There is abundant evidence suggesting that both during Jesus' life and at the time the New Testament was written the flash point of Jewish religious orthodoxy was the dietary laws. These proscriptions were an elaboration of the passages in the book of Leviticus whose original function had been to regulate the selection, preparation, and consumption of animals used for ritual sacrifice. The dietary laws to which the Pharisees and other orthodox Jews carefully adhered prescribed meticulous ritual washings deemed necessary to avoid contamination, and they carefully regulated how food was to be prepared and eaten and with whom it might be safely shared. Scrupulosity about defiling contact with sinners and the fear of ingesting unclean food combined to make the sharing of meals a particularly touchy issue. For observant Jews of the time, it was a perilous thing to share a meal with those about whose moral and religious status they were uncertain. Conscious intention had nothing to do with the all-important matter of avoiding impurity. Contact with sinners or the ingestion of forbidden or unsanctified foods would defile one and make it necessary to submit to ritual cleansings, regardless of how inadvertent the exposure to the impurity might have been. The safest course, under the circumstances, was to avoid all contact with outcasts and sinners and with pagans and nonobserving Jews. For those who strove to observe every detail of the elaborate dietary regulations, meals shared with anyone other than one's most intimate kin and co-religionists were occasions fraught with moral and religious dangers.
In the first century, Greek and Roman influence in Palestine was pervasive, and mingling with non-Jews became a fact of life for Jews living in the cities of Judea and Galilee. Consequently, orthodox Jews found the task of adhering to the dietary proscriptions more challenging, while at the same time they felt adherence to these customs more than ever essential for the preservation of Jewish cultural identity. It is only by understanding the moral significance of sharing meals for the Jews of Jesus' time, therefore, that one can fully appreciate what was one of the distinguishing features of his ministry: table fellowship. Again and again, the Gospels show Jesus and his disciples sharing meals, and Jesus' eagerness to share these meals with "sinners" and the "outcasts" may have been the most conspicuous feature of his ministry.
By simply sitting at table with those widely regarded as morally contemptible, Jesus earned the scorn of the Pharisees and other strict observers of Jewish custom. By sharing meals with those considered by the religiously righteous to be outcasts and sinners, Jesus challenged "the central ordering principle of the Jewish social world." (1) As Geza Vermes put it, Jesus "took his stand among the pariahs of the world, those despised by the respectable. Sinners were his table-companions and the ostracized tax collectors and prostitutes his friends." (2) The meals Jesus shared with the outcasts were not, therefore, simply the occasion for the delivery of his message. They were the message. They served as "prophetic signs" meant to manifest the meaning of Jesus' ministry. They involved what Borg speaks of as a "radical relativizing of cultural distinctions." (3) It is in this context of Jewish dietary concerns that I think one can best understand the miracle of loaves and fishes.
The Miracle of Loaves and Fishes
It seems clear to me that Jesus' burning passion was to free those he encountered from the grip of religious mystification and scandalous delusion whose effects were to harden the human heart and turn people into accomplices in cruelty and lovelessness. In trying to bring about this liberation, Jesus seems to have found the popular appetite for miracles exasperating. At times he fled from crowds looking for a miracle worker, and he resolutely refused to perform miracles simply for the purpose of demonstrating his ability to perform them.
It is important, therefore, to remember that for a miracle to have genuine religious significance it must transform the human heart and that it was a transformation of the heart that Jesus brought about in those he deeply touched. Curing a crippled leg is not as miraculous as curing a hardened heart or a despairing soul. In approaching the miracles, therefore, we should look to their spiritual effect primarily and strive to understand them on that level first. The great miracle of Jesus' ministry was reconciliation -- with God and with others. This, I think, is the starting point for understanding the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and the other miracles as well.
The various Gospel accounts of Jesus feeding large crowds from scant supplies may be versions of one memorable event for which several accounts survived. In the present form, the accounts presuppose that those who had come to hear him, some from considerable distance, brought no food with them. Jesus' audience would have been almost exclusively made up of Jews, and, as I pointed out, most religious-minded Jews of the time would have taken the precaution of bringing with them enough bread or dried fish to insure that they would not be forced to eat food whose ritual purity was in doubt. But taking the precaution of bringing a supply of ritually clean food would have been only one hurdle, and perhaps not the largest one. For eating these provisions while in the company of others of uncertain moral and religious character would have placed one in jeopardy of moral contamination from sinners and pagans. The fact that Jesus had a reputation for attracting and tolerating the socially marginal would have added to the anxiety of observant Jews in this regard. Not knowing the moral and religious status of those sitting nearby would have made many reluctant to bring out whatever provisions they had with them.
In all the accounts of Jesus feeding the multitude, it is Jesus who takes the initiative and invites the people to sit down and prepare for a meal. Sharing a meal together was his idea, not theirs. For reasons I have already stated, Jesus' audience probably found the idea unsettling. This wariness, on the other hand, would have been symptomatic of the niggling religious apprehensions from which Jesus was trying to liberate them. Given the role of table fellowship in Jesus' ministry, it is my view that it was not primarily the lateness of the hour that made the unexpected sharing of a meal necessary, but rather that Jesus decided to drive home the points he had been making in his preaching by inviting his audience to sit down then and there for the purpose of sharing a meal with those around them. The point of the feeding, in my opinion, was not food; it was the breaking down of religious and social barriers that Jesus had been challenging as spiritually inconsequential in his preaching. It was hands-on learning. It was practice for living in the kingdom.
All the Gospel accounts speak of Jesus praying a blessing before the miracle occurred. In other words, he didn't just go to the few loaves and dried fish and cause them to multiply; he gave thanks to God in words to which the people listened carefully. It was then that the miracle occurred. By now the reader will have guessed what I think the miracle was. Jesus opened their hearts, and they, in turn, opened their satchels, and the greatest miracle of all occurred. Following a pattern that is still today embedded in the Catholic Mass, Jesus preached of a God of love and forgiveness and then invited those who heard his message to sit down together and live for a moment in the "kingdom" about which he was preaching. Changing the human heart and liberating those trapped in religious superstition is simply a greater miracle than pulling loaves and dried fish out of a basket. The feeding of the multitude was a real miracle. The miracle was a new kind of community, one generated by prayer and inclusion, a "new generation." Transitory as it may have been, it remains a model for a new community, one on which all human culture will one day have to be based. The social bond that gave the community that Jesus inspired its coherence had one conspicuous feature: the breaking down of religious prejudice.
1. David McCracken, The Scandal of the Gospels: Jesus, Story, and Offense (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 132.
2. Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 224; cited by Borg, Jesus: A New Vision, 145n.
3. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision, 139.
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