If you pay the least bit of attention to the scripture readings Sunday after Sunday, there finally comes the day when you think you’ve heard it all. That certainly was the case two Sundays ago when I attended a parish church and heard for the umpteenth time the story of the feeding of the 5,000. Like many people, I long ago assumed that the final word on it had been uttered. So it was that I settled into the pew and prepared to day-dream my way through the sermon. But I’m glad I didn’t.
That Sunday the priest took an approach that was entirely new to me. I had always accepted that this miracle demonstrated above all the power of Jesus. It also highlighted the ineptitude of the apostles. Beyond that, the story wasn’t all that flattering to the crowd either. Did no one among the 5,000 think to remember there’d be no convenience stores out in the wilderness? Clearly nobody had done the least bit of planning, nor did they have any reason to expect that Jesus would cater the event.
That Sunday the preacher ignored all that and went off in an entirely different direction. In his telling, it was the boy with the sack lunch who was the critical piece to this gospel account. As soon as the boy realized the problem, he knew he had a choice to make. He could offer what little he had, or he could hold on to it. Logic told him that a few loaves and a couple of fish wouldn’t go very far with this crowd, and he needed no apostles to tell him that. His own intuition likely whispered in his ear that there was little if anything that he could do to make a serious difference. He was just a boy, and it wasn’t his problem anyway. But be that as it may, in all naiveté he came forward and offered what little he had. Despite the naysayers and scoffers in the crowd, he stepped up. He may have been the least of the 5,000, but he was the only one who made the move to do something. And he was the one person on whom Jesus depended to do his miracle.
A few days later I recounted this to my friend Willa, expecting her to say that she’d never considered this slant to the story either. But not so, and she went on at length to make two other points. First, what if this was food he’d brought for his family? It takes a lot of nerve to sacrifice their needs just to help out other people who had made zero preparation for this day. And then came her second point. Children can be generous to a fault, while adults can hold on for dear life to what they have. “Who else in that crowd of 5,000 had also thought to bring food?” she wondered. “Why didn’t they step up sooner to share what they had? Why was it just him?”
Perhaps there are two miracles in this story, and not just one. In the first miracle Jesus let the boy turn the hearts of the crowd. Once the boy had acted, we can only hope that a few others finally stepped forward to share what little they had. That was a miracle all by itself. But in his second miracle Jesus took what was at hand, blessed it, and then fed the 5,000. All were filled, and no one could explain how it had happened.
So what are the takeaways from this umpteenth reading of the miracle of the loaves and fishes? First of all, we must never sell ourselves short when it comes to the importance of taking the initiative. We’re all tempted to believe that we can’t make much of a difference. But if we act, and if we try to do something, we can make all the difference in the world. Just ask the boy.
Second, Jesus doesn’t always rely on the important people to get things done. In this miracle, for instance, the apostles did not cut very dynamic figures. In fact they’re pretty much clueless. Jesus could see it, and so could the little boy. As for the crowd of 5,000, it was passive at best; and at worst there may even have been a few who blamed Jesus for getting them into a such fine mess.
The boy seemed to be the only one who realized he could do something, even if it wasn’t much. Perhaps he thought that if he came forward, it might encourage others to do so as well. Clearly none of this occured to the apostles. And not a few in the crowd must have looked at the boy’s gift of bread and fish and rolled their eyes. But of course Jesus saw in this simple act of generosity the chance to work a great sign.
The last takeaway is a reminder to read the scriptures over and over again. If Jesus asks us to forgive our neighbor seventy times seven, he’d likely apply the same mathematical formula when it comes to chewing on the Word of God. We may think we know all there is to know about the gospels, but there’s always the potential for more insight. And so, when you think you know all there is to know (like me), just turn to your neighbors for confirmation. They might very well surprise you.
+The last few days have been mild at Saint John’s, and there’s a hint of autumn in the air. Our first students will begin to arrive on campus in two weeks, and in anticipation of that, summer activities have begun to taper off. Two very different events bracketed the last week, however. On Monday a group of high school students from Saint Rita’s Church in Hawaii gave a performance of song and dance in the Great Hall. On Friday the high school marching band camp ended its week with a spirited performance in Clemens Stadium. On a more domestic note, the abbey bees gave us eighty-five pounds of honey this last week, with the promise of more to come by fall.
+The newest addition to the landscape was installed last week, with the construction of a structure that marks the entrance to the hiking path that leads to Stella Maris Chapel on the other side of Lake Sagatagan. The wooden beams are white pine that had been planted on the Abbey property over a hundred years ago; and in the spirit of the Benedictine tradition, we expect the new trail entrance to last anywhere from fifty to a hundred and fifty years.
+The photos in today’s post include the new structure that marks the entrance to the trail going along the lake. The trail makes its first major stop at the statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, which stands on a hilll overlooking the lake. At the saint’s feet is a dog, and over the years cross-country runners have polished the dog’s nose as they touch it on races through the woods to the chapel on the other side of the lake.