miracle of loaves and fishes
The Seventh Sunday After Trinity
Hosea 14, Psalm 138, Romans 6:19-23, St. Mark 8:1-9
I remember driving through an incinerated mountainscape, erect black sticks standing in ranks like sentinels at the gates of hell. It must have been a wizard’s stagecraft. The blaze had charred every tree and devoured every blade. A nuclear blast, I thought, could not have visited a darker holocaust.
But looking a bit closer, I saw tiny shoots of green protruding from the blackened carpet, and even dots of blue and yellow, wildflowers the more resplendent for the desolation that engulfed them . . . but could not annihilate them.
Life is a stubborn thing.
God makes all things new. He creates life and re-creates life. He gives life more abundantly. He gives Himself away.
St. Mark reports for us today on our Lord’s second great feeding miracle. This Jesus has Himself known hunger. The devil tempted Him in the wilderness, where He went without food or drink for 40 days and 40 nights. The devil invited Him – after all, He was the Son of God, was He not? – to do a little razzle-dazzle, to turn stones into loaves of bread.
And our Lord responded, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Is He God? As the Father filled Him with the word of life, He fills the multitude with His every word. He has taught them for three days in this desolate place.
Is He God? As the Father provided the tribes of Israel with an abundance of manna in the wilderness, the Son supplies this multitude with more bread than they can eat.
Is He God? He breaks the bread as He will allow His body to be broken to feed His church. He is the bread of life. The eucharistic language allows no room for doubt: In giving away the bread He is giving away Himself. Listen to the echo of the Lord’s Supper: “He took the seven loaves and, having given thanks, He brake them . . . And they had a few small fish, and having given thanks, He blessed . . .” (William L. Lane: The Gospel of Mark, 270 nn 3-4)
Is He God? He is the Living Word and the Bread of Heaven; He is the Life of the World.
And after the people ate and were filled, His disciples picked up the leftovers. This Lord Jesus gives of Himself in such abundance that we can never consume all He offers. He bids us feast on Him . . . not nibble.
This second feeding miracle, perhaps done in gentile country, confirms and reinforces the first. It is less about the miracle than the One who performs it.
Is He God? The answer appears plain, but His apostles attended the former miracle and they seem to have wiped their memory banks clean. They moan, “How can one satisfy these people with bread here in the wilderness?”
But more about them later. What about us?
Our cup runneth over, our life is a riot of God’s grace. It blankets the ground around us like clover, crams the sky like stars on a crisp northern night. We are awash in grace. But what appears a treasure trove may be a trap.
The rich man who tormented Lazarus gorged on savory foods every day – and turned his earthly paradise into an everlasting spiritual desert. In another story, those invited twice to the great banquet had more than they needed, enough to buy land and livestock and to marry, blessing upon blessing, yet they insulted the Host and spurned His call to the feast that has no end.
And us? I fear we know not the spiritual feast until we have seen spiritual starvation. I have seen it.
In the old Silk Road city of Tashkent, an American woman named Connie insisted I visit Orphanage No. 1 with her. She told stories of children stuffed into straitjackets and bound to beds. I thought she must be hysterical. Finally, I agreed to go, and then I could no longer dismiss her tales as fantastic.
Orphanage No. 1 warehouses handicapped children. The grounds have trees and even the odd blade of grass. On the outside, it looks benign. On the inside, each floor has a number of wards, each with 15 to 20 beds.
The children divide according to age and sex. It matters not what their disability is. The warders toss those with learning disabilities and those with physical handicaps like lettuce and tomatoes.
Outside each ward, in a dark hallway, a babushka hunkers on a chair by the door. She sits and she stares at the wall, entering the room only when the schedule demands that she do a feeding or a change of soiled clothing.
The children, many of them lashed to the beds or in straitjackets, just as Connie had described, lie and stare at the ceiling. Some whimper, some cry. That’s all they do, except in a few rooms where a privileged few, the tamest ones, are allowed to move around a little as long as they’re quiet.
Connie said every few months a couple of kids die of systematic starvation that thins the numbers, lessens the burden on the state. The bureaucracy shuffles those who survive until age 18 to an institution for adults. The mortality rate there is much higher.
Some children suffer from severe disabilities, but others show only minor mental retardation. Many young ones in Orphanage No. 1 are not truly orphans. A parent, a father in most cases, has put them out because he could not bear the shame of having a “damaged” child in his home.
One memory I cannot shake, a decade-and-a-half later: At the end of each hallway are shelves on which boxes of brand new toys, still in their cellophane wrappers, rest in neat stacks. Foreigners have donated them but the orphanage workers have never taken them out of the boxes. It’s not in their job description.
This is what sin has done. This is the culture of death. Everywhere, people die, but this is quite a different thing, a place where people never live. Our Lord Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
God and life are bound so tightly that to deny God is to forfeit life. In lands where no one calls on His holy name, the angel of death wields his scythe like a drunk on a blood binge.
This is the wilderness. Scarcely any feast on the word of God, consume the bread of life. Few know either temporal or spiritual blessing. And this is the vast expanse of the world few of us see. Peering into this hell of death, I gained a keener understanding of life. Our temporal abundance shrouds it from us.
Life is an existence dedicated to loving God. And to love God is to love our neighbor.
Like Jesus’ disciples, we must open our eyes and name His grace for what it is. In our passage, His original disciples would not see His first miracle as evidence of His divinity. As a result, they did not recognize the second. How often do we ask God for blessing and, receiving it, treat is as the fruit of our own labors or as happenstance?
Yet despite their doubts and dismal failings, Jesus continues to bestow the privilege of service upon these disciples. After He has given thanks for the bread and blessed the fish, He leaves it to them to distribute the food, to serve up His blessings to the multitude.
He forgives us our weakness over and again and allows us to serve Him by serving all those He has made in His image, whether with food for the body or food for the spirit. Should gratitude for His love that secures out salvation not propel us to do His will?
St. Augustine, who had been forgiven much, said of this passage, “In expounding the holy Scriptures, I am, so to speak, now breaking bread for you. If you hunger to receive it, your heart will sing out with the fullness of praise.
“And if you are thus made rich in your banquet, why would you then be niggardly in good works and deeds of mercy?”
We cannot consume all He provides — but we should not leave many leftovers. As He pours out His abundance on us, the more we eat, the more we know Him.
In these stories of the feeding miracles, we find our Lord modeling for us the life He would have us live. It begins with compassion, an abiding concern for those in need. And not only for those of His flock.
Among the “very great” multitude are many gawkers who would turn out for any itinerant sorcerer, any “holy man” with a good yarn to spin. The Lord who knows the hearts of all men knows that only the poor in spirit will accept the sacrifice He will offer.
He knows that most will fall away when He says, “Feed on Me.” They will eat His bread that sustains physical life but turn away from the Bread of Life everlasting.
Their destiny hangs on what they receive from the Lord and how they receive it. So does yours and mine – and that of all He pulls into our orbits. The serpent told Eve that if she ate of the forbidden fruit, “You will not surely die.” She and Adam spat out God’s words and feasted on death. The last Adam made “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” His sustenance and His banquet.
Think again of the Parable of the Great Banquet. The invited guests revile both the host and the feast he offers. They will not eat. In the feeding miracles, all eat of the bread and fish for which He has given thanks, but many eat unworthily. They eat judgment on themselves.
Yet Jesus would weep over their sin. This is a sign of true grace in those who follow Him, this pity for unconverted sinners. King David displayed it: “I beheld the transgressors, and was grieved.”
In the days of the Prophet Ezekiel compassion for the lost gripped the godly ones: “They sighed and cried out for the abominations done in the land.”
St. Paul said, “I have great heaviness and continual sorrow for my brethren.”
God pours the mind of Christ into His people, His conduit, and it flows forth from them. Should it be different for us?
We see once more that with God all things are possible. And if He supplies the physical needs of the many, how much more will He bless spiritually those who put their trust in Him? We should stand at the ready to do good to all men; we cannot know when God the Holy Spirit will appear to this one or that one, to call his name and touch his heart.
C. S. Lewis understood. He came to view his former state as an atheist as one of spiritual hunger.
“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists,” he wrote in “Mere Christianity.” “A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water . . .
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud.
“Probably, earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”
Like the apostles, like so many of us, like me, Lewis had been slow to come to saving faith. The apostles, of course, spent three years with the Lord. Bear with me for a minute and track the way St. Mark weaves his story.
He picks up the language of the prophets who berated God’s people Israel for their hardness of heart and refusal to see. He applies it to the apostles, who show no more understanding of Jesus’ words than do the masses.
After the feeding of the 4,000, in the boat, they will realize that they have brought only one loaf of bread for the journey across the lake. They will hurl accusations at one another for the lapse. Is the author telling us they still fail to understand that Jesus is the one true loaf?
Yet both Isaiah and the Psalmist had declared that God would make the deaf to hear, the dumb to speak, the blind to see. After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus heals a deaf and dumb man; after the feeding of the 4,000 He heals a blind man.
In the first case, the apostles, astonished, break out in a hymn: “He has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” A glimmer of light on the horizon. In the second, St. Peter, the spokesman for the 12, confesses, “Thou art the Christ.” A yet imperfect understanding, but the dawn is breaking.
This confession of faith comes in Caesarea Philippi, a part of Palestine in which many Romans have settled. They live there among the Jews. This Jesus is Lord of all.
This is the center of St. Mark’s gospel. Jesus now turns toward Jerusalem, toward the Last Supper, where He will give thanks to the Father for the bread and wine and command these apostles to consume them as His body and blood, which give life.
In Tashkent, today the capital of the corrupt and decayed old Soviet state of Uzbekistan, Connie grieved in something like the way her Lord had grieved for the helpless and hopeless. And, like Him, she did not stop there. One of the children in Orphanage No. 1 touched her deep down in her soul.
His name was Farhat and he was perhaps 10 years old. He spoke neither Uzbek nor Russian and, of course, no one could provide a biography.
His smile went through her like a shaft of white light. She convinced herself that he was only mildly retarded, the sort of child who might have moved into the mainstream with the sort of special education so ready available in America. In the ward, he was one of the privileged ones allowed to move about.
He rarely tried to speak, but he smiled at her whenever she visited. Somehow, he seemed to have descended into hell and found peace. One way or another, Connie knew, the state would strip it off of him like a soiled diaper. In a land that denies Christ, peace evaporates like cheap vodka spilt by the drunks sleeping one off on the burning sidewalks.
Connie obtained permission to take Farhat home for a few days now and then even though, in fact, she had little time for him. She had five children of her own and she ran a guest house for missionaries passing through the capital.
Mostly, Farhat spent his time on the little patch of green grass under the clothesline in the courtyard behind Connie’s house. Locked in a world only he could see, he walked around, even danced once in a while, always smiling.
I brought back a picture of him, grinning out from among red and yellow balloons on his birthday. In that moment, he was far away from the hurt and the want. Connie gave him unwrapped toys, hand-me-downs but treasures to him, and spoke kindly to him.
She provided what she could. It would have been a stale crust for us; it was a banquet for him. May we see the spiritual bounty our Lord rains down on us for what it is. Amen.