When the ordinary overwhelms

The only miracle performed by Jesus that is repeated by all four gospel writers is the one usually referred to as “The Feeding of the 5000” (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-43; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-12). The story is simple, though there are a few differences in the four reports; not surprising given the number of people and disciples involved over the course of a busy day.

A huge crowd gathered to listen to Jesus, time passed, it had grown late, and everyone was hungry. Jesus told the disciples they should feed everyone, a suggestion that was met with skepticism since none of them had the money to purchase that much food, even if it had been available. Jesus asked what they had on hand. Five loaves of bread and two small fish, he was told, which he took, blessed, and distributed until everyone was fed, and the leftovers collected.

Usually, this story is told so that the miracle is the primary emphasis. Which is fine, since the pivotal character in the story is Jesus. Still, I don’t think that’s the only take-away from the text. St. John notes that Jesus intentionally raised the issue of the disciples feeding the crowd as a “test” because “he knew what he was going to do” (6:6). So, we have reason to reflect on what the disciples might have felt and thought as the event unfolded. Besides, they are the ones in this narrative with whom I tend to identify.

They were disciples of Jesus, the followers of a provincial rabbi, not an uncommon thing in that culture, though the things Jesus was doing, and teaching were certainly extraordinary. He was attracting crowds, and as on this day the crowds even followed him into deserted areas in order to hear more. So, for the disciples, their ordinary included crowds, and in this case, a crowd that grew hungry as the day passed. “When it was evening,” Matthew says, “the disciples came to [Jesus] and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowd away so they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves” (14:15). It was an eminently practical suggestion.

And it is here that the divine test commenced. “They need not go away,” Jesus said, “you give them something to eat” (14:16). Jesus was unwilling to let the disciples excuse themselves from involvement just because they seemed inconsequential in the face of overwhelming need.

It’s a divine test that I face too.

I am surrounded by overwhelming need. The coronavirus pandemic. A society riven with outrage, a failure to listen and a refusal to learn to live together despite our differences. Systemic racism that continues to oppress our neighbors. A public square divided by political agendas and ideologies that threaten unity in families, churches, communities and our nation. An economy in tatters, with unemployment and lack of prospects bedeviling the younger generation. And so much more.

My resources are limited and insufficient, utterly inconsequential. Add yours to mine, and they are still limited and insufficient, utterly inconsequential. I can share a meal or drop off groceries to some of my neighbors, but what is that? I can listen to colleagues who hold radically different political views, but is that enough?

And so, because the need is so great and my resources are so limited, I find ways to send it all away and hope some solution appears before everything collapses. I can’t do much, certainly can’t do enough, so I do not engage with the need and assume I’m not part of the solution.

Just as Jesus was unwilling to let the disciples sidestep the need, so he calls me to faithfulness in my ordinary. Right now, my ordinary has exploded with overwhelming need, and so I must see what I have available, bring it to Jesus for his blessing and begin passing it out. If he wants to do something extraordinary with it, that’s his concern, not mine. And if not, my faithfulness remains the same.

“I believe that very small and local acts,” Killer Mike says, “are the foundation of effective activism.”

Source: Killer Mike in Vanity Fair (September 2020) p. 99.

Credit: Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash