Did he, or didn’t he?
The miracle of Jesus feeding the 5,000 has fascinated people for centuries. It is one of the best-known stories about Jesus, and it has always raised the question “Did he, or didn’t he?” Did Jesus actually produce food out of thin air by virtue of his divine power, or is this simply folklore with no basis in fact? To me, it seems that the answer is more complex than the question.
The early church must have taken this story very seriously, for it is found in all four Gospels with little variation in the narrative; only John adds a point or two, and they loom large in the scope of things, but let’s lay that aside for a moment and agree on one point – the early church was convinced it happened, or it would not appear in all four Gospels. It must have been universally accepted as true and important in our oral tradition, and later entered into our canon of New Testament writings for the same reasons.
If we accept the notion that something happened and this is not folklore, then that leaves two miracle explanations to consider, not one.
Miracle One is the traditional view, that Jesus produced food out of thin air by virtue of his divine powers. The story closely parallels the 11th Chapter of Numbers, where God produces manna for Moses and the Hebrew people. In this view of Jesus and the 5,000, the entire New Testament story points to Jesus’ divinity – Jesus produces manna for the people in the wilderness, like Jehovah.
The odd part about that, though, is the absence of anything in Matthew, Mark, or Luke to indicate a display of supernatural intervention. There is no incantation, no announcement of what he was about to do, no description of bread and fish pouring out of baskets. Only in John, the latest of the four versions and the furthest from the event, does it say that Jesus “himself knew what he would do” (6:6) and that the people “saw the sign that he had done” (6:14). These are the only two phrases that suggest the traditional version of the miracle story. Yet, it became the default explanation of what happened: Jesus created food by divine fiat, like God in the desert for the Hebrew people.
Miracle Two is where Jesus takes all the food he and the disciples have, give thanks to God for it, and gives it all away to the crowd. Miracle Two says the generosity of the Messiah must have been so inspiring that the people who had brought food with them began to share it among one another until the entire crowd was engaged in a massive act of communal charity. Total strangers fed one another in imitation of their radical rabbi, and the leftovers filled 12 baskets. The miracle is the miracle of generosity and compassion which completely fits the narrative, even John’s version, where Jesus “knew what he would do”, and people “saw the sign that he had done”: the generosity of The Way of Jesus.
Which version is the correct one? Did he, or didn’t he?
Some people define miracles as supernatural events in which God intervenes in the world, defying the natural order; these moments demonstrate God’s power, God’s interest in our lives, and create faith. Miracle One is such a miracle.
Other people define miracles simply as unusual events that create faith. We do not know the source of the unusual event, or if it has a source at all, but it affects us none the less, and creates in us a communion with God. Miracle Two is such a miracle.
Some people are quick to discount Miracle One, for it defies the natural order and therefore could not happen. They say it is silly to think such things could happen, and dismiss it as superstition.
There are those of us who can see their point, yet, if you have ever experienced one, single, inexplicable miracle in your own life, you are forever reluctant to discount any other miracle story, big or small. To recite the old slogan: “If you never had The Experience, then no further explanation will satisfy. If you have had The Experience, then no further explanation is necessary.”
Then there are those of us who are quick to discount Miracle Two, for they believe it discounts the divinity of Jesus and waters down the Gospel. Jesus is not the Son of God, but just another rabbi who has a number of folktales surrounding his ministry and teachings; some consider this un-divinized explanation misguided as best, blasphemous at worst.
However, if you have ever been the recipient of total, selfless compassion and generosity when you most needed it, you know how life-changing that one moment can be. The trajectory of an entire life can be changed with the right word or the right behavior at just the right time. It is not at all unusual to hear someone say at such times, “I felt God’s love right then and there.”
“If you never had The Experience, then no further explanation will satisfy. If you have had The Experience, then no further explanation is necessary.”
Personally, I am a post-modern kind of guy, so I am comfortable embracing both explanations of the miracle of feeding the 5,000. Facts are nice, but they are often trumped by wisdom, and this is a good example of when wisdom trumps facts. “Did he or didn’t he?” becomes a non-question, because no matter what the version, he did!, and it is one more reason why we follow him as Messiah.