The feeding of the five-thousand that we encounter in today’s Gospel from John is reported in each of the four Gospels. The only other incident that is recorded in all four are the Resurrection accounts. This point is relevant because biblical scholars look to the multiple attestation theory as one means as to whether an account in the Gospel record is more or less plausible. Having the same account in each of the four then would be evidence for the likelihood of that event really happening.
From a different perspective, there are those ascribing to a strict scientism that would go so far as to say that anything that can not be measured, experimented upon, or proven within the realm of the senses is not real. For those ascribing to this strict interpretation, religion and accounts of miracles are often dismissed as superstition, that there is a scientific explanation other to explain the miraculous away, or it is just the result of overactive imaginations, mere wishful, hopeful thinking or projection. Some believers may discount the account of the feeding of the five-thousand as more of a symbol of generosity that arose because of the example of Jesus, not that he actually was able to multiply the bread and fish.
This interpretation of the event seeks to limit Jesus to just his humanity, but he is so much more. Jesus is human, fully human, yes, but he is also fully divine. There is a gift to the natural and physical sciences and I would argue that the sciences actually arose from the spiritual. One of the core aspects of who we are as human beings is that we are people of wonder. Science is one tool that we have in our toolbox to address this gift of wonder. The sciences help us to understand our physical realm and the spiritual helps us to understand both our physical and spiritual. In accessing both ways we come to have a broader picture, more pieces of the puzzle in which to put together and better experience our world.
When we limit or explain away the miracles of Jesus we rob ourselves of a more accurate picture of the reality of creation. One concrete example of this is when our third president, Thomas Jefferson, took a sharp object and painstakingly cut out verses from the Bible and pasted them to blank pages. He did so in columns of Latin and Greek on one side of the paper and French and English on the other. This eighty-four page tome is commonly called the Jefferson Bible, but the president titled it: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. This text offers a human portrayal of Jesus that discounts the divine.
If we remove ourselves from the divine, and 99.9% of our life, experience, interests, and thought is spent in the finite material realm, we will miss a deeper expression of who we are as human beings and much of the joy and gift of life. It stands to reason also that we would find it hard to believe in miracles, the mystical, the spiritual. I cannot attest to all the miracles recorded in the Gospels, but I do believe in a greater majority of them, and see in the miracles not a self aggrandizing move on Jesus’ part, but a move of love and empathy. Jesus is moved, time and again, to reach out in love, to care for and support those who are in need, as we read in today’s account of the feeding of the five-thousand, and he is showing what living life to the full is all about: being in communion with God and one another.
May we resist the temptation to write off too quickly the miracles of Jesus. May we also not dismiss the gift and value of the sciences. By approaching our world with a both/and approach, we will get a better understanding of our world, while at the same time, come to embrace the wonder of creation and who we are. God has imparted within us, as human beings, the ability to access and develop both our faith and reason, to think critically and to pray and meditate deeply.
Jesus as the first born of the new creation embodies the reality of the fullness that we are called by God and in the depths of our souls, aspire to be, human and divine. Jesus is still present to us today, knocking on the doors of our hearts, minds, and souls. If we only follow the moral and social teachings of Jesus, as did Thomas Jefferson, we will experience some benefit but we will limit ourselves. To access the fullness of all that Jesus offers us, may we open that door to Jesus this Easter. Let him in and offer the little we have, and watch how much he can multiply our simple gifts.
May we continue to journey together, to read and pray together the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. May we resist rejecting outright what we do not understand or comprehend, and instead be willing to ponder the wonders of miracles, the gift of God’s grace building on nature, and embrace the eternal foundation of our being which is the Trinitarian Love of God.
Painting: The Head of Jesus, Rembrandt, 1640’s
Link to the Mass readings for Friday, April 13, 2018: