We’ve reached the 4th ‘sign’ in John’s Gospel, and should recall that his primary concern isn’t simply to record historical events, but to tell stories illustrating his beliefs about Jesus. Jesus was also a story teller, and used humour and exaggeration to heighten their impact. There’s the man with a plank of wood in his eye trying to remove a sliver of wood from someone else’s. There’s the man whose debt of “ten thousand talents” (equal to 60 million denarii) is written off, but who won’t write off a debt of 100 denarii owed to himself. The 1st debt was 600,000 times bigger than the 2nd, and we can imagine the reaction of Jesus’ listeners to that one!
In this story, there’s a crowd of “men about 5,000 in number”. If there are women and children also, there could be up to 15,000 people. Not only are they all fed from “five barley loaves and two fish”, but the left-overs fill 12 baskets! Some believe that we should take this at face value, but I’m not one. There are, as it happens, various versions of this story in the Gospels, with a difference in crowd size and number of loaves and fish.
So why does John tell this story here? I think he’s setting things up for the claim that Jesus is about to make, when he says, “I am the bread of life”. One of the things the Gospel writers claim about Jesus is that he resembles Moses, the saviour of Israel in earlier times. In his “bread of life” talk to the crowd, Jesus refers to the Exodus from Egypt and how, in answer to Moses’ pleas, “our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness”. If Moses could be instrumental in the supply of sustenance, and thereby salvation, for God’s people, the suggestion is that the same is even more true of Jesus. If his teaching can be likened to ‘spiritual food’, there’s not only plenty of it, and but also plenty left over to keep coming back to, so that “the one who comes to [him] will never go hungry”.
Where I find inconsistency, is when some of the crowd search for Jesus the following day, and he says to them, “You are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate all the loaves of bread you wanted.” Surely he’d be glad they didn’t focus on a ‘miraculous sign’, since he’s elsewhere reported as saying, “A wicked generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it.” That seems to fit well with the story, following his baptism, of Jesus being “tempted by the Devil” in the wilderness, to “turn stones into bread”, which would gain him an immediate, but doubtless ‘fair weather’ following, Nonetheless, here we have Jesus not only delivering a miraculous sign, and also providing a surfeit of bread !
What I find fascinating about the Gospels, is that when you think they’re saying one thing, you discover other things that are different, or even contradictory. I’m reminded of something that, for me, makes philosophy rewardingly rich – no philosopher tends not to be entirely in agreement, if at all, with any other, which means that there’s nothing to be dogmatic about, but always plenty that’s new, and different, to think about, and I’m all in favour of that.
So what might this story might mean for us today, whatever out beliefs about Jesus? Let me suggest that there is a key difference between love and a loaf of bread. When you and I share a loaf, it is necessarily diminished, but when love is shared, it can actually grow and spread, world without end. I can’t think of many better, and more needed, lessons than that.