Chapter 5: God Feeds the Hungry (Mark 8:1-9)
In 1943 in a tuberculosis sanitarium near London a young Frenchwoman lay dying. Her name was Simone Weil - teacher, philosopher, writer, and political activist. The only known therapy for tuberculosis was bed rest and hearty meals, but Simone refused the rich diet. Her physician was quoted by a local newspaper as saying, "I tried to get her to take some food. She said she would try. She didn’t have any, however, except for some tea and water. The reason she gave r not eating was that she couldn’t eat when she thought of the French people starving in France." To her friends Simone must have seemed one more victim of the madness then ruling the world.
The scene shifts to a wilderness in first-century Palestine:
In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, [Jesus] called his disciples and said to them, "I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way - and some of them have come from a great distance." His disciples replied, "How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?" He asked them, "How many loaves do you have?" They said, "Seven." Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute: and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few, small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Now there were about Jour thousand people. (Mark 8:1-9)
Questions pop up like reporters at a press conference:
"Yes, you in the back row."
"I’m the science editor for CBS-TV. Agronomists are looking for ways to increase the food supply without cutting down trees or adding petrochemicals to the soil. Can we have more data about the multiplication of available resources?"
"You in the second row, waving your tablet."
"International affairs for the Times. I was in China in the ‘50s, observing the effectiveness of the Five Year Plan. Many call it an amazing achievement. But in its final year, population increased at twice the rate of grain production. Are we looking here at an economic miracle?"
"You there in the first row. Yes, you."
"Drama critic for Newsweek. Hunger and homelessness are in. The Grapes of Wrath won the Tony Award in 1989. Is anyone planning to make a play or film of the feeding of the four thousand?"
"You, in the glasses."
"I’m from the London Economist. Bread and riots go together. The French Revolution was triggered by a doubling in the price of bread in two years. What is the possible political fallout from this handout?"
Such questions suggest that the feeding of the four thousand is a mysterious and complex event, pregnant with many meanings. In the context of this book, however, its meaning is straightforward: God feeds the hungry.
Compassion for the hungry is what we should expect of any human being. A dispossessed tenant farmer in The Grapes of Wrath says: "If a fella’s got somepin to eat an’ another fella’s hungry - why the first fella ain’t got no choice." Simone Weil wrote:
"Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians believed that no soul could justify itself after death unless it could say, 'I have never let any one suffer from hunger.' All Christians know that they are liable to hear Christ Himself say to them one day, 'I was an hungered, and ye gave me no meat' Every one looks on progress as being, in the first place, a transition to a state of human society in which people will not suffer from hunger. To no matter whom the question may be put in general terms, nobody is of the opinion that any man is innocent if, possessing food himself in abundance and finding someone on his doorstep three parts dead from hunger, he brushes past without giving him anything. (The Need for Roots, 1952, p.6)
Attention must be paid to Simone Weil; her words and works were wholly consistent. As a child during World War I she refused to eat sugar because French soldiers had none. As a young teacher she would eat no more than what those on unemployment allowances could afford. When she visited America in 1942, she told her parents, "I will eat no more than in Marseilles." When first hospitalized in England she refused to drink milk - partly because she did not like it, but also because French children could not have any. When she died, the certificate attributed her death to a combination of tuberculosis and starvation.
I think Simone would agree that in feeding the four thousand Jesus acted out of that most basic of human obligations - to feed the hungry neighbor if she is famished and you have bread. I wonder if Simone would agree with my conclusion: Not only does God forgive sin and heal the sick; God also feeds the hungry. A humane God can do no less.
That, of course, raises the question: If it is a human obligation to feed the hungry, is it monstrous of God to let people starve to death? Think of the pictures of the emaciated bodies of Ethiopian children and the stricken faces of their parents that suddenly appeared on our TV screens in the fall of 1985. Think of the anguish of the Kurdish refugees, who in the spring of 1991 lined the mountain roads leading from Iraq to Iran. Or the children left homeless by the cyclones in Bangladesh that same spring. Only the most callous among us were not moved to contribute money to the Red Cross, CARE, Church World Service, World Vision, or some other relief agency. Was it inhuman of God to let this happen? If we can be moved to act, why not God?
That is the kind of question the devil loves to pose. Recall from chapter 2 the story of Jesus’ temptations in the desert. He had been in that wilderness for forty days without food; and if the four thousand that came to hear him were famished after three days, imagine how he must have felt. The devil’s first proposal was: "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." The devil is a shrewd philosopher: If A is true, and B always follows A, then must not B be thus? If God is both all-powerful and loving, should God not turn stones to bread to feed the hungry?
There is a sentimental response often given to that question. It is offered in the form of a poem, which contains the lines: "God has no hands but our hands, to do His work today." The verse implies that God’s hands are tied by the decision to turn over to us the work of caring for one another. God is not farmer, miller, baker, grocer, or domestic help. If the hungry are to be fed, it is us who must do the feeding.
That same notion is the basis for a folktale about a man who died and went to the place of souls. He was shown a banquet hall, where tables were loaded down with rich food. He was certain he had gone to heaven. At the ringing of a dinner bell, the inhabitants of that place rushed into the room. But all had long spoons tied to each hand, so that they could not feed themselves. Nevertheless, they tried frantically to get the food to their mouths, until attendants came to drive them from the hall. The newcomer understood that he was in hell, and he begged to be shown heaven. He was taken to another place, where the scene was repeated. There was the banquet hall, the food, the inhabitants with spoons strapped to their hands. But here each fed his or her neighbor!
But poems and stories cannot stifle the question: Why are all the hungry not fed? The devil’s query about stones and bread hangs over the scene in the desert like a small, dark cloud. If Jesus fed four thousand with a few loaves and fishes, then why doesn’t God feed everyone out of the world’s abundant resources? One answer sometimes given is that God provides the abundance, but it is up to us to provide a proper distribution system. Jesus got the hungry folk to sit in orderly rows; he quickly organized his followers to distribute the available food.
But surely the story of the feeding of the four thousand is not about our need for better distribution systems or a more orderly society. It is about God’s response to hunger: God feeds the hungry. It would be inhuman of God to do anything else. We must not think of God as watching in transcendent holiness while children’s bellies swell and their arms and legs shrink and their lives dry up under an Ethiopian or Bengal or Iraqi sun.
But whatever the narrative of the feeding of the four thousand teaches about God, children do in fact starve to death in our world, even with its great surpluses of food and its technological and organizational wizardry. Children die of malnutrition in refugee camps, even though it is possible for a government to get food to them in a matter of hours. And it will not do to repeat the cant that after all war is hell. Listen to what Simon says about the feeding of all the world’s children - Arthur Simon, who for years was director of Bread for the World:
"Imagine ten children at a table dividing up food. The three healthiest load their plates with large portions, including most of the meat, fish, milk and eggs. They eat what they want and discard the leftovers. Two other children get just enough to meet their basic requirements. The remaining five are left wanting. Three of them - sickly, nervous, apathetic children - manage to stave off the feeling of hunger by filling up on bread and rice. The other two cannot do even that. One dies from dysentery and the second from pneumonia, which they are too weak to ward off." (Bread for the World, 1957, p. 14)
To that there can only be one of two responses: Either God does not feed the hungry, or God’s efforts are thwarted by other agents. If the feeding of the four thousand is to be believed, then the second answer is the proper one: Something or someone gets in the way. What is mysterious about the story is not how four thousand were fed with seven loaves and a couple of fish. The story points beyond itself to the mystery of sin and evil in God’s world. If the hungry are not fed, it is not God’s fault; the blame lies elsewhere.
A Second Look
The narrative merits a second look. The bare outline of the story is this: Jesus saw that the crowd had foolishly neglected to bring enough food for several days - or had faithfully expected him to provide meals! In either case, he felt responsible. He canvassed the disciples and found there was only a little bit of food. But he was somehow confident that this would do. He got the folks to sit down in orderly fashion. He thanked God for the bits of bread and fish, acknowledging that God feeds the hungry. Then he gave the bread and fish to the disciples to distribute. Lo and behold, there was enough for everyone to eat and be full. And when the broken pieces were recovered, they filled seven baskets - more food than there was to begin with. And about four thousand people had eaten.
There is nothing in the story to suggest that Jesus intended to work a miracle. Rather there is a breathtaking innocence in his actions. Although a few sandwiches are insufficient for an army, he invited the crowd to sit down to a meal, blessed the bits, and passed them out. That has got to be one of the greatest tight-wire acts of all time. What if the few loaves and fish don’t begin to feed everyone? There could be a first-class riot, with heads broken, perhaps people killed. In the winter of 1863, three thousand housewives in Richmond rioted over the price of bread; President Jefferson Davis went out into the streets and took the money that was in his pockets and threw it to the rioters to try to get them to stop. Folks who are in the desert with no food cannot be counted on to be rational and restrained. It was a pre-revolutionary, not to say a pre-riot, situation. And Jesus calmly invited the crowd to dinner, said grace, and told the disciples to pass the food around.
One has to have respect for the disciples: If the food didn’t stretch, they could have been torn to bits. People in comparable circumstances have been trampled to death. In cases of mass deprivation it is not uncommon for the desperate to wreak vengeance on the distributors: to rob the grocer, to attack the bread truck, to raid the farmer. Recall from the spring of 1991 the scenes of hungry Kurds mobbing the relief trucks.
Give the Judean crowd credit - or give credit to Jesus’ charisma. Somehow the hungry folks sat down in orderly fashion, expecting to be fed. Whence came that child-like confidence? Maybe some of them had been present at the healing of the paralytic; a man who could make a paralytic walk could certainly multiply bread and fish. Or maybe they were so hungry for a hero that they let their hearts rule their stomachs. Or maybe some of them had been present in the synagogue in Nazareth when Jesus said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18). So they were expecting some kind of economic miracle, perestroika and all that. Perhaps that’s why so many of them were present with him in that desert place - leaving jobs, family, friends, to go after him. Maybe they hoped he would lay out a Five Year Plan, by which hunger would be eliminated, the working poor triumphant, the hated overlords driven away, land reform instituted, inflation curbed, bread prices brought down, fishing rights restored. Perhaps they came out to hear a new manifesto, the declaration of the rights of humans to decent food and clothing and wages.
Whatever the expectations of the four thousand, it is hard to imagine that they were prepared for what ensued. They got a free lunch. An acquaintance of mine who spent five years in the Washington office of our denomination summed up all he learned in one phrase: "There is no such thing as a free lunch." If one wanted to sum up all the conventional wisdom of the twentieth century, it could be stated in that same phrase: "There is no free lunch." Oh really? Tell that to the four thousand who were with Jesus in the desert. They got a free lunch.
And that, surely, is the meaning of the story. God feeds the hungry. That most minimal of human obligations, God undertakes. Our philosophy, technology, science, and systems to the contrary, God feeds the hungry. It would be inhuman of God to do less. As Simone Weil rightly said, "It is an eternal obligation toward the human being not to let him suffer hunger when one had the chance of coming to his assistance." In the next chapter you will hear Jesus say, "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?"
A Final Question
Suppose that you had a chance to visit Simone Weil in the last weeks of her illness. Suppose that you were her father or mother, who supported her generously and gently in her unconventional life. Or suppose you were one of her former students, who had learned from her to love Plato and Descartes and Rousseau. Or suppose you were a trade union member who had worked and marched and argued with her. You knew from her physician that her only hope of recovery was to stuff herself with butter, cream, and meat - the things that millions could only dream about. As you looked into that ravaged but resolute face, would you want to tell her: "Child, God helps those who help themselves"? Or is there something you would want her to tell you?