Jesus is doing more than feeding a crowd; he is teaching his disciples.
It might be easier to satisfy thousands on half a lunch than it is to change twelve hearts.
He is trying to move their minds from scarcity to abundance, from worry to trust, from the cold, hard calculus of the world to the lavish generosity and outrageous possibilities of God.
It might be easier to move a boat from stormy sea to land in a blink.
Jesus begins this daunting attempt at a miracle by determining where they are:
he said this to test him.
Philip takes the bait and submits his bleak treasurer's report.
Andrew looks at the six figure debt and chips in two dollars from Sunday School.
Well, maybe not that much.
Barley loaves were the diet of the poor who could not afford wheat bread.
The fish were not fresh ichthoi; they were opsaria, the pre-cooked, processed, cheap stuff you get after standing in line at the food pantry.
Today's satisfying meal will depend on the generosity of the poor.
That is lesson number one that many of us still need to learn.
In her eye-opening book Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich concludes:
The"working poor," as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure
privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else. [p.221]
There is bounty in poverty, as many who travel to developing countries quickly discover when dirt poor hosts lavish them with extravagant hospitality.
This is how God works, Jesus wants his disciples to see.
Saint Paul got it: he wrote to well-to-do Corinth about the insistent generosity of poor Macedonians, then connected the dots:
You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
So God gladly accepts what we are certain is not nearly enough ... and produces leftovers.
Which sets up lesson number two: Gather up the fragments...so that nothing may be lost.
That's what Jesus is all about.
Jesus is God's foray into the world to pick up and save gifts that have been broken and discarded: lepers, widows, rejects, sufferers, souls kidnapped by demons...even disciples.
That's what he is doing on that dark and stormy sea.
The disciples were basket cases.
They were twelve baskets full of broken pieces: dreams, worries, fears, fantasies, failures, triumphs, disappointments, memories, scars, neuroses, anxieties, skills, delights, questions, stories, concerns, habits, heartaches, hopes—the messy, junk-drawer pile of fragments that fill the human soul.
Jesus walks on the chaos to gather them up and save them whole, loving them as he commands them to love one another.
When he shows up in their storm, and when he arrives in ours, there is no taking him into the
boat any more than the crowds could capture him to make him king.
He will not be pigeonholed into even our greatest agendas.
Instead, he gives his gathered, not-lost disciples a new place to stand.
Like God in Genesis chapter one, he replaces the sea with dry land—order from chaos, safety from danger, courage from crisis, a reason for faith from the teeth of fear.
Such faith is exactly the miracle every disciple will need when the hungry crowds full of broken people arrive along with the treasurer's report.