Only one of the miracles that Jesus performed is recorded in all four gospels: the feeding of over 5,000 people from two small fish and five small barley loaves. There is a similar story in the Old Testament, in which the prophet Elisha fed a hundred men with twenty barley loaves and still had food left over (2 Kings 4:42-44). But do the math: Jesus’ miracle is greater by several orders of magnitude.
Of course, some readers want to excise the miraculous elements from the story altogether. Some say that the little boy with the loaves and fishes wasn’t the only one who brought food, and in the presence of Jesus, everyone was inspired to share. Others suggest that Jesus didn’t host a real meal but a sacramental one, so that each person got as much to eat as we might when we take a tiny bit of bread at communion.
Perhaps. But those explanations don’t seem to do justice to what John actually says:
Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten. (John 6:11-13, CEB)
As with the earlier sign at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-12), John doesn’t give us the details. Somewhere along the way, the water became wine. And here, somehow, Jesus keeps breaking the bread, the disciples keep handing it out, and there’s enough food for all. More than enough, in fact: John says that the people “had plenty to eat” and ate “as much as they wanted.” They picked up more bread at the end than the amount they had started with.
When it comes to feeding the hungry, God is not stingy. Indeed, an abundance of food is a biblical symbol of blessing. But I suspect that those like myself, who have never known real poverty or hunger, take the idea of a “symbol” differently. We take food for granted, and pray for other kinds of provision appropriate to our level of privilege.
Still, it was Jesus who miraculously kept the wine flowing at the wedding, even after the guests had drunk more than their fair share (John 2:10). It was Jesus who, according to religious elite, enjoyed hanging out with sinful people too much, earning himself the reputation of being a glutton and a drunkard (Matt 11:19). It was Jesus who compared the kingdom of heaven to a lavish banquet (Matt 22:1-4). And it was Jesus who fed thousands without anyone worrying about calories.
The kingdom Jesus brought is one of miraculous, unexpected abundance. We may not always notice, and sometimes it’s hard to see. But God just seems to be generous that way.