'That which can be asserted without proof, can be dismissed without proof,’ says the staunch modernist, Christopher Hitchens.
Fine, but there is evidence that first century people believed Jesus did some strange things, and since we have no access to evidence of actual events, these people cannot be dismissed as idiots – there is not enough evidence to dismiss them as idiots, and plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise.
The miracles of Jesus are a source of embarrassment (for those who want to believe them), ridicule (for those who do not), and insanity (for those who refuse to question them). But all too often, twenty first century readers of ancient texts can attribute to the ancient authors a naivety they did not posses, whilst being blind to the naivety that can shape their own worldview.
For sure, Jesus did not wander around the land of Israel suspending the laws of nature with random feats of supernatural power. However, those who know most about the laws of nature, realise how little they understand those laws. Is it impossible for any human being to calm a storm, conjure up mountains of food, or raise a dead person? For the vast majority of thinking people, intuition would say “yes, those things are impossible.” But we sceptics cannot call upon anything other than intuition. Not without evidence. And the evidence of Jesus' miracles is not available to us. However, those who wish to be strictly scientific have to concede that 'the absence of proof is not the proof of absence.' All we can say is that, if these things did happen, then the mechanics are beyond our current knowing. We actually know very little about the laws of nature.
The authors of these texts were not stupid, and described the so-called miracles as 'mighty acts' or signs. They are not recorded in order to prove that Jesus was divine – which they do not anyway. No, the best way to read the miracle stories is as acted parables. To ask, if these things did happen (without deciding whether they did or not), then what kind of person does this make him and what kind of worldview is he offering?
If this Jesus is the Jewish Royal Liberator, if he really has some god-given power at his disposal, then how should he be using it? Perhaps the most famous miracle is the feeding of the five thousand. What purpose can it possibly serve? His followers have come out to hear him preach, and that afternoon there are no burger vans or ice cream kiosks anywhere on the hillside. So the disciples suggest to Jesus that it's time he sent people away because they are going to get hungry. Jesus replies by saying 'You give them something to eat.'
Providing bread is the function of a leader in any society – something we looked at a little last week. Moses is the most frequently quoted and relevant link in this regard, ‘miraculously’ providing his people with daily bread as they wandered through the desert. But providing bread to hungry people is almost the universal function of a lord in any society. An Anglo Saxon Lord was literally a 'loaf-giver'. In ancient greece, the cult of the bread goddess eventually became the state religion of Athens. And, most importantly, in Roman Society, a good emperor would provide his citizens with bread. Bakers were given special privileges by the emperor, as 'people important to the welfare of a nation.' That bread would be brought in from around the empire, including Israel, whose own citizens were going hungry.
So, Jesus, as the Royal Liberator, has gathered a crowd of five thousand and does what the emperor of Rome spent his life struggling to do: provide his people with bread. Hungry people were satisfied. Jesus, whatever he intended, is inevitably to be seen usurping the authority of the Roman Empire.
And yet, he had done nothing to threaten them directly, and to prevent them seeing him as any kind of military leader (the texts tell us there were five thousand men, without reference to the women and children) he immediately disperses them. No violence, no attempt to seize power, no stirring revolutionary speeches. Just the provision of bread for hungry people: not only for Roman citizens, or for privileged Jews, but for Jewish peasants in a political backwater.
This is the kind of liberation brought by the son of God. This is what happens when YHWH's reign begins to take root. The miracle is not a miracle, it’s a parable: doing what, all along, the Royal Liberator had been expected to do : ( You remember in the temptation narrative, the devil – trying to set the aims and objectives for Jesus’ ministry, says to him, 'tell this stone to become bread’.) At last, it seems, Jesus has done that – fed the poor, proven himself a leader, but not doing it in anything like the way that was expected.
In the first instance, his pattern of authority and the coming reign of YHWH of which he spoke, is not a kingdom ruled by a king exerting power upon his subjects – as other bread-givers would. This is a Royal Liberator who involves his subjects in actualising his authority. ‘You give them something to eat,’ he says. The ‘lordship’ of the Royal Liberator is discovered in practice of feeding others, and realised only with retrospect : the leftover food.
At this point, with a following of five thousand men (women and children not being included in the number-crunching), the Royal bread-giving Liberator has what amounts to an army outnumbering the total number of Roman troops in Judea. And having proven his fitness to rule, he orders them to disperse. This so-called Liberator has no intention of leading an uprising.
Instead of leading an armed rebellion against the evil perpretrators of injustice and oppression – Jesus takes all of that injustice and oppression onto himself. Others hurt him, and instead of doing what most would do – and lashing out at others, Jesus does not lash out, but takes all the pain onto himself.
This, of course. was not the only time that Jesus gives thanks and breaks bread. We are about to remember the last supper, eating bread that reminds us of Christ’s broken body. In the context of a passover meal, this bread is the bread of affliction, reminding the Jews who ate it, of all the suffering they endured when they were slaves in Egypt. The bread of affliction – so when Jesus says that it is his body, he, himself, is claiming to have become Israel – and to draw all the curse of covenant sin upon himself. And this bread has fed way more than five thousand people in the history of the church.
And now, as the Lord, the loaf-giver, Jesus demonstrates his authority as, when breaking this bread, he draws all the brokenness and pain and sin of Israel, onto himself. And what does it mean to eat this bread ? If the passover was a meal which, each year, reminded the people who they were – the meal we are about to share speaks of who we are. A community who, as a whole, take on the suffering of the world – not in a kind of sophistomocated d-gooding I’m such-a-martyr way. But in the sense of feeling solidarity with others in our world. This is what we do, when we who are well fed, pray – give us this day, our daily bread. We are locating ourselves in solidarity with people who are radically hungry because they suffer injustice. Liberated and liberating is what we become – but if it could be fit into words, Jesus would have said with words. But this is a meal, and the best way to understand it, is to eat it.