A child. A large crowd. Five small barley loaves. Just two fish. A great deal of grass. You could call this Gospel narrative a study in contrasts. A child with no independent means. A crowd of grown adults with at least some means. The child, cared for by others. The crowd of adults, providers of child care. This little boy, diminutive in age, size and stature. Only one in number. This large crowd, older than the boy, far larger, far more able than he. Many in number. Everyone â€” this boy and this crowd â€” hungry.
Philip tells Jesus it would take more than six months wages to assuage their hunger. Half a yearâ€™s work for just one meal. The Bible doesnâ€™t linger on this point. But I will. Nothing in the text suggests Philip didnâ€™t have those wages in his pocket. Or collectively in the twelve pockets of the twelve disciples.
I bet they had the cash. Do the math. Assuming an every-other-week pay schedule, feeding this crowd of 5,000 would set them back just one pay period. One quarter of a truth tithe. About 2.5 percent their annual income. Biblical standards would urge them feed three more crowds this size.
20,000 people in total. Out of the regular stewardship of just twelve of Jesusâ€™ disciples.
How that number compares to the wider population isnâ€™t the easiest thing to come by. Despite King Herodâ€™s storied census, the Bible doesnâ€™t record the total population of Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean countryside. Nor are the official records extant elsewhere.
We do have an estimate by Josephus, a generally trustworthy first-century historian. 10 to 12 million â€” roughly the size of New York City. Iâ€™d call Josephusâ€™ estimate hyperbolic. Thereâ€™s no way even to remotely imagine the ruins of a civilization the size and scope of New York City below the modest structures of modern day Jerusalem and the dusty desserts and fertile fields that surround it.
Thereâ€™s another source: the work of the 19th-century, Heidelberg-educated, economic historian, Karl Julius Beloch. He estimates the population at 2 million, including 500,000 living in the Transjordan area.
Together, the numbers paint this picture: Jesusâ€™ nascent, itinerant church of twelve, could, with their regular giving â€” that is, with the Biblical standard of a tithe â€” provide for 1% of the population. Yet, when presented with just one quarter of 1% â€” a fraction of their Biblical responsibility â€” they shoot up their hands, throw in the towel, look elsewhere.
5,000 may look like a large crowd, too large a crowd. But it isnâ€™t. Thatâ€™s the thing with large crowds. Large projects. Large needs. Large numbers. Get beyond a certain size and it begins to look as though the only way to accomplish something is by a miracle.
For one reason or another, Saint John is wary of miracles. So he calls the incredible things Jesus does signs. Signs of who Jesus is as the Son of God, as God. You see, no miracle was needed to feed the crowd of 5,000. But instead, a sign of Godâ€™s promise: Godâ€™s love for the whole world.
I canâ€™t decide if Andrew is being maliciously or benignly facetious when he searches for some way to bail out he and his compatriots from footing the food bill: There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?
The better question to ask is what are they â€” what are these five small barley loaves and scant two fish â€” to this boy?
For him, a lot of work. The fish, likely caught on his own. The hard way. Standing on the shore with a line and hook; not by casting a big net as the disciples were accustomed to. True, he didnâ€™t have to work so hard for the five barley loves. But someone else did. He likely purchased those loaves with money given to him by his parents, and was bringing them home, where they would be bread enough for his whole family to eat for the next five days.
There is no question. Feeding this hungry crowd of thousands is a tremendous sacrifice. For this boy. For his entire family.
Weâ€™ll never know, but we can hope that either Philip or Andrew, or any one of the other disciples sent the boy home with at least one of the twelve baskets of leftovers. Filled with their sacrifice, their offering blessed by God. Made holy by God. Redeemed by God.
God knows something about sacrifice, about offering. About people mocking what little there is to give. About hardship. From this mountain to another and its redeeming cross.
On the cross God gives life itself in death, shows the breadth and depth of Godâ€™s love. A love that does not seek to receive, but to give. Everything. And in giving everything claims the sacrifice of this boy, holy; claims every offering, holy; claims the holy way of the world to be the way of free and (w)hol(l)y giving.
Five loaves. Two fishes. Six months of wages. Whatever you have. Whatever you give. God will take, bless, break and give. For the sake of the whole world.
Saint John puts it this way: God so loved the world, that he gave his only son.
So, sit down; take and eat. This is bread that will change the world. Craft the world anew. As it was in the beginning. Giving. Life-giving. Or as the church calls it, eternal life.