The Miracle of Sharing? (Jn 6:5-15)

Several months ago, I attended the Northwest Regional Catholic Stewardship Conference in Vancouver, WA. The purpose of the conference was to teach parish ministers effective techniques to develop a healthy atmosphere of stewardship in their local communities. For the most part, the conference succeeded in its goal by offering great pastoral advice and practical strategies. However, in an attempt to make a relevant connection between the life of Jesus and the Christian vocation of being good stewards, the first keynote speaker made a grave error in her interpretation of Jn 6:5-15. Here is the biblical text:

Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a multitude was coming to him, Jesus said to Philip, “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” This he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place; so the men sat down, in number about five thousand. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the hills by himself. (RSV)

After referencing this passage, the keynote speaker made a comment I did not expect to hear in that particular setting. To the best of my memory and paraphrasing ability, she said,

“Can you imagine Jesus miraculously dividing five loaves and two fish in order to feed five thousand people? What would that look like? Are we supposed to imagine that he kept pulling loaves and fish out of a bag? No, the narrative is not saying that Jesus miraculously produced more bread and fish. What really happened is Jesus encouraged everyone to share and be stewards to each other. In the end, once everyone had shared, there was a surplus remaining.”

This was not the first time that I have heard this claim. In fact, this is a fairly common interpretation resulting from a larger hermeneutical view that believes anything “miraculous” must have a non-supernatural explanation. With this post, I would simply like to offer a response to this particular interpretation of Jn 6:5-15 to demonstrate that natural explanations of the miraculous, which claim to be more reasonable and easier to accept than adhering to supernatural causes, often create severe difficulties in explaining the biblical text.

The most obvious problem with this interpretation is that it renders the crowds response in v.14-15 unreasonable. Unless Jesus invented the concept of sharing, there is nothing spectacular about this story. Encouraging over five thousand people to share their food may be the sign of a good teacher and steward, but it hardly warrants the response of recognizing Jesus as the prophet or adamantly wanting to declare him king. Such a reaction could only occur if Jesus truly did something miraculous.

Furthermore, Jn 6:14 tells us that the people “saw the sign which he had done.” Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, which describe Jesus’ works as δυνάμεις (miracles), John refers to Jesus’ actions as σημείοις (signs). John’s language emphasizes a deeper purpose behind the outward or visible actions of Jesus. His deeds were not meant to simply alleviate physical suffering, but they were supposed to lead the people to a deeper reality regarding his identity and messianic mission. One can witness this in Acts 2:14-36 when Peter declares that the “mighty works and wonders and signs” of Jesus point to his resurrection and glory as Christ. Encouraging people to share, while a noble act, hardly seems sufficient to meet the biblical standards of being a messianic sign/miracle.

To claim that Jesus simply encouraged sharing in Jn 6:5-15 may make the event easier to imagine, but in light of the whole narrative it becomes very difficult to explain or even believe. This is just one example of how denying the miraculous creates major exegetical problems. I would love to hear any thoughts on other passages that have similar results.

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