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It Takes a Miracle to Constrain Human Selfishness

Miracles are events that can’t be explained by natural or scientific laws, and are generally considered the work of divine agency. They play well in religion. The Bible showcases a vast collection of this phenomenon. In the Old Testament we encounter a “miracle cluster,” centered around Moses, just before Israel’s emancipation from Egypt. It began with God “showing” himself to Moses in the midst of a non-consuming, burning fire. Then came the ten plagues in Pharaoh’s court, a series of miracles designed to display God’s might. These would climax into the grand parting of the Red Sea, which provided a dramatic escape route for the fleeing Israelis.

But it is in the gospels, where Jesus liberally used miracles as an adjunct to his ministry, that the genre came into its own. In this essay, I will examine one of Jesus’ most popular miracle stories–the “feeding of the five thousand”–as a plausible solution to human selfishness and greed. I use this story as a model because, though each version is told with small but significant variations, it is the only one of Jesus’ many miracle stories that is reported by all four gospel writers.

In Luke’s account, the disciples had just returned from their first solo evangelistic effort and doubtless each had unique experiences they were eager to share. Maybe it was to afford them uninterrupted audience that Jesus took them to the isolated village called Bethsaida. But as always, the throng, insatiable for his company and teaching, got ahead of them. And characteristically, instead of displaying displeasure for their intrusion: “He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:11 NIV) But as the day wore on, it soon became clear that, though humans should not “live by bread alone,” they could not survive without it entirely. Jesus and his disciples recognized that the masses needed to eat, an awareness that would set the stage for a re-definition of what constitutes a miracle.

Though Jesus and his disciples appeared to be on the same page in their concern for the hungry multitudes, they differed in the solution to the looming crisis. Luke sets the stage: “Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.’” (9:12 NIV) At first blush, the disciples’ counsel seemed prescient. It was getting late. They were in a secluded place. There were too many mouths to feed. Quickly sending them elsewhere seemed prudent. But Jesus might have perceived their concern as an attempt to shift obligations, correctly deducing that the disciples wanted others to shoulder the responsibility of feeding the crowd.

Instead of sending them away, Jesus redirected the responsibility for feeding the multitude back to the disciples, telling them pointedly: “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” (Matthew 14:16 NIV) What happened next provides a vehicle for multiple interpretations of this miracle, as well as encourages a reassessment of the miraculous. Here is Matthew’s summation of the ensuing events: “And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.” (14:19 NIV). Everyone ate to their full, and in the end, they still gathered twelve full baskets of leftovers.

With this totally impressive feat, a miracle, comparable to a magician’s trick, was born. But what exactly made what took place a “miracle?” The traditional answer appeals to arithmetic, specifically multiplication. In short, Jesus “magically” increased the five loaves of bread and two fish to sufficiently feed a crowd of thousands. Problem solved? The issue with viewing miracles this way is similar to the problem with metaphors: they work too well, and in time we forget they are metaphors and conclude that the comparable objects and their referents are the same.

 But there is a significant drawback with defining a miracle in magical terms. With magic-like miracles, replication wanes, the further removed from the initial occurrence. They are one-off events that don’t allow for verifiable repetition. That’s why, even though Jesus implied that his followers could perform similar acts, (Matthew 10:1) there is little empirical evidence that they do so in modern times. On the downside, belief in such magical happenings rarely solves any problems that affect real people. The sick are not healed. The hungry remain unfed. The dead stay in the grave. By and large, the laws of unpredictability still prevail.

However, there are consequences to magical thinking. A key negative side-effect of subscribing to supernatural intervention in mundane human affairs is that it can absolve us of individual responsibility to do good. If one is convinced that, when we pray, God will intervene and cure us from all diseases, what incentive does anyone have to search for cures? Or, if one is available, avail oneself of it. Recall the various reactions to vaccine treatment for Covid-19, particularly within conservative religious communities. No one is born an anti-vaxxer. We grow into one through magical thinking, like supposing that one can defy gravity and walk on water if our belief is strong enough, notwithstanding the evidence that we sink.

But there are other ways to understand and consequently interpret this “miracle” story. Consider William Barclay’s conception. He was a former professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at Glasgow University in Scotland, and a renowned interpreter of the New Testament. He is also the author of the widely popular, seventeen-volume, New Testament Daily Study Bible series, and a lifelong student of the New Testament. Barclay’s study of all four adaptations of the “miraculous” feeding is exhaustive. In the end, he found the popular understanding, that views the feeding as a magical act, wanting.

Here’s why. Barclay questions why ten thousand adults (and presumably an equal number of children) would venture out of their homes, to basically a day’s journey, with no preparation for, or anticipation of, hunger. It is even more befuddling if we consider that the Israelis of this period were meticulous about their food choices and preferences. Even their clothing, with many hidden pockets and inner compartments, was designed to store and conceal food. It therefore seems inconceivable that hardly anyone in that teaming mass had food with them as evening approached and hunger threatened. In reality, as we learn later, they probably had enough for everyone present, and some to spare. But at that moment each one likely kept their own food safely stowed, fearing they might have to share with a neighbor who did not have enough, or any at all.

The issue therefore is selfishness, greed, or both. It is significant that, in John’s retelling, the only person willing to share his food was a child who likely had not mastered the art of selfishness. Jesus takes the child’s offering, breaks a piece of bread, later a fish, and shares it with his closest neighbor. To the adult crowd, the optics was the message. Soon, one by one, they understood. Then, one by one, they fished into their clothing and brought out from their hidden compartments food that they had all along. Even while going through the charade of pretending to be without. Then each shared what they had with those in their group. And the result was excess. So even in our time, it’s not that there isn’t enough food in the world so children should go to bed hungry. The problem is that we have falsely learned to pair our sense of personal security to self-interest, leading to hoarding. So sharing is too often just an afterthought.

We routinely extend our selfish predilections to governmental or social policy. Not long ago it was a common practice for the US government to buy excess grain and dairy produce from farmers when there was a bumper harvest. They then turned around and dumped tons of these purchases into the ocean. The ostensible reason for this seemingly strange behavior was to avoid depressing the price of grain and dairy, in the commodities market. While this was happening, millions of children worldwide were going to bed on empty stomachs.  

So, just as those in Jesus’ day who chose to hoard food rather than share with their neighbors, in our day, in a macro sense, the entire world behaves similarly. Self, or a narrow community interest, is paramount and conquers the general good. We lament the plight of hungry children but still keep our warehouses full of surplus food we’ll probably never use. As it was in Jesus’ time, there is hunger today, but not because there isn’t enough food to go around. There is persistent hunger because we have not figured out how to rid ourselves, individually and as a collective, from the clutches of selfishness and greed.

Of course, Jesus performed a miracle that afternoon at that isolated retreat in Bethsaida. But it was not the magical kind that has held our fancies since childhood. What he did, staring down their practiced self-centeredness and teaching them to share, was a far better miracle. Maybe in a world consumed by hyper-selfishness and greed, what we need today is Jesus’ singular ability to melt our stony hearts, using little children to teach us how.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

About the author

Matthew Quartey was born and raised in Southern Ghana and obtained graduate and postgraduate education in Ghana, Nigeria, and the United States. His academic interests center around post-independence African literature as well as British/American literature of the 19th century. Quartey works in healthcare management and lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan, with his wife Sophia. More from Matthew Quartey.
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