It troubles me that some people have no interest in reading the Gospels because they can’t take seriously some of the things they read there. An example is the “feeding of the five thousand” from five loaves and two fish. As it happens, this is an instance of occasional patriarchal prejudice. According to Matthew 14:21, “The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children”, making the actual number of eaters anything up to fifteen thousand. Rather than dismissing the Gospels as ‘fairy tales’, however, we have the option of reading them differently.
In the Gospels, Jesus tells stories called ‘parables’. A well-known example introduces the Jewish man who, rather than the antagonism of entrenched religious differences, offers personal help and financial assistance to a Samaritan traveller mugged on a lonely road. This isn’t the report of a recent event, and wouldn’t have been understood as such. Jesus was a practised teller of easily understandable stories, designed to get a point or two across to his listeners. Nothing’s contentious about that. It’s a meaningful little story, that makes its impact in a memorable way. Likewise, it’s not contentious in my view that, just as Jesus told stories to make a point or two, so did the writers of the Gospels. They also told stories – about the man they followed and believed in, and these stories are strikingly creative and meaningfully expressive.
Jesus deliberately heightened the captivating impact of some of his stories by introducing exaggeration, offering crowd-pleasing humour as well as moral and spiritual enlightenment. An example is the steward whose master wrote off his debt of 10,000 talents. A denarius was a silver coin worth a labourer’s day wage, and 10,000 talents were equal to 60,000 denarii. The steward then went off and had someone, who owed himself only 100 denarii, gaoled for being unable to pay him back. The absurd discrepancy between the two amounts tells us that this is not a ‘bit of history’ but a well-designed, ear-catching story. A straight-laced sermon about forgiveness and generosity, meanness and injustice would never have made a similar impact.
So when Matthew tells us that 5 loaves and 2 fish fed possibly 15,000 people, I’m not sure even he meant this to be taken at face value. He’s making a point or two, and an important one is this : If you and I share material things, they soon run out. There are, however, other things that can be shared over and over again. Thinking back to the parable of the steward, these include forgiveness, generosity, decency and fairness. These can be summed up in the word love, which need never run out, but has the potential to keep on growing (despite the occasional self-serving steward).
Don’t ignore the Gospels because of disbelief in their contents. Park that, and ride into the Gospels as colourful, dramatic, inventive, amusing, human interest stories. They give us plenty ‘food for thought’ that’ll never run out.
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