03 August 2008

Pentecost XII

Pentecost XII

Proper 13 - Year A [RCL]
By James Hinckley

Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 17: 1-7, 16; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

The gospel for this Sunday is from Matthew, chapter 14, verses 13 to 21, and it is perhaps the best known parable of the Bible.

Or is it?

Well, yes and no. Yes, it is certainly well known. But no, even though it is commonly referred to as “The Parable of the Loaves and Fishes,” it is actually not a parable. Merriam-Webster defines “parable” as “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.”

And while this story certainly illustrates both a moral attitude and a religious principle, it is presented by the author of the Gospel of Matthew as an actual event from the ministry of Jesus.

In fact, one reason it may be so well known is that the miracle actually occurred twice. These two incidents are cited in John chapter 6, Luke chapter 9, Matthew chapters 14 and 15, and Mark chapters 6 and 8.

So, what does it mean? Well, that was the very subject of a bit of seafaring chit-chat between Jesus and the disciples related in Mark:

“‘When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?’

“They said to him, ‘Twelve.’

“‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?’

“And they said to him, ‘Seven.’

“And he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’”

Well, if the disciples, sitting not five feet from Jesus, found the meaning obscure, perhaps we may be forgiven for not fully understanding it either.

But one of the truly amazing things about the Bible is that it is indeed a living document. Taking virtually any of the biblical precepts, one can examine it in detail, turning it this way and that in various qualities of light as if it were a huge amethyst crystal, and gain refreshing insights not only into modern life, but into ourselves as well. Although written over 2,000 years ago, the Bible is a beacon that casts a brilliant illumination across the millennia to shine right in front of us today. Few if any works, even those of comparable antiquity, can even come close to this universal quality.

We may be just as perplexed as the disciples when it comes to interpreting these two events as they occurred in the year AD 30, but as we turn and examine this story from a modern point of view, discovering that “moral attitude and religious principle” is perhaps an easier task, and perhaps also much more useful to us as we resume our secular existence outside these walls. In fact, if we hold this story up to the light and gaze through it intently, perhaps we can see aspects of our own lives illuminated startlingly in a way we may never have anticipated.

Immigrants to the United States are drawn by the American dream, or at least the version of it that our own public image, broadcast and circulated around the world, portrays it: the lavish home, manicured lawn, multiple automobiles, and indulgences of every stripe. In fact, we are all, to a greater or lesser degree, driving an economy that itself is driven by our need to acquire “stuff.” If consumer spending on durable goods takes a nosedive, our economic growth goes right down with it. We wonder, perhaps, how many Third World countries have self-storage facilities to park the things they do not have room for.

Gazing still through this gospel story as we hold it up to the light, perhaps we can see even father back.

Was there ever a time when we were content just to be? Perhaps as newly minted high school graduates or college students our concerns were less upon acquisition and more concerned with survival – of ourselves or of the planet, depending upon our individual focus and that of our generation.

And what can we say about those times? Were they difficult? Certainly! But were they not also somehow simpler, less frenetic? More filled with wonder? We had time to think, to ponder, and to seek answers to momentous questions that we couldn’t even articulate through the medium of songs that we felt “said what must be said.”

Now if we look at the surface of this gospel story, we may see the image of our own faces mirrored in it. Is it a face that is too busy to think, too harried to ponder, and has that face abandoned the search for answers to questions that it has all but forgotten? Or perhaps, like the material possessions we seem to accumulate, the questions have multiplied to such an extent that we simply push them into a little box deep within our soul to be addressed later. When is “later”? Today is certainly later than those wonder-filled days many years ago. Is today late enough?

Now, perhaps, we are equipped to dive into the story of the loaves and fishes and extract our own meaning from those 2,000-year-old words.

Jesus is faced with a primitive dilemma: feeding five thousand men and perhaps as many more women and children with only five loaves and two fish. How can this possibly be done? There are, after all, laws of mass at work here, aren’t there?

“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.”

We are so accustomed to thinking in terms of “concrete reality” that we fail utterly to perceive the “divine reality” that exists right alongside it hidden, as it were, in plain sight:

“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.”

Linked with the Father by a bond of unimaginable strength, Jesus submitted this primitive dilemma to Him, and the unimaginable solution was manifest to the abject wonder of all. But how much should we really wonder at this today? After all, we have 2,000 years of experience reflected in the writings of scripture upon which to base our expectations. With all these years and with all those writings to inform our expectations, which of our dilemmas could not be solved by establishing a pathway between ourselves and God through Jesus and, just as Jesus did, submitting these dilemmas to God?

We need only exhibit the courage to transform ourselves into the wonder-filled souls of years ago, informed now by our faith that God is the long-sought source of the answers to those questions.

Will we be able to hear his answer when it comes? Will his answer be the answer we are seeking? Will we have the courage to “pass out the baskets,” trusting in our own complete faith that he has provided for our needs as may be best for us?

To borrow from our Baptismal Covenant, with God’s help, we will.

And what a great way to start “cleaning out our stuff.”

-- James Hinckley is a member of St. Timothy's Church in Fairfield, CT, and is enrolled in the Ministry Exploration and Education Program of the Diocese of Connecticut. E-mail: jameshinckley@optonline.net.