Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent
Fourth Sunday in Lent
This morning’s gospel reading is not only a reading about a mystery, the reading itself is a mystery. The feeding of the five thousand is an event that is recounted in each of the canonical gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all include it, so we know that it matters; we know that it is an event of significance. But what is it that actually takes place? That is not at all clear from any of the accounts. Something happens by the very fact of Jesus’ presence and we don’t know exactly what it is. A miracle is performed, to be sure, but is sort of just happens.
What I mean is this: in other accounts of miracles, we are told explicitly what happened—what Jesus did—and sometimes even given the process and specific word or phrase spoken by Christ, by which the miracles were made to happen. For instance, at the wedding in Canaan, Jesus is asked by his mother the Blessed Virgin to turn the water into wine. Jesus instructs the servants to fill the stone jars with water and then to draw some out and take it to the master of the feast—and by the time the master of the feast tastes it we are told that is has turned into wine (John 2:7-9a). We are told what happened. Elsewhere, the miracle working is even more obvious. For instance, when Jesus heals a deaf man with a speech impediment, he took him aside from the crowd, put his fingers into his ears, spat, touched the man’s tongue, looked up to heaven, sighed, pronounced the word “Ephphatha,”—“be opened”—and then the man was able to hear and speak properly again (Mark 7:33-35). The process of the healing is described to us, we are told exactly what happens and even the specific words associated with the miracle. This is the norm throughout the gospel accounts.
Here, however, we are not told what happened, or what Jesus did to make it happen. Biblical art through the ages have shown images of the disciples lugging big baskets overflowing with fish and bread around to hand it to the people, but that is an assumption that is not found in Scripture. Listen again, carefully, to the reading:
Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (John 6:5-14)
Do you see what I mean? We are so loaded with Bible illustrations that we assume an image that is not necessarily there. What, exactly, happened? When did this miracle take place? Once the five thousand were done eating, there were many fragments left over. That is really all we are told—that all were filled and that there were twelve baskets worth of fragments gathered up afterwards.
St Augustine, true to form, tells us what happened. “He multiplied the five loaves in the hands of them that broke them, who multiplies the seeds that grow in the earth, so as that a few grains are sown, and whole barns are filled” (Hom. 80). All we are told is that all five thousand were filled and that there were twelve baskets worth of fragments gathered up afterwards, but St. Augustine’s statement is a spiritual truth, rather than a historical explanation of this miraculous event. The breaking of the bread multiplied it. Keep that thought in abeyance.
He has, agreeably to His mercy, reserved to Himself certain works, beyond the usual course and order of nature, which He should perform on fit occasion, that they, by whom His daily works are lightly esteemed, might be struck with astonishment at beholding, not indeed greater, but uncommon works. For certainly the government of the whole world is a greater miracle than the satisfying of five thousand men with five loaves; and yet no man wonders at the former; but the latter men wonder at, not because it is greater, but because it is rare. For who even now feeds the whole world, but He who creates the cornfield from a few grains? (Tract. 24)
In Jesus actions, then, we see the full creative and sustaining divinity of God. That’s the point. Forget the other stuff. The historicity, the historical description and its various explanations, are distractions from the truly important implications. “Let us not only be delighted with its surface, but let us also seek to know its depth” (Tract. 24).
The Lord on the mountain has been understood by church fathers as an image of the Word on High. Indeed, the Word on High feeding the multitude is the core of the story. Jesus saw the multitude, he knew them to be hungry, and he mercifully fed them. Not only because of his goodness, but also of his power. Goodness on its own does not suffice—a good person who has nothing to share has nothing to share. Had he not also had creative power, the power of God to create, then the crowd would have remained hungry. The Word on High is good and powerful, it sees the needs of people, and serves them.
The disciples, in this account, were also good—they too wanted to feed the people—but they were neither powerful, nor did they have knowledge. Jesus asked Philip where they might buy bread to feed the multitude. He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Why? What other reason than to show the disciple’s ignorance? That in itself does not seem very useful. What is the point of throwing Philip under the bus? I will return to it in a moment.
The five loaves are understood to signify the five books of Moses. Today we have become accustomed to thinking of it as Jesus—who is, after all, the bread of life—but that is not the point in this particular miracle story. St. Augustine, again, noted that this interpretation of the loaves as the Books of Moees would fit with the fact that the loaves are said to be made from barley, rather than wheat, because “barley is so formed that we get at its pith with difficulty; for the pith is covered in a coating of husk, and the husk itself tenacious and closely adhering, so as to be stripped off with labor. Such is the letter of the Old Testament, invested in a covering of carnal sacraments: but yet, if we get at its pith, it feeds and satisfies us” (Tract. 24). These five books of Moses are brought by a boy who is understood to signify the people of Israel. The people of Israel who carried the burden of the books until they were opened by Jesus, fulfilled by Jesus, and given to all by Jesus.
Jesus broke the loaves, and in that breaking of the loaves, they were multiplied. This is a central truth and an important image; the core of the miracle. In the breaking the loaves are multiplied. When those five books of Moses are opened—expounded, fulfilled and shared in and through Christ—they are transformed from the law that no one is able to fulfill—no not one—into the gospel of the one divine man who fulfilled it for all. Multiplied from five books for one people into boundless grace for all people.
In the nourishing but hard-husked barley of the law, the understanding of the Israelites was incomplete, veiled. We read in 2 Corinthians, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts(2 Cor 3:15). At the time of this miracle, the veil was not yet removed—it was not removed until Christ hung on the cross in fulfillment of the law and the te
mple veil was rent asunder; a powerful image of the removal of the veil of ignorance. This is where Philip’s ignorance comes in, and the reason why Jesus asked him a question in order to demonstrate his ignorance: Philip did not know about the multiplication, the transformation that was about to take place, because he could not know. Jesus himself was the only one who knew what lay ahead.
Augustine continues: “And what were those fragments, but things which the people were not able to eat? We understand them to be certain matters of more hidden meaning, which the multitude are not able to take in. What remains then, but that those matters of more hidden meaning, which the multitude cannot take in, be entrusted to men who are fit to teach others also, just as were the apostles? Why were twelve baskets filled? These signify the twelve apostles, whose task it was to guard and transmit the mysteries if the faith. To continue to feed the multitude.” (Tract. 24)
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world! They did not fully understand that he was the Lord of the prophets, the fulfiller of the prophets, the sanctifier of the prophets. But they were right to the extent that Jesus was also, indeed, a prophet. It was said to Moses, I will raise up for them a prophet like unto thee (Deut 18:18). That this promise of the Lord is to be understood concerning Christ Himself, is clearly stated in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 7:37). Also, the Lord says of Himself, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country” (John 4:44).
This is how the Lord feeds his people. In this miracle story we find the fullness of his grace and mercy. It was served as a mystery, it remains a mystery—a mystery at the heart of our faith. May the Lord continue to have marcy on us. Amen.