“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.
It was mid-morning and people in town were talking about a prophet who healed the sick, drove out demons and told great stories. Many were going to see him.
He was passing by on the road and people from nearby villages were following him.
Jacob wanted to go, too. He was 11, but he knew he could not leave without telling his mother.
So, instead of following the others out of town, he ran home, found his mother with his two younger sisters and a brother, told her what was happening and asked her to come.
She looked at Jacob. She recognized his desire but couldn’t take the other children and leave the food that she was preparing and not tell his father, who was out fishing.
He pleaded. He said that their neighbours were going and that he would be with them.
His mother relented but took five small barley loaves that she had just baked and folded them into a small cloth towel and put in two dried salted smelt and she gave him the bundle. He took them and ran off.
As people from his village merged with the crowd from other towns, he sensed a collective anticipation.
Apparently, the healer was up ahead, so he pushed his way through the crowds to get closer.
He did hear a few skeptical voices; two men dismissed the miracles as tricks. If he was that powerful, they said, why wasn’t he the king. A bit further on he heard a boy, a little older than he was, say that he didn’t want someone else telling him how to live, while his parents coaxed him along.
He saw that the throng had left the road and was moving up the side of a nearby slope.
Then he saw the healer. He didn’t look very different from the other men around him, but it was clear, from the way that everyone looked towards him, that this was the one that everyone was talking about. He was the centre of their attention.
The boy heard someone say, “Jesus wants everyone to sit down.” So, the healer’s name was Jesus. The men around Jesus held up their arms and made a downward gesture, for people to sit.
The boy looked around then headed for a nearby oak for a better view.
When he had settled on a branch and looked around, he saw more people than he had ever viewed in his life. There were families, and older people who were holding on to younger men or women. Some men had children on their shoulders. A few people looked scruffy and poorer than the others. Many people were chattering and laughing but some seemed to be sitting in quiet expectation.
When most people were seated Jesus began to talk about his Father and all of creation. He talked about people who cared for others. He wove in stories from Moses and Isaiah and the psalms. Sometimes his descriptions were funny and people laughed and he smiled as people shared his amusement.
He asked people to recall experiences and used them as examples of his teaching. He helped them see their own truth in a bigger picture. Jacob felt that he was not just a spectator to the lessons but a participant in them.
Jesus’ voice was almost musical. There was a rhythm to his words that seemed to come from deep within him and to physically resonate within Jacob.
As Jesus talked, he walked around among the seated people. He put his hand on the heads of infants who had been held up to him. He bent over and spoke a few words to sick or lame people who had been brought by friends and family, and they seemed to recover.
Jacob noticed that no matter where Jesus was in the crowd his voice was clear. He wasn’t shouting, but Jacob saw that even people on the fringe of the crowd seemed to hear and respond to his words as though he was standing beside them.
People nodded at the things Jesus was saying and no one seemed to be talking to the people near them. Each person focused on Jesus. They seemed to feel better just by being near him.
The sun moved across the sky as people sat and listened. After a time, Jesus stopped talking and called some men close to him.
Jacob couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he was getting hungry, so he climbed down from the branch where he had been sitting and began to untie the bundle with the loaves and fish.
Others were now standing and stretching, talking with the people nearby. The people who had been sick or lame, whom Jesus had healed, had become the centre of attention to small circles of friends.
Then Jacob heard a voice behind him asking, “what do you have there, boy?”.
It startled him. Jacob hesitated for a moment. He didn’t know the man who was speaking, but he recognized him as one of the men who had been near Jesus. The man asked Jacob if he would bring his bread and fish and meet Jesus. While Jacob wanted to meet Jesus, he didn’t know what he would say. After a moment of hesitation, he followed the man apprehensively, carrying his bundle.
As they approached Jesus, he asked, “Andrew, did you find something?”
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Jesus, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.”
Jesus smiled and said “Hello Jacob” in a kind voice. It surprised Jacob to be addressed by name. How did he know? He felt instantly at ease.
Jesus said, “Many people here came without food and now they are hungry. Would you be willing to share what you have with them?”
Jacob paused and looked around. He was hungry and feared that if he shared with this many, he would still be hungry. He doubted that this was a good idea.
Then Andrew said the words that were on Jacob’s mind, “but what are they among so many people?”
Jacob turned back toward Jesus, whose eyes were focused on him as though he was looking into his heart.
Jacob paused. Then, in an act of trust, he held out the bundle toward Jesus, who took it, gently, smiled at Jacob and said, “bless you.”
Jesus told his friends to have the people sit down again. Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.
Then Jesus 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.
Jesus’ words had included thanks for Jacob’s generosity and Jacob felt like he was more alive, more energized, more aware than he had ever been in his life.
Then Jacob’s eyes widened as he watched. He knew that there had been only five small loaves and two fish, and aside from the man Andrew, no one else knew. Yet, here were his mother’s buns and his father’s salted smelt, feeding thousands.
As he looked around, Jacob saw people eating hungrily but also happily. He was amazed. It reminded Jacob of the story of God feeding manna to the Israelites when Moses had led them into the desert.
It was a simple feast that everyone joined in. Each person had food. No one was left out.
When Andrew handed Jacob several buns, he looked closely at them. They looked like the ones his mother baked, and when he tore off a piece and put it in his mouth it tasted like one that had recently come from the oven.
Then he ate some of the smelt. They had a salty brine taste that he enjoyed.
Sharing had made Jacob feel good. He knew that Jesus had performed a miracle but he enjoyed the thought that Jesus couldn’t have done it if Jacob had not been willing to part with the food in the first place.
Then he caught sight of Jesus, looking back at him, and Jesus mouthed the words “Thank you Jacob” and Jacob felt like he was lifted off the ground.
When they were satisfied, Jesus told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.
Jacob had run around, too, gathering the uneaten bread and fish. He was able to fill his bundle with twice as many loaves and fish as he had given to Jesus. He wanted to show them to his mother and tell her the story.
The story of Jacob is largely fictitious, although I did borrow verses from the gospel. I tried to imagine the backstory of what the boy would have thought and felt about surrendering his loaves and fishes.
It seems to me that there are several lessons in this gospel.
One is that Jesus had supernatural powers to accompany his teachings. These powers were meant to elicit belief in him and his words. And they did. But during the Enlightenment it became fashionable to interpret the miracle of the loaves and fishes as something Jesus did to encourage people to share what they had brought. It suggests that Jesus shamed people into sharing. It substitutes manipulation for a miraculous gift and dismisses Jesus’ power over nature that the gospels recounts in many places. That is not what the gospel says happened.
A second lesson was that he demonstrated the beatitudes with his concern for those who hunger. He had compassion on those who followed him to that hillside.
A third lesson is that the feast did not depend on the kind of food but on the joy of the shared experience. The heart of that experience was contact with Jesus.
A fourth lesson is that Jesus often relied on the willingness of others to participate in his miracles. The boy, whom I called Jacob, first had to surrender his doubt then he had to surrender the loaves and fishes for Jesus to be able to feed the five thousand. His trust was essential. The gospel reminds us that we should also be listening for God who may ask us to participate in a miracle in a way that is a leap of faith.