« Prev Chapter XVII. The Miracle of the Loaves. Next »

269

CHAPTER XVII.

THE MIRACLE OF THE LOAVES.

Luke ix. 1-17.

The Galilean ministry was drawing to a close, for the "great Light" which had risen over the northern province must now move southward, to set behind a cross and a grave. Jesus, however, is reluctant to leave these borders, amid whose hills the greater part of His life has been spent, and among whose composite population His greatest successes have been won, without one last effort. Calling together the Twelve, who hitherto have been Apostles in promise and in name rather than in fact, He lays His plans before them. Dividing the district into sections, so as to equalize their labours and prevent any overlapping, He sends them out in pairs; for in the Divine arithmetic two are more than twice one, more than the sum of the separate units by all the added force and strength of fellowship. They are to be the heralds of the new kingdom, to "preach the kingdom of God," their insignia no outward, visible badge, but the investiture of authority over all demons, and power over all diseases. Apostles of the Unseen, servants of the Invisible King, they must dismiss all worldly cares; they must not even make provision for their journey, weighting themselves with such impedimenta as wallets stored with270 bread or changes of raiment. They must go forth in an absolute trust in God, thus proving themselves citizens of the heavenly kingdom, whose gates they open to all who will repent and step up into them. They may take a staff, for that will help rather than hinder on the steep mountain paths; but since the King's business requireth haste, they must not spend their time in the interminable salutations of the age, nor in going about from house to house; such changes would only distract, diverting to themselves the thought which should be centred upon their mission. Should any city not receive them, they must retire at once, shaking off, as they depart, the very dust from their feet, as a testimony against them.

Such were the directions, as Jesus dismissed the Twelve, sending them to reap the Galilean harvest, and at the same time to prepare them for the wider fields which after the Pentecost would open to them on every side. It is only by incidental allusions that we learn anything as to the success of the mission, but when our Evangelist says "they went throughout the villages, preaching the Gospel and healing everywhere," these frequent miracles of healing would imply that they found a sympathetic and receptive people. Nor were the impulses of the new movement confined to the lower reaches of society; for even the palace felt its vibrations, and St. Luke, who seems to have had private means of information within the Court, possibly through Chuza and Manaen, pauses to give us a kind of silhouette of the Tetrarch. Herod himself is perplexed. Like a vane, "that fox" swings round to the varying gusts of public opinion that come eddying within the palace from the excited world outside; and as some say that Jesus is Elias, and others "one of the old prophets," while others aver that He is John himself, risen from271 the dead, this last rumour falls upon the ears of Herod like alarming thunders, making him quiver like an aspen. "And he sought to see Jesus." The "conscience that makes cowards of us all" had unnerved him, and he longed by a personal acquaintance with Jesus to waive back out of his sight the apparition of the murdered prophet. Who Jesus might be did not much concern Herod. He might be Elias, or one of the old prophets, anything but John; and so when Herod did see Jesus afterwards, and saw that He was not the risen Baptist, but the Man of Galilee, his courage revived, and he gave Jesus into the hands of his cohorts, that they might mock Him with the faded purple.

What steps Herod took to secure an interview we do not know; but the verb indicates more than a wish on his part; it implies some plan or attempt to gratify the wish; and probably it was these advances of Herod, together with the Apostles' need of rest after the strain and excitements of their mission, which prompted Jesus to seek a place of retirement outside the bounds of Antipas. On the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and on the eastern bank of the Jordan, was a second Bethsaida, or "House of Fish" as the name means, built by Philip, and to which, in honour of Cæsar's daughter, he gave the surname of "Julias." The city itself stood on the hills, some three or four miles back from the shore; while between the city and the lake swept a wide and silent plain, all untilled, as the New Testament "desert" means, but rich in pasturage, as the "much grass" of John vi. 10 would show. This still shore offered, as it seemed, a safe refuge from the exacting and intrusive crowds of Capernaum, whose constant coming and going left272 them no leisure so much as to eat; and bidding them launch the familiar boat, Jesus and the twelve sail away to the other side. The excited crowds, however, which followed them to the water's edge, are not so easily to be shaken off; but guessing the direction of the boat, they seek to head her off by a quick detour round the shore. And some of them do; for when the boat grates on the northern shingle some of the swift-footed ones are already there; while stretching back for miles is a stream of humanity, of both sexes and of all ages, but all fired with one purpose. The desert has suddenly grown populous.

And how does Jesus bear this interruption to His plans? Does He chafe at this intrusion of the people upon His quiet hours? Does He resent their importunity, calling it impertinence, then driving them from Him with a whip of sharp words? Not so. Jesus was accustomed to interruptions; they formed almost the staple of His life. Nor did He repulse one solitary soul which sought sincerely His mercy, no matter how unseasonable the hour, as men would read the hours. So now Jesus "received" them, or "welcomed" them, as it is in the R.V. It is a favourite word with St. Luke, found in his Gospel more frequently than in the other three Gospels together. Applied to persons, it means nearly always to receive as guests, to welcome to hospitality and home. And such is its meaning here. Jesus takes the place of the host. True, it is a desert place, but it is a part of the All-Father's world, a room of the Father's house, carpeted with grass and ablaze with flowers; and Jesus, by His welcome, transforms the desert into a guest-chamber, where in a new way He keeps the Passover with His disciples, at the same time entertaining His thousands of self-bidden273 guests, giving to them truth, speaking of the kingdom of God, and giving health, healing "those that had need of healing."

It was toward evening, "when the day began to wear away," that Jesus gave to a bright and busy day its crowning benediction. The thought had already ripened into purpose, in His mind, to spread a table for them in the wilderness; for how could He, the compassionate One, send them to their homes famishing and faint? These poor, shepherdless sheep have put themselves into His care. Their simple, unproviding confidence has made Him in a sense responsible, and can He disappoint that confidence? It is true they have been thoughtless and improvident. They have let the enthusiasm of the hour carry them away, without making any provision of the necessary food; but even this does not check the flow of the Divine compassion, for Jesus proceeds to fill up their lack of thought by His Divine thoughtfulness, and their scarcity with His Divine affluence.

According to St. John, it was Jesus who took the initiative, as He put the test-question to Philip, "Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?" Philip does not reply to the "whence;" that may stand aside awhile, as in mathematical language he speaks to the previous question, which is their ability to buy. "Two hundred pennyworth of bread," he said, "is not sufficient for them, that every one may take a little." He does not say how much would be required to satisfy the hunger of the multitude; his reckoning is not for a feast, but for a taste, to every one "a little." Nor does he calculate the full cost of even this, but says simply, "Two hundred pennyworth would not be sufficient." Evidently, in Philip's mind the two hundred,274 pence is the known quantity of the equation, and he works out his calculation from that, as he proves the impossibility of buying bread for this vast company anywhere. We may therefore conclude that the two hundred pence represented the value of the common purse, the purchasing power of the Apostolic community; and this was a sum altogether inadequate to meet the cost of providing bread for the multitude. The only alternative, as far as the disciples see, is to dismiss them, and let them requisition for themselves; and in a peremptory manner they ask Jesus to "send the multitude away," reminding Him of what certainly they had no need to remind Him, that they were here "in a desert place."

The disciples had spoken in their subjunctive, non possumus, way; it is now time for Jesus to speak, which He does, not in interrogatives longer, but in His imperative, commanding tone: "Give ye them to eat," a word which throws the disciples back upon themselves in astonishment and utter helplessness. What can they do? The whole available supply, as Andrew reports it, is but five barley loaves and two small fishes, which a lad has brought, possibly for their own refreshment. Five flat loaves of barley, which was the food of the poorest of the poor, and "two small fishes," as St. John calls them, throwing a bit of local colouring into the narrative by his diminutive word—these are the foundation repast, which Jesus asks to be brought to Himself, that from Himself it may go, broken and enlarged, to the multitude of guests. Meantime the crowd is just as large, and perhaps more excited and impatient than before; for they would not understand these "asides" between the disciples and the Master, nor could they read as yet His compassionate and275 benevolent thought. It would be a pushing, jostling crowd, as these thousands were massed on the hill-side. Some are gathered in little groups, discussing the Messiahship; others are clustered round some relative or friend, who to-day has been wonderfully healed; while others, of the forward sort, are selfishly elbowing their way to the front. The whole scene is a kaleidoscope of changing form and colour, a perfect chaos of confusion. But Jesus speaks again: "Make them sit down in companies;" and those words, thrown across the seething mass, reduce it to order, crystallizing it, as it were, into measured and numbered lines. St. Mark, half-playfully, likens it to a garden, with its parterres of flowers; and such indeed it was, but it was a garden of the higher cult, with its variegated beds of humanity, a hundred men broad, and fifty deep.

When order was secured, and all were in their places, Jesus takes His place as the host at the head of the extemporized table, and though it is most frugal fare, He holds the barley loaves heavenward, and lifting up His eyes, He blesses God, probably in the words of the usual formula, "Blessed art Thou, Jehovah our God, King of the world, Who causeth to come forth bread from the earth." Then breaking the bread, He distributes it among the disciples, bidding them bear it to the people. It is not a matter of moment as to the exact point where the supernatural came in, whether it was in the breaking or the distributing. Somewhere a power which must have been Divine touched the bread, for the broken pieces strangely grew, enlarging rapidly as they were minished. It is just possible that we have a clue to the mystery in the tense of the verb, for the imperfect, which denotes continued action, would read, "He brake," or "He kept on breaking," from276 which we might almost infer that the miracle was coincident with the touch. But whether so or not, the power was equal to the occasion, and the supply over and above the largest need, completely satisfying the hunger of the five thousand men, besides the off-group of women and children, who, though left out of the enumeration, were within the circle of the miracle, the remembered and satisfied guests of the Master.

It now remains for us to gather up the meaning and the practical lessons of the miracle. And first, it reveals to us the Divine pity. When Jesus called Himself the Son of man it was a title full of deep meaning, and most appropriate. He was the true, the ideal Humanity, humanity as it would have been without the warps and discolourations that sin has made, and within His heart were untold depths of sympathy, the "fellow-feeling that makes man wondrous kind." To the haughty and the proud He was stern, lowering upon them with a withering scorn; to the unreal, the false, the unclean He was severity itself, with lightnings in His looks and terrible thunders in His "woes;" but for troubled and tired souls He had nothing but tenderness and gentleness, and a compassion that was infinite. Even had He not called the weary and heavy-laden to Himself, they would have sought Him; they would have read the "Come" in the sunlight of His face. Jesus felt for others a vicarious pain, a vicarious sorrow, His heart responding to it at once, as the delicately poised needle responds to the subtle sparks that flash in upon it from without. So here; He receives the multitude kindly, even though they are strangers, and though they have thwarted His purpose and broken in upon His rest, and as this stream of human life flows out277 to Him His compassion flows out to them. He commiserates their forlorn condition, wandering like straying sheep upon the mountains; He gives Himself up to them, healing all that were sick, assuaging the pain or restoring the lost sense; while at the same time He ministers to a higher nature, telling them of the kingdom of God, which had come nigh to them, and which was theirs if they would surrender themselves to it and obey. Nor was even this enough to satisfy the promptings of His deep pity, but all-forgetful of His own weariness, He lengthens out this day of mercy, staying to minister to their lower, physical wants, as He spreads for them a table in the wilderness. Verily He was, incarnate, as He is in His glory, "touched with the feelings of our infirmities."

Again, we see the Divine love of order and arrangement. Nothing was done until the crowding and confusion had ceased, and even the Divine beneficence waits until the turbulent mass has become quiet, settled down into serried lines, the five thousand making two perfect squares. "Order," it is said, "is Heaven's first law;" but whether the first or the second, certain it is that Heaven gives us the perfection of order. It is only in the lawless wills of man that "time is broke, and no proportion kept." In the heavenly state nothing is out of place or out of time. All wills there play into each other with such absolute precision that life itself is a song, a Gloria in Excelsis. And how this is seen in all the works of God! What rhythmic motions are in the marches of the stars and the processions of the seasons! To everything a place, to everything a time; such is the unwritten law of the realm of physics, where Law is supreme, and anarchy is unknown. So in our earthly lives, on their secular and on their spiritual278 side alike, order is time, order is strength, and he who is deficient in this grace should practise on it the more. Avoid slovenliness; it is a distant relation of sin itself. Arrange your duties, and do not let them crowd one upon the other. Set the greater duties, not abreast, but one behind the other, filling up the spaces with the smaller ones. Do not let things drift, or your life, built for carrying precious argosies, and accomplishing something, will break up into pieces, the flotsam and jetsam of a barren shore. In prayer be orderly. Arrange your desires. Let some come first, while others stand back in the second or the third row, waiting their turn. If your relations with your fellows have got a little disarranged, atwist, seek to readjust the disturbed relation. Oppose what is evil and mean with all your might; but if no principle is involved, even at the cost of a little feeling, seek to have things put square. To get things into a tangle requires no great skill; but he who would be a true artist, keeping the Divine pattern before him, and ever working towards it, if not up to it, may reduce the tangled skein to harmony, and like the Gobelin tapestry-makers, weave a life that is noble and beautiful, a life on which men will love to gaze.

Again, we see the Divine concern for little things. Abundance always tempts to extravagance and waste. And so here; the broken remnants of the repast might have been thrown away as of no account; but Jesus bade them, "Gather up the fragments, that nothing be lost;" and we read they filled with the broken bread, which remained over and above to them that had eaten, twelve baskets full—and, by the way, the word rendered "basket" here corresponds with the frugal fare, for, made of willow or of wicker, it was of the coarsest279 kind, used only by the poor. What became of the fragments, which outweighed the original supply, we do not read; but though they were only the crumbs of the Divine bounty, and though there was no present use for them, Jesus would not allow them to be wasted.

But the true meaning of the narrative lies deeper than this. It is a miracle of a new order, this multiplying of the loaves. In His other miracles Jesus has wrought on the line of Nature, accelerating her slower processes, and accomplishing in an instant, by His mere volition, what by natural causes must have been the work of time, but which in the specific cases would have been purely impossible, owing to the enfeeblement of nature by disease. Sight, hearing, even life itself, come to man through channels purely natural; but Nature never yet has made bread. She grows the corn, but there her part ends, while Science must do the rest, first reducing the corn to flour, then kneading it into dough, and by the burning fires of the oven transmuting the dough to bread. Why does Jesus here depart from His usual order, creating what neither nature nor science can produce alone, but which requires their concurrent forces? Let us see. To Jesus these visible, tangible things were but the dead keys His hand touched, as He called forth some deeper, farther-off music, some spiritual truth that by any other method men would be slow to learn. Of what, then, is this bread of the desert the emblem? St. John tells us that when the miracle occurred "the Passover was nigh at hand," and this time-mark helps to explain the overcrowding into the desert, for probably many of the five thousand were men who were now on their way to Jerusalem, and who had stayed at Capernaum and the neighbouring cities for the night. This supposition,280 too, is considerably strengthened by the words of the disciples, as they suggest that they should go and "lodge" in the neighbouring cities and villages, which word implies that they were not residents of that locality, but passing strangers. And as Jesus cannot now go up to Jerusalem to the feast, He gathers the shepherdless thousands about Him, and keeps a sort of Passover in the open guest-chamber of the mountainside. That such was the thought of the Master, making it an anterior sacrament, is evident from the address Jesus gave the following day at Capernaum, in which He passes, by a natural transition, from the broken bread with which He satisfied their physical hunger to Himself as the Bread come down from heaven, the "living Bread" as He called it, which was His flesh. There is thus a Eucharistic meaning in the miracle of the loaves, and this northern hill signals in its subtle correspondences on to Jerusalem, to another hill, where His body was bruised and broken "for our iniquities," and His blood was poured out, a precious oblation for sin. And as that Blood was typified by the wine of the first miracle at Cana, so now Jesus completes the prophetic sacrament by the miraculous creation of bread from the five seminal loaves, bread which He Himself has consecrated to the holier use, as the visible emblem of that Body which was given for us, men, women, and children alike, even for a redeemed humanity. Cana and the desert-place thus draw near together, while both look across to Calvary; and as the Church keeps now her Eucharistic feast, taking from the one the consecrated bread, and from the other the consecrated wine, she shows forth the Lord's death "till He come."

« Prev Chapter XVII. The Miracle of the Loaves. Next »





Advertisements



| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |