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 is 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 strong evidence for the likelihood of that event really happening.
From a different perspective, there are those that embrace scientism meaning that they will not believe in anything that can not be measured, experimented upon, or proven within the realm of the five senses. For those ascribing to this strict interpretation, religion and accounts of miracles are often dismissed as superstition, that if something indeed did happen, there is a scientific explanation to dismiss the miraculous. Even some believers may discount the record of the feeding of the five thousand as more of a symbolic representation of the generosity and service encouraged by Jesus such that everyone gave their small share and there was enough for all, not that he actually was able to multiply the bread and fish.
These perspectives of downplaying the miracle of multiplication seek to reduce or limit Jesus to just his humanity, but he is so much more. Jesus is human, fully human, yes, but he is also fully divine. Coming to understand the wonder of the unity of the divinity and humanity of Jesus can help us better understand the reality of our world and cosmos. One of the core aspects of who we are as human beings is that we are people of wonder. The physical sciences are tools that we have in our toolbox that we can access to help us to understand our physical realm, while at the same time we also have spiritual tools that aid us in understanding both physical and spiritual realities. I would argue that the physical sciences actually emerge precisely because of our spiritual pursuit to understand the wonders of God’s creation. In accessing both faith and reason, 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 dismisses anything 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 he is showing what living life to the full is all about: being in communion with God and one another.
We need to 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 firstborn of the new creation embodies the reality of the fullness of who 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 because we will be cutting out the very life force that sustains those virtues we hope to aspire to. We will access the fullness of all that Jesus offers us when we open the door to Jesus this Easter Season. 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, the reality of God-incidences all around us, and embrace the eternal foundation and ground of our being which is the Trinitarian Love of God.
Painting: The Head of Christ (No 3), Rembrandt, 1640’s