THE NEW MATH
TEXT: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Luke 9:12-17
In my school years, I discovered that I was very good with words. I read well above my grade level, and the first drafts of papers were usually the only ones I needed to do. Math, however, did not come so readily. I dreaded math classes, and as soon as I had all the math credits I needed for college, I quit taking math. Bucknell University was top on my list of colleges because it did not require me to take any math, once I was accepted.
I learned enough that I can always balance my checkbook and figure the tip at a restaurant, but sometimes things will still trip me up. Like the time my church put me in charge of buying enough pints of strawberries to make 50 jars of strawberry jam to be given to church visitors. This task involved both math and cooking recipes, and someone should have known this was a really bad combination for me, but I carefully figured exactly what I would need and went out and bought the strawberries.
I have always claimed that the reason that we ended up with 100 jars of jam instead of 50 was that it was a church project and Jesus multiplied our efforts just like the loaves and fishes. There are some who claim that I simply messed up the math and bought way more strawberries than were necessary. I stand by my story.
One of the delightful messages of the Bible for those of us who are math-phobic is the message here in the story of the feeding of the five thousand: Let God do the math. This story is one of the few told in all four Gospels, and in every version, the disciples are hung up by trying to do the math themselves. Five thousand men plus women and children, and they're all hungry. The disciples don't have enough money to buy food for them, and they only have the small amount of bread and fish that they have brought themselves. Providing for the crowd is impossible, they will have to leave and fend for themselves. The math is more than obvious.
Jesus, however, is completely untroubled by the unbalanced equation. Jesus knows about the new math, the math of the Kingdom, where whatever you have plus the power of God always equals whatever you need. He divides the group, multiplies the loaves and fish, and there is not only enough food for everybody, there are 12 baskets of leftovers. I wish I knew about this when I was taking algebra.
This is not new to Jesus. Going back hundreds of years we find the prophet Elisha doing much the same thing. Here comes a man bringing food from the first fruits of his garden. That's language for the tithe…you brought a tenth of your income to God before you did anything else…and in an agricultural society, that income was likely to be the crop from the first harvest or the firstborn lamb in birthing season.
So he comes with his tithe to Elisha, the man of God, and Elisha tells him to feed a hundred people with it. "But what I have won't feed a hundred people!" cries the man. "It's not enough…do the math!" But Elisha, like Jesus, knows about the new math. "Let God worry about balancing the equation," says Elisha. "Put the food before the people." He does, and again there is not only enough, but some left over.
People often spend a whole lot of time…lifetimes even, trying to figure out whether some of the biblical miracles are possible with the logic and science that we know. I don't mean to discount someone's life's work, but I think spending time that way misses the point. One thing is clear throughout the Bible, and that is that God can do what God darn well pleases. If God could create the entire universe with a Word, a few more loaves of bread are not going to be a big deal. God is not just a bigger, more powerful version of us…God is qualitatively different from us and trying to limit God to our math and our logic is like an ant colony trying to limit human behavior to the logic and instinct that guides their own lives.
But the power of God is only half of these two feeding stories. The other thing to notice is that neither Elisha nor Jesus actually do the feeding. They serve as the channels for the power of God, but it is the disciples who give the gifts and who do the feeding. In the Luke passage, the disciples have already been through a lot of training. Jesus had just sent them out on their first mission…out on their own to heal the sick and to cast out demons and to proclaim the Kingdom of God. The reason they are out in the wilderness where this story takes place is so that they can have time apart to give Jesus a report about their experiences.
They don't get their time apart, instead they get another experience…another lesson. It's ironic, really. They have just been out working miracles in Jesus' name. For the first time they were the ones who healed the sick and cast out the demons…they have seen the power of God working through their own hands, and yet when Jesus says, "Feed the people," they revert right back to their old ways of thinking…"Nope…not enough to go around and not enough money to buy more." How quickly we forget.
The equation used in Kingdom math is God's power plus our resources equals the need of the world. That was the mission from which the disciples had just returned. In obedience they went and offered themselves. God added God's own power to human willingness and diseases were cured and demons fled. They gave of their food. Jesus added the power of God and it equaled the need of a hungry crowd.
In fact, that is what Jesus himself was about…humanity gave a fully human body. God infused that human body with God's own spirit and power and Mary named him Jesus. That combination of the human and the divine provided for the need of the world. Same equation, and many have seen the feeding of the five thousand as Jesus pointing right back to his own purpose and calling. In John this story is quickly followed by Jesus saying he is the bread of life and that whoever comes to him will never be hungry. There will be at least 12 baskets left over…12 baskets of broken pieces Luke says. "This is my body, broken for you."
There are some Christian traditions that think it is blasphemy to suggest that God needs anything, and in one sense that is true. God is not deficient in anything. But I do believe that God has so ordered creation that we are meant to participate in the will of God for the world. From the very beginning, God loved us enough to make us an integral part of the equation. God's power plus our resources equals the need of the world.
That is part of what we are talking about when we talk about stewardship. The disciples offering their bread and fish was an act of stewardship. The bread and fish were created by God in the first place and were given to them to satisfy need. Jesus directs them to use those particular gifts to satisfy the hunger of the crowd, and as good stewards, they do so. The man in 2 Kings obediently brings his tithe as an acknowledgement that the harvest is a gift of God, and that God intends for some of that harvest to be used to feed others. He brings the tithe and a hundred are fed.
Next week we will be offering to God our part of the Kingdom math equation as we bring in our pledges for the coming year. One thing this story and others make clear is that it is not the amount that matters. It is the willingness to give as God directs that counts; it is the true desire to feed the multitude that kicks in the power of God, making our gift enough for even the greatest work. The disciples gave all they had; the man in 2 Kings gave only a tenth of his harvest. In both cases it was enough when combined with the power of God.
After the telling of the loaves and fishes story in the Gospel of Mark, the disciples get in a boat to head across the Sea of Galilee and become distressed when they realize that they have not brought enough food. They have only one loaf of bread for all 13 of them. Jesus can't believe his ears. "Why are you talking about having no bread?" he asks them…probably banging his head against the mast. "Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?"
They said to him, "Twelve."
"And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?"
And they said to him, "Seven."
Then he said to them, "Do you not yet understand?"
That is still the question God asks of us today. "Do you not yet understand that I love to give? Do you not yet understand that if you give, your giving will be so blessed and multiplied that there will be more left over than you started with?"
If you have said in your heart that you want to be a disciple of Jesus, then you have the same job that the twelve disciples of Jesus had…to make your own resources available to be added to the power of God to meet the need of the world. That is how the Kingdom of God can come on earth as it is in heaven. God will not do it without our participation. God's power plus our resources equals the need of the world.
I still think I bought exactly the right number of strawberries…God just knew that we were going to need more jam for the number of visitors that would come through our doors. When even a little church gives what it can with a cheerful heart, the world can be fed at its table. Amen.
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