by Ellen Sims
So here’s how I wanted to tell today’s Gospel story. Here’s how I had planned to tell it:
Large crowds kept following Jesus wherever he went. He had just crossed to the other side of the Sea of Galilee—and still they traipsed after him in hopes he’d heal the sick among them. Jesus realized they had no food—and the only thing trickier than a big crowd was a big, hungry crowd. So he pulled his disciples into a huddle to brainstorm their options. They searched their pockets for change and quickly concluded they didn’t have enough to order takeout. Soon Andrew piped up, “Hey! There’s a kid here who is offering to share his lunch: five barley loaves and two fish packed by his mom in his Spiderman lunch box. I know it’s not enough, but how cute that the kid wants to share.”
“Bring that little guy to me,” said Jesus. ”And you get this restless bunch to sit down on the grass. Then watch me work my magic!”
And before you could say MatthewMarkLukeand John, Jesus blessed the boy’s lunch and started passing it out to the hungry folks. And the food somehow multiplied and everyone agreed it was a mighty fine feast. They even collected 12 styrofoam containers of leftovers.
Jesus lifted the little boy onto his shoulders as the crowd cheered—the way they do at the end of movies. You could almost hear the narrator’s voice over: “And that’s when the people realized that one person could make a difference. Thanks to a little boy, they learned that even a child who put others first could be used by Jesus.”
That’s basically the version of this story as I remember it from Vacation Bible School. It would have been the perfect Bible story for the occasion of Kaiden’s baptism. I could have pointed to another little boy’s significant role in the most beloved miracle story in the Bible. I could have said our Kaiden can likewise be used of God. Trouble is—the version I gave may not be supported by the details in John 6: 1-15.
Before I contrast my childhood version of the story with the details in John’s Gospel, let me remind you the miracle of Jesus feeding the multitude is the only miracle story found in all four Gospels. And Matthew tells the same basic story twice. It’s an important story of Jesus’s ministry also because the early church connected it to their practice of table fellowship and ministry to the poor. But there are differences among the story’s four Gospel versions according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. One key difference is that the little boy with the bread and fish appears only in John’s version.
Almost everyone assumes that John’s version tells us that as Jesus and the disciples were trying to figure out how to feed the crowd, a child stepped forward to offer his meal and provide the solution. Maybe. But reread verses 8 to 10. If the boy is the hero, there’s little made of him:
8One of [Jesus’s] disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.”
Nowhere does it say the boy initiated any action or volunteered any food. If you’d never heard the story before, it would be possible to imagine a number of ways in which the boy’s lunch was appropriated by the disciples and Jesus. One Bible commentary surprisingly states the miracle happened after food was “confiscated . . . from a child in the crowd” (Raven, Sea. Theology from Exile: The Year of Mark, Volume 3. Frederick, MD: Sea Raven, 2014, 214).
I think it’s a possible reading we should at least consider. The text does not tell us the boy’s name. It does not share anything the child said or did or felt. Jesus never thanked the boy, never spoke to the boy according to the story. So it’s possible the boy might not have seen Jesus or been seen by him. Andrew might have brought the food—not the boy—to Jesus.
I understand why we want to sketch in more narrative details about this boy. We love unlikely heroes. If a little boy gives his all, then you and I are capable of such largess. He can be an emblem of Jesus’s attention to the most vulnerable among us—meaning you and I can gain God’s glance.
I want to be clear I’m not saying the historical Jesus was cruel or indifferent to a child. But it’s possible that the writer of John’s Gospel was not child-centric, and certainly 1st century Near Eastern culture was not child-centered.
Consider also the way the Gospel of John portrays a mystical, elevated Jesus in contrast with the synoptic Gospels’ earthy, tender Jesus. You have to admit that Matthew and Luke own the kid-friendly Jesus. Matthew’s Jesus tells the little children to come to him; John’s does not. Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’s own early childhood and birth. Not John. So making a little boy into the star of the story doesn’t seem consistent with John’s way of telling the Jesus story.
Here’s why I’m willing to give up my uncritical VBS version of the story.
If we sentimentalize the little boy, we won’t place him in the brutal world of Imperial Rome, and we might not recognize the plight of our own children in the year 2015. If this is only a children’s story about sharing, we’ll miss an additional layer that alerts us to ways we today might disregard little boys. And girls. And others deemed less powerful and privileged. Unwilling to critique John’s point of view, we might avoid talking about the way we, too, dismiss the most vulnerable.
On Kaiden’s baptism day I want him to hear the first of many sermons that will tell him he is beloved by God and by us. He truly has a role in meeting the needs of the world. That story stands. But you and I also may need to be reminded that those in power sometimes “confiscate” resources we owe our children. I want us to hear a story exposing the way we sometimes try to solve our societal problems by cheating the most vulnerable.
Let me offer one example from several years ago.
In 2008 some of our legislators were advocating that we cut local funding to the federally-assisted school lunch programs and save taxpayers’ some money. For several days Mobilians argued in the SoundOff column of the Press Register that the Child Nutrition Program was not needed. One person argued that although his parents were poor, they managed to send him to school with bologna or peanut butter sandwiches and that had been good enough for him—the subtext being we’re coddling poor children these days. Another remembered a leftover sweet potato was his usual lunch, and he turned out just fine. Another recalled fondly collard green sandwiches. Yet another recommended poor children eat what he had taken to school: a sandwich of leftover lima beans mixed with mayonnaise. A lunch pail full of SoundOff comments soon followed about the merits of mayo and lima bean sandwiches. This was the level of our public discourse on the topic of childhood poverty?! Finding solutions to feeding hungry children should not devolve into sharing Depression-Era recipes. I wanted to “sound off” with this remark: “These suggestions just confirm that some Alabamians clearly didn’t receive nutrition during their childhood that was adequate for normal brain development!”
There are Bible stories that depict Jesus as unusually (for his day) welcoming of children. But today’s story may not be one of them. Let’s consider that the little boy we assumed was the hero of the feeding of the 5000 had no agency, no choice. That makes it a different story, doesn’t it? And if that’s the case, he’s like a lot of children in this world. He had few options. He lived on the edge and in the shadows.
Do you know who else is missing in this story? The women. The mommas of the little boys and girls. John’s version mentions no women. Matthew’s version of this miracle explains that the 5,000 counted did not include the women and children but indirectly acknowledges women and children were there. So when Matthew explains that just the men were counted among those fed that day, he’s saying that just the men count. Sister Simone Campbell, spokesperson for the “Nuns on the Bus,” has said that comment in Matthew made her mad until she realized “they only counted the ones who thought it was a miracle.” (On Being interview) The men assumed it was a miracle because they hadn’t cooked the food or packed any food. They were used to food just appearing without having to think about it. The women took care of that. And the day Jesus broke bread and shared it, the guys looked around and said, “Hey, there’s food. Wow. A miracle. We didn’t have to do a thing.” But maybe the women realized a lot of work had gone into that food being there—whether it originated with one child’s lunch or many.
Today’s miracle story might itself work miracles today if it helps us worry about and work on behalf of and watch over a little boy.
“There is a boy here!” said Andrew—his tone and intention not entirely clear to us.
“There is a boy here!” we exclaim today with love and encouragement.
“There is a boy here!” we cheer in celebration. And may no one ever say those words to belittle or exploit.
There is a boy here! There is a girl there!
Let the unseen people be seen.
Let the folks on the margins be brought in.
Let the invisible ones who make things happen in spite of oppression be made visible.
There is a boy here! A boy in charge of his destiny, a boy who should be in charge of his tuna fish sandwich on barley bread.
He won’t be a boy much longer.
There is a beautiful boy here. Right here. A boy of mixed race with two wonderful moms.
Let’s work to heal his world of prejudice and hate. There is such a little time for us to tell him in ways that sink deep down into his soul: “You are beloved of God.”
His baptism today is the occasion when he and we most clearly hear God speaking the very words spoken at Jesus’s baptism: “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”
Beloved God, help us speak your love to all your children. Amen