What is in a Boy?: Reflections on the Feeding of the Five Thousand

 

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A large crowd, perhaps up to ten thousand people, has gathered to see and listen to Jesus. Throughout the day many have been blessed by his teaching and he has healed many who are sick. But now the day is drawing to a close and a very practical question arises.  How will the crowd be fed? The obvious solution is to send the crowd home before it is too dark to travel safely. But Jesus has another solution. From five loaves and two fishes enough food is miraculously provided to satisfy the hunger of all.

This story will be very familiar to those who have grown up in the life of God’s church.  It appears in all four Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44Luke 9:12-17; and John 6:1-14) – the only miracle story to do so apart from that of the resurrection of Jesus. Those who attend a liturgical church will most likely hear it again this Sunday, read from the Gospel of Matthew. And while there are many similarities between the four different tellings of the story, they are not identical. For example, only John’s Gospel mentions a “boy” or a “lad” as the original human source for the five loaves and two fishes.

As I reflected on this feeding miracle in preparation for Sunday, I began to wonder about that “boy” or “lad”. Why does John mention him? What is his role in the story say to us?  What is in a boy? How might our understanding of this story be informed and enriched through a focus on his presence and contribution?

John’s version of the story reads as follows:

Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.  When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.  Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”  Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up,“Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”  10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there).11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.  12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.  (Version: NIV)

John tells us that the disciple Andrew presents the boy to Jesus, together with his loaves and fish. My sense is that he did so ‘tongue in cheek’ … perhaps to generate a laugh by  highlighting the absurdity of the situation … “so many people and so little food … as if it would be enough, Jesus!” Andrew does not simply say “here is a boy”. He says “here is a little boy”(as Raymond E. Brown explains, “the Greek word Paidarion is a double diminutive of pais of which paidion is the normal diminutive). Andrew emphasises both the “smallness” of the boy and the “smallness” of the food at hand. Whether the boy was actually “little” in stature is an open question. What is clear is that Andrew chose to name him as such.

What can we surmise about this boy from the Gospel accounts and our knowledge of ancient Galilean society?  In her book Children in Early Christian Narratives, Sharon Betsworth writes, “The presence of the boy indicates that children were among the crowd of people who followed Jesus.  He was likely with family members as children did not tend to go places on their own in those days.  Yet he is not just somewhere among the vast crowd.  He is close enough to Jesus that Andrew notices the food he has. … The boy seems to be from the lower class of society.  John specifically mentions that the bread was made of barley, another detail unique to the Fourth Gospel. Barley was cheaper than wheat, and the poor commonly ate barley loaves.” 

John’s Gospel does not say by what manner the loaves and fishes were transferred to Jesus. Many preachers and commentators have assumed the boy freely handed them to Jesus or his disciples and credited to the boy virtues of generosity and self-sacrifice, but it is perhaps a “stretch” to do so. Jimmy Akin, for example, draws attention to Philip’s words about buying food and suggests that the boy could have brought food that day not for his own consumption (five loaves and two fishes seems like a lot of food for one small boy) but to sell to others. Akin writes, “It makes much more sense, given the context and the flow of the conversation, to see the little boy not as a local who happened to pack an extraordinarily large amount of food for him to eat at the day’s event but as an enterprising young salesman who brought food to where he knew there would be a lot of people spending the day and he could sell it. Like the kids who swarm over Israel’s holy sites to this day trying to sell trinkets or snacks or bottled water to the pilgrims who have shown up for religious reasons. Jesus’ crowds were bound to attract such kids, and Andrew happened to spot one.”

So, once again, what does the boy’s role in the story say to us? What is in a boy? The answer lies, I suggest, not in the boy himself, but in Jesus’ reception of his loaves and fishes, and by extension the boy himself, and in what Jesus does with what was the boy’s.  Andrew sees “little” in the boy and his provisions. Perhaps his presence was to Andrew something of an annoyment; elsewhere in the Gospels we hear of the disciples rebuking parents who brought children to Jesus (cf. Matthew 19:13, Luke 18:15). Jesus, however, places value on the “little” boy and uses him to do something “big”. I wonder if, through the “sign” of this boy, Jesus is inviting us to also place “value” on the children amongst us. I wonder if he is inviting us to be open to “big” things he can do through them to bless us and many others. And not simply those children we might see as particularly virtuous – those who are generous and kind and selfless – but any children who happen to be in Jesus’ presence – whatever their motivations or backgrounds or journeys. I wonder how such an understanding and attitude might change how we view and involve and relate to children who are with us in the presence of Jesus? Do we see them as “little” or as “big” in Christ? Do we see the “smallness” of what they bring to the table or do we have a “big” vision for Jesus’ work in and through their lives?

So, what is in a boy? What do you see? What does Jesus see? And might we see through the eyes of Jesus? Food for thought … perhaps some food for Jesus to multiply in our minds and in our hearts.

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