Only one miracle—count ‘em, one—occurred in each of the four Gospels.
Matthew. Mark. Luke. John. You do your own laborious Biblical research, but you’ll come to the same conclusion as me (and everyone else). Only the feeding of the crowd has parallels in all four Gospels.
Was the feeding a miracle?
Answer A: We don’t know. The Gospels are not neutral, facts-only-ma’am history books. The accounts were biased and written two or three generations after Jesus’ ministry. That’s like me giving details about my grandfather’s childhood. We have no idea what happened.
Answer B: It’s completely true. After all, darn it, this is the Bible! If it’s in the holy scriptures, then every sacred, infallible word explains all that’s necessary. ‘Nuff said.
I live between those two answers. And I have an imagination.
#1. Crowds tramped around after Jesus, ignoring their growling tummies as their souls were fed. Finally, overcome by hunger, Jesus pitied them and took a bit of bread and a few fish and—miraculously—produced an immediate abundance of grub. Now, that’s faithfully fast food!
#2. Crowds tramped around after Jesus, ignoring their growling tummies as their souls were fed. The disciples, humbled by Jesus’ request to feed the folks, offered the trail mix and beef jerky they’d been hoarding in their L.L. Bean knapsacks. Inspired by their example, others shared.
#3. Crowds tramped around after Jesus, ignoring their growling tummies as their souls were fed (you’ve heard this part before, right?). As Jesus blessed the miniscule amount of food given freely by a ruddy-faced youth, the crowds realized giving was better than receiving. They were witnesses, they were influenced by word-of-mouth. All were generous. The first, and most famous, church potluck was unleashed.
And what would your version #4 or #5 be? Or have I provided enough choices: Door #1, Door #2, Door #3?
As I think back to sermons I’ve preached or heard, Door #3 is probably the imaginative interpretation most used. In my theological tradition and training, I rarely take a miracle literally (Door #1). It’s one of my strengths. Or weaknesses. And, not unlike other scenes in the Gospels, the disciples come across as dull-witted in all the feeding stories. It’s hard to view those bumbling lads as meal time miracle workers. (Door #2).
Does emphasizing “giving is better than receiving” or perhaps “sharing is better than hoarding” make it less a miracle and more just a nice, safe, reasonable event? After all, who cares about nice events? How can a lively faith be defined by or driven by the ordinary and ho-hum?
Miracle or not, each time I read any of the Gospel accounts, I marvel at that “moment” when people are hungry and located in a place where there is no obvious food. Something has to happen . . .
Perhaps the crowds will just wander away?
The disciples, or even Jesus, might decide to leave?
Which is to say, this is a “moment” where the very next choice may be doing nothing. No one will die. Every account implied that villages where food can be bought (or borrowed, begged, bartered) were close enough.
And yet “something” happens.
Nothing, then . . .
A miracle—modest or magnificent, sensed by one or seen by many—happened between those two moments.
I recall attending a writer’s conference in Seattle. I had a goal: convince one or more of the literary agents attending the conference to read a sample of a novel I’d written and consider representing me. Back then, without an agent, “unknown” novelists would remain unknown and unpublished.
Several agents asked to see more of my writing. Hooray for my side! However, there was an agent I was interested in that wasn’t at the conference. I had done my homework and believed this particular agent might consider my work. However times two, I discovered she was not accepting “unsolicited queries.” She would only look at writing samples where someone she trusted recommended that author.
One of her clients was the conference’s keynote speaker.
I confronted a choice. Ask the published author and conference speaker if he would consider recommending me to his agent. Or, because of dread or shyness or laziness or self-doubt or procrastination, never approach him.
After all, he might say, “No.” He might laugh at me. He might turn away. He might . . .
He said, “Yes.” Not knowing me, he replied, “Use my name in your letter to the agent.”
I think of that author’s response as a miracle. An insignificant, trivial one. Perhaps even a selfish one.
In the Gospel tales, there often seems a moment between doing nothing and doing something. Just as the disciples grumbled about not having enough shekels for dinner. Just after the ruddy-faced youth appeared. Just as someone in the crowd complained. Just when Jesus thanked and blessed God (and he always did). Before there was nothing.
If we do nothing, nothing likely happens. And a miracle, or even a moment of selfless sharing, might never take place.