|Discovery Cube, Orange County Science Center|
By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said,As Jesus and his disciples sought to get away by themselves, people from the region figured out where they were headed and they found a huge crowd waiting for them. Jesus looked at these people and " had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things." The content of his teaching is not included but we surely know that he taught the message described in 1 John 3:23-24.
"This is a deserted place and it is already very late.
Dismiss them so that they can go
to the surrounding farms and villages
and buy themselves something to eat."
He said to them in reply,
"Give them some food yourselves." Mark 6:35-37
And further that Spirit is love as John makes clear in today's first reading."[They]...should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us. Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit that he gave us."
This passage describes one of the miracles or wonders performed by Jesus. This miracle tends to obscure the fundamental message of the story and the reason why we can still read it today with some sense of relevance to our own lives. Admittedly the miracles of Jesus have always been a problem for me. It seems so unlikely that Jesus, living as a fully human person, could cause all these physical miracles and cures. Yet Christians believe that he is fully divine. Stories such as this one are often cited as proof of the divinity of Jesus the Christ. If they are all true, it seems hard to deny that there was something supernatural about this person. Multiplying a few loaves and fish to feed a crowd of more than 5,000 seems pretty strong evidence. Yet, it did not convince Jesus' contemporaries. There were still plenty of people, arguably the vast majority, who did not recognize him as Messiah, let alone as the Son of God, whatever that might have meant to them.
There are two questions here. Do I have to believe these stories as historically accurate in order to be a Christian. Second, what is the message of this passage for me today? I have been reading Dynamics of Faith (1957) by Paul Tillich, one of the major Christian theologians of the 20th Century. According to Tillich, "faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of humanity's ultimate concern." The language of faith deal with symbols, images that express the ultimate concern of human beings. The language of faith is not historically accurate narrative, scientific analysis, or philosophical reasoning. Faith is about stories and images that convey the ultimate concerns, concerns that take precedence over other concerns. As others have pointed out, the historicity of biblical stories is, respectfully, beside the point. The stories tells us what our predecessors in the faith have believed, what they have held as ultimate concerns. So I can have my doubts about the miracles and still be a committed Christian. I can also fully accept the historicity of the biblical narratives and be a committed Christian but not because I believe the stories. Faith comes from a different place.
So what does this story tell me about the ultimate concern of Jesus, what is he trying to tell me today about my ultimate concern? It is pretty straightforward. When I see people in need, I need to do more than just point out the problem and hope that someone will respond. I need to do something about it. I may be and feel inadequate to the task but that doesn't get me off the hook. Doing something, anything, gives shape and reality to my compassion. And that is what Jesus is trying to point out in this story.