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How Did Jesus Feed 5000 People? Does It Matter?

Christians do not believe that the spiritual is more real and more important than the physical. It’s true. Well, I’m sure that there are some who do, but not many. Allow me to demonstrate.

Some years ago, a theologian (whose name I can not recall or find at this moment) posited that the feeding of the 5000 happened differently than we had assumed. He said that rather than a physical miracle, Jesus had performed a spiritual miracle. It begins with the apostles asking around for food to feed everyone with. If you recall the story, they found only 10 fishes and 5 loaves of bread. In a crowd of 5000 men plus an unknown number of women and children. Jesus was teaching on a hill outside of town – it’s not like the crowd was made of people who just happened to be passing by – although there would be some of those. But mostly people had deliberately come out to hear Jesus teach. The problem wasn’t that every single mother in town just spaced out and forgot to pack lunches for everyone. There was food in that crowd. People just didn’t want to share it. And it wasn’t just selfishness – it was self-protection as well. What it the fellow next to you didn’t have any food? He might try to take yours by force if he figures out you have it.

So consider that. Jesus had just spent the day teaching people his message of love. Of care for enemy and neighbor alike. And out of a crowd of many thousand no one would offer what they had to Jesus to feed the crowd. Jesus responded by taking the little bit that had been shared, offering it to God and passing it out. And apparently those present followed this lead and pulled out their own suppers. Not only did people share – they became so careless that they left baskets of food behind when they were done. According to this theologian, this was a spiritual miracle – people moved to share what they had and discovering abundance where they had presumed scarcity.

Now, there are some problems with this interpretation, but let’s put those aside for a moment to consider a something. The reason I started off by saying that few Christians actually believe that the spiritual is more important than the physical is if we’re honest, we find the idea of a crowd sharing food together less exciting and special than food appearing out of thin air. We think we’re spiritually attuned, but really if we win a contest for free groceries for a year, we’re going to jump up and down, hollaring Halleiluiah! But the ability to forgive injuries that haven’t finished healing, well there aren’t nearly enough hysterical calls to tell everyong you know that you’ve forgiven someone who hurt you.

I am perfectly willing to accept the traditional understanding of the feeding of the crowd as a physical miracle. Miracles are cool. Heck, I’d like it if a cheeseburger showed up miraculously right now. But if that’s not really what happened, that’s OK with me as well. After all, if I really believe that the spiritual is more important than the physical, which should be more impressive to me: a changed heart or being able to make sandwiches appear at will?

Well, the thing is that for a while I probably would have preferred sandwiches too. But God does not seem to be inclined to making sandwiches (or money) appear out of thin air for me. So after a while, I decided to try letting the spiritual actually mean more to me than the physical. I stopped asking so much for sandwiches (I’m fat now anyways). I brought my heart for God to tend to and tame for me instead. It turns out that it’s much harder to change a heart than it is to make food appear. Frankly, if Jesus really did change those people’s hearts – even for just that day – that’s a bigger miracle than I had been giving him credit for. And maybe that’s part of the reason we can’t seem to perform miracles anymore. Maybe we’ve been looking for the wrong kind of miracles.

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6 thoughts on “How Did Jesus Feed 5000 People? Does It Matter?

  1. Anything that raises questions that confuse me so much — must be very enlightening!

    I think the modern notion that rules out direct spiritual intervention in the physical world — is simply false. God can do such things, must be able to transcend physical existence to be able to produce a world at all.

    But direct spiritual intervention in people’s emotional/mental states… I’m very much inclined to say that God probably doesn’t intervene “from outside” a person’s mind and heart.

    God could directly create physical life — but the physical evidence we’re given suggests that God doesn’t use that option to manufacture life, but grows it.

    God could directly create human characters and personalities — but to “create” a person implies that one then lets that person “be” who it is, doesn’t abruptly turn it into someone else. Unexpectedly rapid “changes of character”, yes. Discontinuities, no.

    Shifts in orientation, in how one sees the world? Suppose you’re looking at that classic drawing of the young woman with the big neck; and your mind shifts (quite abruptly when it happens!) to seeing the alternate interpretation of the same drawing, the old woman with the nose….
    ——– ——-

    I’d been about to say that God prefers to do miracles of the 2nd sort (the changes of outlook/behavior) by gradual and unobtrusive means. As God prefers to make changes of the first sort (changes of physical state) by gradual & unobtrusive means.

    Obviously, that is, we have this big messy environment to “grow up” in — and undergo psychological development through our experiences here — rather than simply being mentally/emotionally “hatched from scratch” in an experiential vacuum. Instead of being stamped out of sheet metal, in a finished state, we’re being carved gradually by the process called life. Which does include, at times, extremely rapid unexpected change… I won’t say it “is” or “isn’t” “instantaneous”. (How on Earth would you define that?!)

    And what does “spiritual” mean? I’m not saying “There’s no such thing”, but rather, “What is this that we truly do know, that we continually interact with — but find so utterly mysterious?”

    Thanks for the “Wow!”

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    • I think it’s those “ah-ha” moments where it really is like scales falling away from one’s eyes. Or when you feel part of something good and get carried away – sing, laugh to loud, share stories you don’t normally tell people and come away with a vulnerability hang-over and a sense of well-being.

      Then there are the subtle changes. The ones that I sometimes wonder, “how I end up like this?” And God says, “you asked for it” and reminds me of some prayer said or heartfelt desire.

      Or maybe a growing awareness. The same thing catching your attention. A desire for something good where there was none before.

      “The wind blows where ever it pleases . . . “

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  2. I read a similar explanation in book by Father John Dear a Jesuit priest who claimed the overlooked miracle was that people saw each other as the Beloved Other as opposed to strangers. It does not eliminate the idea of spiritual miracle but changes one’s view of the nature of miracles.

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  3. Hi Rebecca, it’s James. What I think, if I may, is it was a real miracle. Often we are thinking, how did He do it? I want that power. GOD can do anything, if we start from that Truth, this miracle was really not a miracle for Him. It was easy. If it was not a miracle, after meditating on this for some time, if it was not a real miracle or feeding of the people, then He would not be GOD, in Power or Character. Sorry for the abruptness of the post, I am busy, but GOD is never too busy for you,

    Peace,

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  4. I believe William Barclay was the first to popularize this interpretation, and to get people to share is miraculous in itself! I’ve preferred the miracle as a take-out order from God through Jesus, especially when the story following has Jesus walking on the water; hard to spiritualize that one. If I may, there were 5 loaves and 2 fishies (Matthew 14:17). I agree with you – focus on the Saviour not the process of a story…

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