THE MEANING OF THE STORY IS WHAT'S LITERALLY TRUE
July 26, 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
2 K Kings 4:42-44 Psalm 145:10-11;15-18
Ephesians 4:1-6 John 6:1-15
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
We have all been hungry at one time or another. Every living being has experienced hunger. I am usually very hungry after Mass. Those of us with dogs and cats as part of our families, are acutely aware that when they are hungry; they let us know it. Jesus, just as human as we are, experienced hunger, as did those who came to hear Him speak. Jesus, the good shepherd that He is, responded to the hunger of his flock of people by feeding them, just as we respond to the hungry members of our family by shopping and cooking for them.
Last week’s Gospel ended just as Jesus approached an area where a crowd had gathered to hear Him speak, to which he reacted by saying they were, “like sheep without a shepherd.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus became that shepherd by feeding His flock. Just as Isaiah prophesized, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.” But, being human as we are, He was at first scared about how He would do that. He asked His apostle, Phillip, where they’d get enough food to feed all these people. Philiip responded that even two hundred days’ wages would not buy enough food to give everyone even a mouthful. The only food to be found, according to Andrew the apostle, was that brought by a nameless lad, to wit, five barley loaves and two fishes, to feed what the text says was five thousand people. Andrew, like Phillip, was concerned that the food on hand would not be enough to feed everyone. But Jesus had a plan in mind. After telling everyone to sit down, He looked up to heaven, and prayed for a miracle.
How many times do we do that when facing an impossible task? Miraculously, His prayers were answered, and everyone had enough to eat, with some left over. But wait! Is this story literally true? Is that what actually happened? Are we to listen to this story as if John the Evangelist were Lester Holt on the NBC Nightly News? Are we supposed to believe the Bible is literally true? Aside from the question of “Did it actually happen”, there is the question of whether this was intended to be taken as literally true. The answer is no. The Bible is not a science or history book. It’s a book of morality tales, fables, allegories, parables, poetry, and metaphors. It cannot be science. The so-called “scientific method” originated with Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century, long after all of what we call scripture was written. Some of the Bible cannot be considered historically accurate; for example, camels didn’t arrive in the region until around 900 BC. Meanwhile, they’re mentioned in the texts concerning Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, whose lives date back to about 2000 BC. The notion that the whole Bible is inerrant and should be taken literally, disserves the dignity of Holy Scripture. Such a belief obstructs our understanding of the meaning of the text.
The truths in the Bible are found in its spiritual meaning. The spiritual meaning of the Bible is what is literally true about it. Spiritual truths give the Bible its eternal character. Whether Jesus actually fed five thousand people with five barley loaves, is not important. The truth in that story is found in its spiritual meaning. What is important is what the story symbolizes, what it teaches, and what it prophesizes. These are the allegorical, anagogic, and estachological senses of scripture that scholars use to discover the spiritual truths contained in the text.
Our immediate instinct is to ponder the miracle of feeding five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fishes. But what is the truth beneath that story? The back story here presents the miracle of multiplication. Those of you who went to elementary school before the days of calculators had to memorize the multiplication tables. I still remember mine, but what I remember more, is that the concept of multiplication as a powerful way to combine numbers that takes much less time than serial addition.
Just as Jesus fed five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fishes given to him by a nameless boy, God takes whatever we offer, and multiplies it. The Gospel story shows God is capable of multiplying our small acts of love to allow us to share God’s gifts among ourselves. The people didn't satisfy their hunger by passing around the food they had with them. Rather, they saw Jesus demonstrate the abundance of God’s grace. Too often, we look at life from a perspective of scarcity, but Jesus came to us so that we might have life more abundantly. We can see the theme of abundance as part of this story by the fact that, after everyone had eaten, twelve baskets of bread fragments remained, as if to say that God what gives us, is more than we’ll ever need.
How do we multiply the abundant life of Jesus? It starts with the Eucharist, which was prefigured in the feeding of the multitudes. If in fact, Jesus fed five thousand people with five barley loaves, each person would get a tiny crumb. This is similar to Holy Communion, where we each receive a small wafer and a small sip of wine, not much by way of nourishment, but that Bread and Wine has immense spiritual power. That is because Jesus is physically present in that Bread and that Wine. What the Eucharist, and the feeding of the five thousand have in common, is that the physical feeding is infinitesimal, but the spiritual feeding is abundant. When we receive Holy Communion, we enter into the intimate union with God that Jesus came to earth to provide.
Keep in mind that John’s Gospel was written about sixty years after Jesus ascended; by that time the Christian community had been regularly sharing the Eucharist. On that issue, we can take the Book of Acts, First Corinthians and the Didache at face value. So whoever composed John’s Gospel knew what the Eucharist is and what It meant. This feeding appears in all four canonical gospels. If one puts the narratives of all of them together, we have a setting where Jesus preached, healed the sick, and then the crowd felt hungry. The scriptural text in its totality concerning this event, shows us a connection between preaching, healing, and feeding. Jesus was not only prefiguring the Eucharist; He was prefiguring what all ministry really is. Ministry is caring for people by preaching the word, healing them, and feeding them, to respond to their spiritual hunger for the message of Jesus, God’s compassion, and our nourishment.
This story was a prefigurement of what do here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community. Just as the people in the multitude in the Gospel were hungry, we come to Mass hungry for the message of Jesus. Saint Cecilia’s nourishes you spiritually through music at Mass with God’s word and sacraments, and then we feed you at coffee hour following Mass.
Today, we are going to formally institute Beeper, (also known as Sharon K. Talley), Alondra Zuniga Gordon, as Acolytes. An Acolyte is what’s called a minor order, the bottom rung of the ladder of ministry. While their ministry will be primarily one of serving at the Altar, it does not stop there. Like Jesus in the scene of today’s Gospel, the number one job of all of us who minister at the Altar, is caring for people and feeding them spiritually with the abundant life of Jesus in how we live and how we relate to each other.
But ministry is not limited to those at the Altar. All of us can, and should, multiply the abundant life of Jesus, the abundant love of God, in the way we relate to others. Do you remember the movie, “Paying It Forward,” where people, without being asked, and without any obligation or request, did random acts of kindness for others on the spur of the moment? The concept is, that if someone does something good for you, you pay it forward by doing something good for someone else. At a Starbucks drive-up in Florida, one woman paid for her own coffee and that for the person behind her, who did the same thing. The chain stretched on for two hundred sixty three customers!
“Paying It Forward” is a radical concept for Americans, who are used to the exchange mentality of the grocery store, that is, “I give you money, you give me food”, or a trade of one action for another, on the order of, “if you do something for me, I’ll do something for you.” Lawyers would call the first one a bargained-for exchange with mutual consideration, and the second that of a contract subject to a condition. But Jesus called us to move beyond legal concepts. The Kingdom of Heaven is not everyone obeying laws and fulfilling contracts. Here, the boy who gave the loaves and fishes to Jesus did not sell them to Jesus. He did not expect anything in return for his gift. He gave them to Jesus, so Jesus could multiply them. That is how things are in the Kingdom of Heaven, where we give each other what we have to offer, for the multiplication of God’s love, to facilitate God’s ultimate end-game of salvation, a world where God’s justice is established by way of a world filled with compassion. Here, Jesus knew exactly what he wanted to do: He used food to build community from a group where, friends, strangers, and even enemies enjoy a meal of plenty together. That, my sisters and brothers, is how to take today's Gospel literally. AMEN.