“…AND THEY ALL ATE AND WERE SATISFIED.”
You know, one of the first things that happens whenever anyone begins to study the four gospels with any real seriousness is the realization that for all their similarity, there is in fact, an enormous amount of diversity among the four books. That is to suggest that there are a whole lot of things in some but not others, and moreover, not much common to all four. Here are just a few examples:
† The nativity story universally read every Christmas, can, in fact, be found only in the Gospel of Luke.
† The magi and star so common to our notion of the nativity are not in Luke at all, but only in Matthew.
† Mark and John have not a hint of the birth and early life of Jesus at all.
† What many would agree to be the two most beloved of all the parables of Jesus, The Prodigal Son and The Good Samaritan, are found only in Luke.
† Arguably, the greatest miracle Jesus ever performed, the raising of Lazarus after he had been dead four days, is only in John (one can’t help but wonder how the others could have missed this!).
† The Virgin Birth, a core Christian Doctrine, gets only one mention in Matthew and one in Luke. The other two gospels do not mention it at all (nor, by the way, is it mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament!)!
† While the story of Jesus clearing the Temple is found in all four gospels, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it occurs at the end of Jesus’ ministry, while in John it occurs at the beginning.
I could go on. But the point is there are only a small number of things common to all four gospels. Here are the three things most commonly cited:
† The Baptism of Jesus, though one could argue that John only alludes to it in his Gospel.
† The Crucifixion
† The Resurrection, though here too many scholars argue that the resurrection narrative in Mark, i.e. vss. 9-20, is a later addition.
Truth is, that’s pretty much it. There is not much else common to all four gospels, except for one thing:
There are in fact six instances in the four gospels when one or another of the miraculous feeding stories is recounted: Twice in Matthew, twice in Mark, once in Luke, and once in John. Moreover the six accounts are almost identical.
Now as far as we know there are two actual events, the feeding of the four thousand, and the feeding of the five thousand, depicted in these six re-tellings, but it is nonetheless remarkable that no other event in the entire New Testament is related as often, not the baptism of Jesus, not the crucifixion, not the resurrection. Miraculous feedings are recounted six times and are found in all four gospels!
It seems to me that given that fact, we may safely assume that the first several generations of Christians, those who wrote and compiled the New Testament, thought that these stories were mighty important… each and every one of them constituting a depiction of how God through Jesus feeds and provides for his people.
Now it is, in fact, all too easy to get so hung up trying to figure out how Jesus did it (all the rage thirty years ago when I was in Seminary!) that we miss the meaning of what Jesus actually did, kind of like missing the forest for the trees! But all we really know is what the stories themselves tell us, and all six of them say essentially the same thing:
Jesus blessed the bread, broke, and distributed the bread, and then in every single text it adds that everybody got enough.
Jesus blessed, broke, distributed, and everybody got enough. Is it any wonder that a whole lot of really good scholars believe that the feeding stories as a group are actually metaphors for the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Communion; that is, metaphors for the spiritual feeding and spiritual strengthening of God’s people?
The bottom line being that God provides for us all that we need.
God provides for us all that we need. This single, simple assertion, reiterated six times in the four gospels, lies at the very heart of Christianity itself, and points to a remarkable truth: We already have all that we need. We don’t need to get anything else, because we’ve already got it!
We don’t need to be filled with God’s Spirit, we already are. We don’t need to get Jesus into our hearts he’s already there.
By virtue of our baptisms, by virtue of the indwelling of the Spirit, we’ve got it all: love, joy, peace, contentment, compassion, already reside within us. We don’t need to get another thing to be happy. It’s already there. God has already provided.
Now even as I write this, I am all too aware of how inexplicable it sounds, how absurd. If we’ve already got all the good stuff, how come we don’t feel any better? If God has already provided, how come I’m not satisfied? To put it a little differently, if Jesus’ sacrifice is efficacious for my salvation, how come I’m still afraid, how come I still get depressed and anxious and angry?
It is an age old question, and part of the answer is simply that emotional challenges are a necessary part of the human condition, in that by them we are moved to grow and change. In other words, they’re just part of life! At the same time, it’s important for us to understand that we are the “light of the world,” in the words of Jesus, that the light of Christ burns in each one of us already, it’s just that (to paraphrase the old children’s song) we need to learn to let it shine!
The problem, of course, is, it’s hiding under that old bushel! It’s there all right, only it’s obscured by all manner of garbage that we’ve collected throughout our lives. It’s there, but it’s covered up.
- It’s covered up by our endless obsessive thinking…repetitive, useless, detrimental.
- It’s covered up by our judgments and opinions, all the things we think we know, and by our need to be right.
- It’s covered up by our prejudice, by our lack of compassion.
- It’s covered up by fear and distrust, by the way we tend to make enemies out of strangers.
- It’s covered up by our self loathing, by our inability to see God in ourselves and in others.
- It’s covered by the fact that most of us don’t believe we are worthy of God’s good gifts to begin with.
All these things keep us from that which we already have, that which is so close we can all but touch it. Indeed, if we even knew how thin is the veil that separates us from the Kingdom of Heaven itself, our hearts would break, and in fact, perhaps that would do it. Because of course, we have to be broken. We have to be “crucified,” to use the language of St. Paul. We have to be surrendered. That and only that is the purpose of the Christian life.
Jesus said of the Father, “He must increase while I must decrease (John 3:30).” That was Jesus’ road, and it is our road as well. We must decrease. To paraphrase Fr. Henri Nouwen, in the midst of an upwardly mobile world, we must emulate the ever downward spiral of Christ.
It is counter-intuitive, of course, as it has ever been. Moreover it may well be that in the Christian West of today, it’s harder than it’s ever been, as we find ourselves at odds with our prevailing consumer driven, talking heads ad nauseum culture, and sadly, with much of Christian fundamentalism as well. Nonetheless, our course is clear:
We must surrender. We must decrease. We must be crucified with Christ.
How can we surrender? How do we decrease? Click here to read my previous post, Confessions of a Christian Meditator.