About the Contributor
Adjunct Professor of Bible,
Southern Nazarene University, Independent Wesleyan Biblical Scholar
Luella was living a life I could not fathom.
We were not far apart in age; not more than five or six years, anyway. But she seemed so much older than me: having been a ward of the state nearly her entire life, then living on the street since she turned 18, had the effect of aging her by decades in my eyes.
Luella had an infant son who she loved dearly. But every week when she came to see me, she said the same thing—a self-fulfilling refrain that governed her life: “They’re gonna take him away. I know they’re gonna take him away.” In her experience, children don’t get to stay with their parents for long.
Luella, of course, was right. “They” took him away, and Luella mourned and raged. She still came to see me like clockwork—Lord knows why; my job was to provide resources to young mothers and she no longer needed any. So I would sit with Luella for an hour twice a month and think to myself, Where do I even start? It would take years of counseling to undo the barest contours of damage done in her life, not to speak of the impossibly gaping holes in her education and social skills. Luella was rough—large and imposing with a heart made of jelly. She wasn’t built to survive the world into which she’d been thrown.
And so I can’t help but throw my hands in the air along with Philip when he offers his exasperated reply to Jesus’s question about buying bread: “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” The need is so great. The resources are so few. It would take so much. Impossibly much. Hopelessly much. There is nothing we can do.
The feeding of the multitudes is one of the very few miracles that makes the cut in all four gospels. Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels include the feeding of the 4,000 and the feeding of the 5,000; inviting fascinating deep-dives into the symbology of the numbers and the leftover baskets. (Jesus himself conducts a review in Mark 9:17-21. The five loaves for the 5,000 yield twelve leftover baskets—numbers symbolizing the Pentateuch and the tribes of Israel. The seven loaves for the 4,000 yield seven excess baskets—numbers reminding us of the world and the fulfillment and completion of God’s purposes.) Theologically, this takes us so far, but the story takes a back seat.
Luke’s gospel rushes the story; precisely jamming it in between Herod’s and Peter’s musings about the identity of Christ. The story of the miraculous multiplication of bread and fish serves its purpose, pointing a giant billboard at the intermingling of Jesus’ person and mission. But in rushing us from one bookend to the next, Luke robs the story of its suspense.
But John alone unspools the yarn in such a way that one feels the gut-punch impact with Philip: The need is so great. The resources are so few. It would take so much. Impossibly much. Hopelessly much. There is simply nothing we can do.
And Jesus’ solution, of course, is to do anyway. What do you have? A child? With five loaves and two fish? Tell everybody to grab a seat. We’ll distribute what we have. It’s just lunch; it won’t last forever. The people who eat it will get hungry again. It’s not… like… a solution or anything. And yet it takes us right to the heart of Jesus, who will start to unpack it all in next week’s Gospel reading. Jesus seems to think it’s worthwhile to do what you can in the face of laughable futility, simply because all this passes away anyway, and Jesus himself is the Bread of Life.
I think about Luella, returning for her sessions with me even after she lost her son. What did I have to give her? Nothing. Just an hour, every other week. It was nothing. I helped her in no way. (If you were hoping for a high-impact conclusion, you’re in the wrong miracle.)
But then again, the feeding of the multitudes was just about lunch. Nothing more. My hour every other week with Luella was just an hour. But all these years later I can’t help but notice a certain weightiness about that time, like a bowling ball on a mattress, pressing those memories into a deeper place. I wonder if maybe those meager hours somehow loom large and multiply across eternity. I wonder if that’s why those hours sunk so heavily into my mind and impact my life disproportionately to the time I actually invested.
I wonder if maybe… just maybe… the two of us sat an hour every other week in the presence of the Bread of Life.