The feeding of the five thousand is the best known of all the so-called miracles of Jesus. But it wasn’t a miracle, because miracles weren’t invented until the 17th Century. When today, we think of a miracle – we think about the laws of nature, and that miracles break the laws of nature. But do we still believe that if there are laws of nature, that we know what they are, or what they are based on, or how they work? Most scientific breakthroughs in recent generations suggest that as the range of our scientific sight broadens and deepens – we increasingly learn just how little we know about nature. And in fact, if you listen to cultural theorists, nature is just a made up category – and we cannot even say if it exists. So in the twenty first century, when nature and its laws seem to be in a state of disarray – we can’t really say much with confidence about miracles. Only when you have completely and utterly understood everything there is to know about nature, can you claim that anything is supernatural.
In the first century, there were no laws of nature. And when something happened that was clearly not normal, something that seemed astonishing - a good bible thumping Jewish believer would simply modify their view of life the universe and everything on the basis of their experience. No. Whatever happened at the feeding of the five thousand, it was clearly witnessed by those who reported it as an astonishing event, that subverted their expectations about how the world worked. And that meant subverting an assumed notion of how political power might function.
And in order to get to grips with the context in which this event is reported, it is probably best to imagine yourself in Wales. Not just because of all the sheep references in that psalm. But because there are lots of similarities between Wales and Galilee where this event took place. Both countries regarded themselves as having been dominated by a hostile foreign force – The English in Wales, the Romans in Galilee. Both countries suffered from what can only be described as a dehumanising lack of vowels. (Anyone who’s studied Hebrew is well aware of the non-existence of vowels, and anyone who’s tried to follow signposts from Aberystwyth to Maencloghog Trefeglwys will have seen more consonants than sheep, and fewer vowels than rugby pitches.) And most importantly, both countries are roughly the same size.
So if you can picture yourself in Wales, out on a hillside, wait for the rain to stop – and see five thousand men, not to mention the women and children. And present is God’s own Messiah, the leader anointed by God to lead his people to freedom. Now, what is it that’s preventing these thousands of people from having freedom already? Why, it’s the Roman Empire. Now – in the whole of Israel / that is, about the whole of Wales – there is one Roman Legion, that is – somewhere in the region of five thousand soldiers. Most of them are billeted in Jerusalem or Cardiff, whereas you’re miles away, in Galilee – or Llanelli . You have enough people on this hillside to bring the people to freedom, to initiate a military revolution – and there are lots of people in Galilee who really wanted this. This is the context in which the so called miracle takes place.
There is a profoundly anti imperial thread running through this incident. To get to grips with this – a little historical context may be useful. In Galilee there were two brand new Roman style cities, built by Herod Antipas to guarantee favour from imperial Rome.
One of those cities was less than an hour’s walk from where Jesus grew up, and it’s highly likely that as a builder both Jesus and his father worked on the construction of this new city. And every Roman city had a sacred geography. Not in the temple, but in the town squares, markets, were statues of Roman emperors and Roman gods. Now emperors from Augustus onwards had to prove their divine ancestry: proving that they were both descendants of the god Mars and of the goddess Venus. If you’re going to be a successful military victor, you need the blood of mars in your veins. If you’re going to maintain a successful economy, you need the blood of Venus. Venus is not simply about sex, but about economic allure, or in modern language, winning the hearts and minds of the populace.
The worship of Mars and Venus was widespread – and it is in every empire throughout history – right up to today. And by worship, I don’t mean religious worship, which is another modern invention – worship does not mean that you bow to statues, or chant in Latin, or sacrifice animals, or waddle into a church to witness a guitar-playing nasal voiced worship leader faking a spiritual orgasm. No. Worship is simply the way that we consciously or subconsciously construct our lives around the stuff that is valuable to us. Worship of Mars and Venus happens at a much lower key, unacknowledged but deeply effective level.
Al-Quaida knew this well enough when targets they selected targets for the atrocities they committed in 2001. Now - bearing in mind that the US spend as much on its military machine as the rest of the world put together - where is the god Mars more fully enshrined than in the Pentagon? Where is the goddess Venus more fully enshrined than in the Trade Towers? Why did this atrocity have such an impact on the world? It was not merely because of the 3000 needless deaths. – According to UNICEF, that many children alone die every two hours as a result of easily preventable causes. No – the depth of the impact of 9-11 is that it struck at the heart of an ideology that is consciously or otherwise enshrined in the heart of every super-power in history. It was certainly true in Jesus’s day – and feeding the 5000 is a far more effective ideological assault on Mars and Venus.
So Jesus, as the Messiah (i.e. the political leader anointed to lead his people to freedom), has amassed a crowd of five thousand and does what the emperor of Rome spent his life struggling to do: he gives bread to his people. More significantly, he provides bread for those whose own bread has been taken by the empire. Jesus, whatever he intended, is effectively usurping the authority of Rome. And yet, he had issued no direct threat, and to prevent the crowds seeing him as any kind of military rebel leader (the texts tell us there were five thousand men, without reference to the women and children) he immediately disperses them. Nobody expects this: why? Because his actions look as though he is about to initiate a regime change – when John’s gospel reports this incident, it says there and then the people tried to make him become king. It looks like an imperial claim because Jesus is attacking Mars and Venus.
Rome famously had the Bread Dole, to feed its hungry citizens from the bread baskets of the empire. Since Rome itself could not provide grain to meet the needs of its population, military expansion was a necessity. Jesus has sufficient numbers of seditious disciples with him, with no worries about rationing, able to sweep through the land to bring regime change. And Jesus just dismisses them. By refusing to use his power for military ends, by refusing to lead his crowd to expel the Romans from his homeland, Jesus explicitly rejects the military way of the god Mars.
Jesus also rejects the economic allure of the goddess Venus. The echoes of psalm 23, thou prepares a table for me in the sight of my enemies… The imagery of a Eucharistic feast, like the one we share this evening, offers a radically alternative set of economic priorities. Not one where disposable humans out there beyond the borders of the empire can drained to feed the needs of the economic elite at the centre. The Eucharistic celebration unites the wealthiest and the poorest members of society. In Jesus’s meal, the health of a community is measured by the welfare of its lowliest members – and it is to these folk that Jesus attends. It is the very opposite of the Venus ideology, and it is supposed to be what is demonstrated every time Christians celebrate Holy Communion.
Ultimately, whatever the nature of this event with 5000 – Jesus did not do it. No – he turned to his disciples and said, “You give them something to eat.” Those are the words that ring through the celebration of Holy Communion – at which we locate ourselves with those who do not have what they need to survive. Jesus says, You give them something to eat. When we pray for food to be given to those who hunger today, Jesus says, You give them something to eat. When the odds are stacked against us, when our actions look like a drop in the ocean, when we seem helpless to do anything about the incurable injustices of our world, Jesus says, You give them something to eat.