HOW TO FEED MILLIONS WITH $37
Matthew 14 : 13 – 21
August 4, 1996, by Tad Mitsui
The story of feeding of thousands in the Gospel is a celebration of the spirit of sharing. Where there is willingness to share, many impossible things become possible. The story is not so much a demonstration of the magical power of Jesus. If it should be a demonstration of anybody”s power, it is of the power that all of us possess – the willingness to give up whatever we have because we care for others.
When the feeding of thousands occurred, Jesus was sorrowfully remembering another banquet. It was only a few days before at a banquet at the court of King Herod, where the king beheaded John the Baptist only to please the King”s illicit mistress, his brother”s wife Herodia. John”s relentless condemnation of corruptions in king”s court was a real pain in the neck for many members of the royal family. So the prophet”s life was sacrificed, and John”s head was presented on a silver platter as a birthday present to Herodias. A banquet can be a place of intrigue and machination, greed and other iniquities, no matter how good the food is. Sometimes when a dinner party is intended to serve not very honourable purpose, we may have to say "No" to the invitation.
I remember the time when Archbishop Ted Scott refused to attend a banquet provided by a powerful bishop of another denomination. Archbishop Scott was the President of the Canadian Council of Churches which I was working for at the time. The dinner was a big event of Toronto high society. The list of the invited guests was a "Who”s Who" of Canada. It included cabinet ministers, the Prime Minister, the Premier of the Province, presidents of big corporations, and media stars. It was a boastful show of its bishop”s influence in Toronto society. Ted Scott”s refusal to attend it created a scandal. He was accused of being a spoiled sport, and became a social pariah. The Archbishop did not feel that he could enjoy such an event costing tens of thousands of dollars, in the midst of poverty during the recession.
Jesus”s idea of a dinner was a occasion for caring and loving, a time to enjoy the company of friends and loved ones. It did not have to be rich or plentiful. His idea of a dinner had love as its main course, and food as condiments. I once preached in a remote village in the mountains of Lesotho in Africa. I baptized some 30 babies and conducted communion, because ministers rarely went there. It was a hot scorching summer day. Harvests were poor the year before, and people were so hungry that they could not wait for their crops to ripen; they were eating green unripe crops. Women gave me a few green peaches for lunch, while the congregation feasted on corn on cobs the size of a thumb, and a small cakes of cold cooked corn-meal only the size of a cookie: not much to call dinner. It was a banquet to celebrate the initiation of many babies into the community. We danced and sang afterwards. As I headed home – a couple of hours” horseback ride – I nearly fainted of hunger. My body was spoiled by too much food and was not used to endure an empty stomach so long, as my African friends could. But it was a real joyful banquet. When we can share everything, and can trust the affection and love of your friends and neighbours, we have happiness no royal dinner can provide.
People were eager to hear what Jesus had to say. Thousands followed him all the time. When evening came one day, disciples became concerned about their physical needs. So they asked Jesus to send them home. Do not think that the disciples were callous in trying to avoid responsibility to feed the multitudes. They weren”t. They were exercising common sense. "It”s supper time, Teacher. You stop preaching, and let them go home. You have to think about their physical needs, too." But Jesus knew that they would not go away. Jesus knew that it was not the kind of crowd who would go away merely because they were hungry. After hearing about the cruel death of his cousin John the Baptist, the grief stricken Jesus had wanted to be alone and pray. He took a boat to the lake to escape the crowd. But when he and the disciples arrived on the other side, the crowd was already waiting for him. They did not leave Jesus alone. They were hungry for spiritual nourishment. Spiritually hungry people are caring people. And the caring people can achieve wonders.
When he was asked if it was possible to feed the crowd, the ever sensible Philip responded reminding Jesus gently that there was no such money to feed thousands. "Get real, Teacher!" was his message. There were so many people. Besides, the place was so far away from any town where to buy food. "Send them home, Master. They have to eat, too." But Andrew found a boy who offered what food he had on him. The boy must have overheard the conversation between Jesus and Philip. "Five loaves of bread and two fish." "Poor kid. Nice kid though, he does not know his offer is no help at all." But Jesus sat people down on the grass, so the story goes, blessed the food, and fed everybody until they were satisfied. There were even left-overs.
There are at least two theories to understand this story. One school of thought insists that Jesus performed a miracle multiplying five loaves and two fish ten thousand times, as the Son of God could do things which were impossible for ordinary mortals. But another interpretation is more rational. It speculates that everybody began to offer whatever food there was in their possession. They were touched by the boy”s willingness to share what little he had. But I think that this kind of discussion about what actually happened is missing the whole point of the message of the Bible.
As far as I am concerned, either case is possible. It does not matter. The whole point of the story is to celebrate the community of caring and sharing. Wonderful things happen when people are willing to share no matter how big or small their contributions are. I worked in Geneva, Switzerland during the 80”s coordinating famine relief operations in Africa. It was, as some of you surely remember, the worst famine that ever happened in history. It probably killed over a million people. All the major churches of the world got together and formed a joint program to raise funds and coordinate the relief work. We set a target of $100 million, as much as anything for the shock value of hearing the demand for such a large sum of money. We never thought we could ever reach such a big target. But we hoped that it would shock people into recognizing the seriousness of the tragedy. By the time my contract ended in 1987, the total amount raised surpassed $500 million. It looked like a miracle.
Of course, there were big donors who donated many trucks or ship-loads of grains, including our own United and Presbyterian churches and Canadian government. But what I remember still vividly are the likes of $37 coming from a senior woman living in a nursing home in Beamsville, Ont. and designated it for a helicopter in Mozambique. The most of the donations were those small coins from those who could hardly afford to give those donations. They were often given through the church mission fund. This was also during the time of the last recession when mortgage rates hit 23%. It was a terrible time economically. I gained fresh faith in the goodness of people during those hectic days in Africa. Where people are willing to sacrifice because they care about other people, miracles can still happen.
One could easily think that the Ontario senior was naive in giving her precious $37 out of her pension – she could hardly afford it and $37 would be of almost no help to purchase a helicopter. But she meant well; she was concerned about the starving people in Mozambique. That kind of caring counts, just like five loaves and two fish. Andrew laughed at the boy. But Jesus didn”t. He knew that such love and willingness to give out of concern for others would perform wonders.
On the night before he died on the cross, he broke bread, divided it and gave it to the disciples saying, "Take, eat, this is my body broken for you." I don”t believes that the bread we eat at the communion is a piece of Jesus” flesh. The bread we eat at the Communion comes from someone”s oven or Marche Richelieu. There is no miracle. The miracle is Jesus” ultimate sharing of his life. It does not matter if Jesus miraculously multiplied the five loaves into ten thousand loaves or something else happened. The real meaning of the story of the feeding of thousands is the miracle of caring and sharing.