One thing you may not suspect about me is that I have many liberal friends, not all of whom are religious. In fact, many of them are anything but.
This story is just the kind they like to ask questions about. Come on, they'll say to me. You don't think that really happened, do you?
The answer I give them, though not in so many words: you think too hard.
It's not that thinking about scripture is wrong. Far from it; I encourage people to study and dig into what they've read. But it is possible, I think, to miss the forest for the trees.
This scripture is a perfect example of what I mean. If you focus too hard on the mechanics (how could those loaves and fishes have made it all the way around the crowd?), you lose sight of the real point of the story, which is that God provides for those who have nothing, and asks us to do the same.
So did Jesus really feed 5,000 men, plus uncounted women and children?
All I can tell you is that something happened. This story is mentioned in all four gospels, which is usually taken as a sign of high importance in Biblical studies. It's also mentioned in a variant form in Matthew and Mark (where there are 4,000 instead of 5,000 in the crowd). So you know there's something significant going on here.
But what exactly, we can't say for sure. The history of that day is simply not available to us.
To focus on whether or not this story transpired exactly as it is described here is also to miss some of the story's richness as literature.
What do I mean by that? Well, if you look at the Old Testament book II Kings, for example, you'll read this:
A man came...bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, "Give it to the people and let them eat." But his servant said, "How can I set this before a hundred people?" So he repeated, "Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the LORD, 'They shall eat and have some left.'" He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD.
Sounds pretty similar, doesn't it? So does that mean somebody read this story and decided to "steal it" for Jesus? No, not at all. That's not the way people thought about things when these stories were written. The way the original hearers of this story would have thought about it was: Jesus is a prophet, just like those we've heard about before. That point of comparison would have taken precedence over literal factuality for them.
In other words, they would have said, "Did this really happen? Who cares? It's a good story, and it points out something true and important about Jesus."
Another example: at the beginning of the story, we read "Now when Jesus heard this..." The this he heard of was John the Baptist's execution at the end of a particularly debauched banquet hosted by Herod. All through this story, then, is an implied comparison. The powers that be are filled with hatred, injustice, and violence. But Jesus, the true man of God, is filled with compassion, generosity, and peace, even when his own life is in danger.
And again, in the middle of the story, the disciples are described as immediately going along with what Jesus asks of them. That's a real improvement over how Mark describes them, which is pretty oppositional, if truth be told. And Jesus gives them the bread to distribute, rather than do it himself. They play a vital role in carrying out the miracle, in other words, and the implication is that this is what they--and the reader--are to do. "You give them something to eat."
Again, if you skip down to almost the end of the story, you read this passage:
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
That sounds remarkably like the language Matthew uses to describe the institution of the Lord's Supper at the end of his gospel. That's not by accident; he's setting the stage so that when his readers come to the Lord's Supper, one of the things they have in mind is this story and its clear message: that God feeds his people, in concrete ways.
String it all together, in an outline, and you can see what this story is about: in the midst of danger and injustice, Jesus is filled with compassion, and when he sees a need, he finds a way to fulfill it, and leaves us with an implied command to do the same.
That's a long way from "did this story actually happen?", isn't it?
The forest that we might miss in trying to pin down the factuality of this story is what one of my commentaries calls "the actualization of the Kingdom of God". [Paraphrasing here:] It links the the human experience of sharing to the biblical background and the future hopes of God's people.
That is to say, this is a story about what the Kingdom might actually look like.
Which is in turn to say that the Kingdom might actually look like a place where the dirt poor get fed, where they have enough and more than enough to eat.
More than that: the Kingdom might actually look like a place where they can receive that enough and more than enough without fear of reprisal from those who would deny it to them for the sake of their own wealth. The Kingdom of Heaven might actually look like a place where God and the people of God are united, and where those in need can lay down by still waters and receive the comfort of God in Christ Jesus.
Oh God, I want that world. I want that world so bad I can hardly keep from weeping as I write these words.
And I don't know if I'll ever see it. Given the way things have gone up until this point, I'm not laying down any bets on it. As John Wayne says in that great movie The Searchers, "That'll be the day."
But I do know this. Say that this story never happened. Say there weren't any disciples, say there wasn't a Jesus, say that they never passed around a single loaf or a fish. Heck, say that the entire New Testament never happened, and that you wouldn't be a Christian if the Lord Jesus appeared in his glory on a cloud of flame. I don't care.
But take this with you before you go. Take these words, the ones that are meant to stick in your mind after you read this story:
You give them something to eat.
You give them something to eat.