Summary: God’s power plus our resources equals the needs of the world.
THE NEW MATH
In my school years, I discovered that I was very good with words. I read well above my grade level, and the first drafts of papers were usually the only ones I needed to do. Math, however, did not come so readily. I dreaded math classes, and as soon as I had all the math credits I needed for college, I quit taking math. Bucknell University was top on my list of colleges because it did not require me to take any math, once I was accepted.
I learned enough that I can always balance my checkbook and figure the tip at a restaurant, but sometimes things will still trip me up. Like the time my church put me in charge of buying enough pints of strawberries to make 50 jars of strawberry jam to be given to church visitors. This task involved both math and cooking recipes, and someone should have known this was a really bad combination for me, but I carefully figured exactly what I would need and went out and bought the strawberries.
I have always claimed that the reason that we ended up with 100 jars of jam instead of 50 was that it was a church project and Jesus multiplied our efforts just like the loaves and fishes. There are some who claim that I simply messed up the math and bought way more strawberries than were necessary. I stand by my story.
One of the delightful messages of the Bible for those of us who are math-phobic is the message here in the story of the feeding of the five thousand: Let God do the math. This story is one of the few told in all four Gospels, and in every version, the disciples are hung up by trying to do the math themselves. Five thousand men plus women and children, and they’re all hungry. The disciples don’t have enough money to buy food for them, and they only have the small amount of bread and fish that they have brought themselves. Providing for the crowd is impossible, they will have to leave and fend for themselves. The math is more than obvious.
Jesus, however, is completely untroubled by the unbalanced equation. Jesus knows about the new math, the math of the Kingdom, where whatever you have plus the power of God always equals whatever you need. He divides the group, multiplies the loaves and fish, and there is not only enough food for everybody, there are 12 baskets of leftovers. I wish I knew about this when I was taking algebra.
This is not new to Jesus. Going back hundreds of years we find the prophet Elisha doing much the same thing. Here comes a man bringing food from the first fruits of his garden. That’s language for the tithe…you brought a tenth of your income to God before you did anything else…and in an agricultural society, that income was likely to be the crop from the first harvest or the firstborn lamb in birthing season.
So he comes with his tithe to Elisha, the man of God, and Elijah tells him to feed a hundred people with it. "But what I have won’t feed a hundred people!" cries the man. "It’s not enough…do the math!" But Elisha, like Jesus, knows about the new math. "Let God worry about balancing the equation," says Elisha. "Put the food before the people." He does, and again there is not only enough, but some left over.
People often spend a whole lot of time…lifetimes even, trying to figure out whether some of the biblical miracles are possible with the logic and science that we know. I don’t mean to discount someone’s life’s work, but I think spending time that way misses the point. One thing is clear throughout the Bible, and that is that God can do what God darn well pleases. If God could create the entire universe with a Word, a few more loaves of bread are not going to be a big deal. God is not just a bigger, more powerful version of us…God is qualitatively different from us and trying to limit God to our math and our logic is like an ant colony trying to limit human behavior to the logic and instinct that guides their own lives.
But the power of God is only half of these two feeding stories. The other thing to notice is that neither Elisha nor Jesus actually do the feeding. They serve as the channels for the power of God, but it is the disciples who give the gifts and who do the feeding. In the Luke passage, the disciples have already been through a lot of training. Jesus had just sent them out on their first mission…out on their own to heal the sick and to cast out demons and to proclaim the Kingdom of God. The reason they are out in the wilderness where this story takes place is so that they can have time apart to give Jesus a report about their experiences.