Feeding the people

This coming Sunday the Church celebrates The Solemnity of Corpus Christi. In yesterday’s post we find the apostles hesitating and falling back on the ways of the world when faced with the enormity of feeding more than 5,000 people.

The feeding of the five thousand had a meaning for the early church in the responsibility of the leaders to feed the flock, particularly with preaching and the Eucharist. This is the one miracle, apart from the resurrection, recounted in all four Gospels. Luke shares the story with the other gospel writers, but does not include Mark’s mention of the compassion of Jesus for the people or the messianic allusion (Mark 6:34). However, the abundance of good stands as a two-fold lesson to the Twelve: abundance is found not in the power to purchase with money, but in the power of the Lord; and, those who give receive back even more extravagantly. Both lessons reinforce what they have learned on their own journey.

As the other gospel writers, this miraculous feeding points forward to the Last Supper (Luke 22:9).  But this account has another element of anticipation. Jesus here appears as one who provides food for the people – in other words, his authority to preach and heal is symbolized by table service.  This is made explicit at the Last Supper when he tells the Twelve, “Am I not among you as the one who serves?” (22:27)

Joel Green (The Gospel of Luke; Grand Rapids, MI;  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997; pp. 351-366) notes the taking, blessing, breaking, giving as easily pointing to the Last Supper, but cautions that these are also actions expected of a pious Jew is preparation for eating. In addition, it is noted by many scholars (Culpepper, et. al.) that the significance of the two fish is not as easily explained as the symbolism of bread. Green holds that, in this context, there are more important meanings to be understood:

First, in light of the aforementioned question concerning his identity, Jesus’ involvement in a miraculous feeding ties him into the prophetic tradition (2 Kgs 4:42–44) and helps to portray him against the background of the story of Exodus (Exod 16:4–36). Second, the close association of Jesus’ communication of the kingdom of God and healing with the miraculous feeding of the multitudes intimates that the latter is itself an expression of the saving activity of God.37 In fact, Mary had predicted that the hungry would be filled (1:53), and Jesus had interpreted the meaning of salvation, in part, as the filling of the hungry (6:21). In lifting his eyes to heaven, Jesus had recognized God as the source of this meal—that is, as the gracious Benefactor of these needy people. Jesus himself is presented, then, as the one through whom God’s benefaction is present. In light of this, it is surely of significance that no repayment is demanded from those who have received: the mercy of God is extended to all without reference to predetermined boundaries and without incipient demands for reciprocity (cf. 6:32–36).

Third, once the boundary-setting and boundary-maintaining function of meals is recalled,38 the failure of Jesus and his disciples either to observe this role or otherwise to encourage the crowds to observe practices affiliated with it is startling. Here are thousands of people, an undifferentiated mass of people, some undoubtedly unclean, others clean, some more faithful regarding the law, others less so. The food itself—is it clean? Has it been properly prepared? Have tithes been paid on it? Where is the water for washing in preparation for the table? Such concerns are so lacking from this scene that we might miss the extraordinary character of this meal, extraordinary precisely because these concerns are so completely absent.39 No attempt has been made by Jesus and the twelve, this representation of the renewal of Israel, to preserve the social boundaries that characterize first-century Jewish life. Again, Luke’s narration underscores the degree to which God’s benefaction is without limits.

Finally, Luke observes not only that all ate and were filled, but also that twelve baskets of leftovers were collected. This underscores immediately the magnitude of the miracle, together with the superabundance of God’s good gifts (cf. 6:38). That there were twelve baskets full, within a narrative co-text wherein the presence of twelve apostles has been so emphatic (vv 1, 10, 12), insinuates further that the message of divine provision embodied in the miraculous feeding of the multitudes is intended for the twelve. The outstanding question, then, is whether they will “hear” this message. Will their hearing be one of genuine perception that manifests itself in the fruit of faith and faithfulness (cf. 8:4–21)?

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