The price of food materials is increasing everywhere in the world along with that of oil. Inflation is a regular phenomenon in countries like India and people are afraid of starvation. Economists and scientists suggest many ways to control inflation and to put an end to the rise of price for essential commodities. In places like Kerala the governments are thinking about developing a Food Security Project (Bhakshya Suraksha Padhati) so that this issue can be dealt with for a long time. In this background let us have a new study about the Feeding of the Five Thousand.
This miracle is recorded in all the four gospels (Mtt 14,13-21; Mk 6,32-44; Lk 9,10-17; Jn 6,1-13) and in Matthew and Mark there is a second account; the Feeding of the Four thousand (Mtt 15,32-38; Mk 8,1-13). Whether the first was done in a Jewish territory and the second in a Gentile land is a matter of debate. Some people think that Matthew and Mark give a duplicate account of the same miracle.
Both these reports have many things in common; only the place of happening, the number of loaves, the number of people gathered and the number of baskets are different. This miracle happened in a place near the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus got big crowds always. According to Luke this happened in a place called Bethsaida and John says that the season was that of Passover. The reason for a big gathering might be the increasing popularity of Jesus due to the healing miracles he was performing and because of the wonderful sermons he was delivering. Jesus is accompanied by his twelve disciples and the event becomes a practical class for them. Good teachers use always teaching aids and they choose good locations to make their ideas more concrete. The Feeding of the Multitude teaches the disciples as well as the people gathered the salient features of the Kingdom of God. They are the following:
1. God acts when his people suffer
Spirituality is not only about nourishing the “spirit” but also about addressing the needs of the “body” and “mind”. Since the spirit finds its home in the body, physical needs appear also in the divine plan of salvation. God is concerned about the material requirements of his people and he intervenes in history whenever there is a heavy need. He had answered the cries of Moses and the Israelites during their desert life and He had provided the Manna. According to the fourth Gospel this same God is active in the feeding of the five thousand. Jn 6,25-59 gives us a detailed exposition of the report of the feeding and there Jesus compares the event with that of the time of Moses.
The pain of the people was always disturbing Jesus. He was healing “the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, who were laid at his feet” (Mtt 15,30) and the people were amazed at his divine power and they said: “this is a new teaching”. Yes, the healing and the teaching were two sides of the ministry of Jesus and these happened together. Jesus had compassion to the crowd which spent three days with him in a remote place. It is interesting here to note that even though the hungry people did not make any uproar Jesus understands their pain and he expressed his compassion towards them.
2. Disciples of Jesus should address day to day issues of the society
Jesus teaches his disciples a marvellous lesson; they have to take care of the pains and suffering of the people. He tells them: “You give them something to eat”. This creates an alarming situation. The disciples inform Jesus about the main problems they were facing:
a) they have gathered in a remote place; b) it is already “very late”; c) the crowd is huge; and d) the price to feed that multitude “would take eight months of a man’s wages”. So the immediate reaction of the disciples is to find an easy solution. They recommend Jesus “to send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat”. Even today this is a common reaction of Churches and ministers. They make wonderful speeches and they are good in collecting money from the people who are affluent. But in places where the people starve and suffer they would ask: Why should we bother about the material, social or political needs of the people? Let them find an answer by themselves. But Jesus tells us always: “You give them something to eat”.
3. People’s participation is important in God’s Kingdom
There is no doubt that God is the ultimate source of everything. History teaches us that God’s treasuries contain immense wealth and we can not measure His capabilities. In the book of Genesis we read How God created the universe “out of nothing” and in the Gospels we see Jesus who performs many miracles due to his creative power. He changes water in to wine and he walks on water. Here in the case of the hunger of the five thousand also all options are open before God.
But he needs the co-operation of his disciples and the people. He asks “How many loaves do you have?”. This is an important question. If God is the creator, human beings are co-creators and people’s participation is very much necessary. They can not sit idle and say: Let God act. In the event of the feeding of the five thousand the “Tiffin Box” of a young boy changes the whole situation. The boy, who carries it, and Andrew, who finds the boy, become instruments of God. Every mother takes something for the young children when they go for a long journey or for a long session. The mother of the boy of our miracle might have asked her son to carry something to eat, because she wanted no disturbance while she attends the sermon of Jesus. Thus an ordinary situation becomes a context for the divine providence. Similarly, we can also become instruments of God.
4. Discipline is necessary for food security
The crowd is always a challenging group. The crowd can make some body “king” and it can destroy some others at the same time. It is a difficult thing to control a crowd and “a hungry crowd” is a danger for the society. Such a crowd becomes destructive often. Our political leaders exploit such situations for their vested interests and they will not mind, even if a crowd kills innocent people. At the same time there are some people who are able to make use of the power of the crowd. Mahatma Gandhi was always careful to utilize the energy of the crowd for constructive thoughts and activities.
Jesus knows well that nothing will happen if there is no discipline in a crowd. To feed a hungry crowd becomes a Herculean task. The Darwinian theory of “survival of the fittest” will be proved if we throw bags of food in a crowd. The strong ones would get more than they need and the weak ones would suffer and die in the stampede. Therefore the command of Jesus “Have the people sit down” is very important. The Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has proved that the major reason for famine is not the scarcity of food, but indiscipline and undemocratic systems. Even in the midst of plenty of food people may starve, if the government does not have a good system to distribute the food.
5. The rest from your table can feed many others
Jesus tells his disciples a finally: “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted” (Jn 6,12). The multitude was hungry. But now they are full and they do not care where the rest goes. This is an interesting thing: the food security project of God includes a planning about the “rest” and the “waste”. It is a reality that there are lakhs of people in this world who waste food materials. What the American and European people throw away can feed quite a good portion of the African people. This is true of the clothes and other things also.
We should be thoughtful about the needs of the future generation also. When we burn the fuel for unnecessary things, we should ask: Will our children and grand children find sufficient energy resources? Our responsibility is not only to manage the available resources but also to make researches for the future.