helped me reconcile my logical mind with the fantastic stories I was given as a child. As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve started leaning back the other way.

The simple reason that I’ve started leaning back the other way, is that I’m not willing to give up on the belief that miracles can and do happen. When we take miracle stories and interpret them to fit into our modern definitions of what is possible and what is not possible, one of the first casualties is one of the great themes of the Bible. God makes the impossible possible. Our definitions of possible and impossible do not mean much to God. And refusing to search for natural explanations for supernatural stories is a way that I express my faith in the God of the impossible. In choosing the supernatural explanation I declare that God is alive and active in history even now. Not only do I believe that such a thing could have happened in Jesus’ day, I believe that such a thing could happen today.

The more complicated reason I’ve started leaning away from this explanation of the parable is that when we try to apply Enlightenment definitions of truth and fiction to the Bible, we usually miss the point. There was a little boy who used to go around telling people that God was left-handed. And when his parents finally asked him, “Why do you say that?” He said, “Because Jesus is always sitting on his right hand!” When we focus on how a miracle occurred rather than why a miracle occurred, we often miss the point the Gospel writer is trying to make. If we’re really interesting in understanding what these first Christians were trying to say, we can’t spend our time applying questions and categories that only make sense 1900 years later. If we really want to understand the message of the Bible, “What did it mean to them?” must inform “What does it mean to us?” In other words, when we focus too hard on trying to explain how a miracle like this could have happened, we lose sight of what the author is trying to talk to us about: why it happened.

So why did this miracle happen, and why was it so important that it’s the only miracle other than the Resurrection that shows up in all four Gospels? Matthew tells us that the reason this happened was that Jesus had compassion on the people who had crowded around. The feeding of the 5,000 is a story of Jesus caring and providing for those who need him. They bring their sick. He cures them. They listen until evening. He provides them food. What we hear in this story is that when we come to Jesus, he has compassion on us, and he can provide us what we need. And when we offer up our meager resources to God, they become more than abundant.

Another reason this miracle may have been important to the early Christian communities is the involvement of his disciples in the performance of the miracle. Jesus uses his disciples to perform this miracle. Jesus blesses and breaks the bread and gives it to the disciples, and then they pass it out to the crowds. It is through his disciples that the crowds experience the bounty of God’s providence. Jesus has compassion on his people, and he sends his disciples to provide for their needs.

And so it is for us. Jesus has compassion on them. The family with a sick kid and no way to pay a doctor. The ones who can’t find work and the ones who have work but still can’t pay their bills. Those stuck in refugee camps in Jordan and Syria, and those in jails and detainment centers here in the United States. The ones with no home and nowhere to go. Jesus’ has compassion on them, and he sends us with his blessing and not much else, a little bit of bread so that we can fill their bellies and their hearts.

Which brings me back to that old preacher’s explanation for the miracle, Jesus’ bold generosity that moved the crowds to action. Sometimes I wonder which is the bigger miracle, the idea that Jesus could make many loaves out of few, or the idea that Jesus could soften our stony hearts and make so many people share with their neighbors in need. There is a bit of unbridled hope in this skeptical version of the miracle. It expresses the hope, the belief, the faith, that we humans have the same capacity for compassion that Jesus had. And it expresses a reality that we are too quick to deny: We have the capacity for miracles within ourselves.

We don’t actually know what happened. If you read the story carefully, you’ll note that both interpretations are equally valid. And I don’t really feel the need to take sides on the issue. Because the more I think about it the more I understand that neither is any more or less miracle than the other. The miracle of God’s providence. The miracle of human charity. As often as not, they are one and the same.

On Easter Sunday, 1979, William Sloan Coffin gave a sermon about being an Easter people in a Good Friday world. He said “to live fully, bravely, beautifully we have to live together, to live lovingly. Then never mind if we are only a small minority. There is no limit to what love can do. Love is a miracle.” Love, he says, is a basket with five loaves and two fish. It is never enough until you start to give it away.[1]

[1] Coffin, William Sloan. “Living the Truth in a World of Illusions.” The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume 1. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. p. 194.



About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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