“And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” Matthew 14:13-21
Multiplying loaves and fishes, in Africa such a story would cost few people a second thought; the spiritual, the supernatural, is assumed to be as much part of reality as the world we can see and touch.
Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, writes:
Africa never went through the philosophical and social revolution of Europe in the eighteenth century which sought scientific explanations for the world and put science and spirit in separate boxes. The modern Western view of the world distinguishes between the physical world and the spiritual world, some would say ‘real’ and ‘unreal’. This view is actually quite new in Europe – only about 250 years old. Before that, most Europeans would have thought – and acted much like Africans when it came to religion. Europe has lost that sense of the numinous, the spiritual. Africa has not. Life remains one in Africa and life includes the divine and the mystical as well as the objective physical world. In Africa body and soul are one and the soul lives on.
While Christianity teaches that only humans have souls, African religions hold that all objects, animate or inanimate, can be moved by spirits. Africa senses spirits in animals, trees and rocks as well as people. So the river and the spirit of the river are one and the same. The spirit allows the substance to change, the person to become something else. A friend in Port Harcourt in Nigeria told me that one day in 2001 a noisy crowd gathered under a tree and he went to investigate. There he found a man being roughed up by the crowd. When he asked what the man had done, they claimed he had been a bird sitting in the tree and when a young boy threw a stone at it, it fell down. The bird hit the ground and turned into man. The crowd wanted to kill this witch, this skin changer. A policeman appeared and my friend assumed the man would be saved. In a way he was; the policeman stopped the crowd killing the man and arrested him instead. When my friend asked what he was being charged with, the policeman said, ‘Changing his skin.’
We smile at such a story (though the humour would have been lost by the man set upon by the crowds), yet many people outside the church (and not a few inside) would smile at the idea that the stories of Jesus feeding 5,000 people as a story of events taking place in the material world in which we live.
If the idea of Jesus as a person in history is believed at all, there is a tendency to play down the miraculous parts of the stories, to try to give them some natural explanation.
The feeding of the 5,000 becomes seen as perhaps an early version of the Holy Communion service, people sharing in a symbolic meal where they are fed spiritually rather than physically; or it seen as a moment when the generosity of the giver of the loaves and fishes, in handing over his food, prompts other people to follow his example and to share with those around whatever they had brought with them—the whole thing becomes a big picnic.
Where do we stand? We would wish to move away from the sort of superstition where a bird falls from a tree and becomes a man, but does that mean that we lose all sense of the spiritual? Do we reduce Jesus, as many people do, to being a spiritual leader, a philosopher, a reformer who was ahead of his time and ran into trouble with the authorities?
If the miracle stories are not true, if the bread does not mysteriously multiply; if we say that the inexplicable and the supernatural did not happen, then why come here on a Sunday morning? Why have a church if there is nothing mysterious, nothing transcendent, nothing heavenly? Why sing hymns, say prayers, share bread and wine, if really we believe that the story of Jesus has much that’s imaginary?
The story of the feeding of the five thousand is a direct challenge to anyone who reads it. What do we make of this man? Jesus is not being presented as a teacher or preacher or philosopher, he is being presented as being miraculous. Either these stories are true stories about Jesus, or the whole thing is a huge deceit, the biggest deceit ever.
We have two possible responses. We don’t believe the stories, or we do believe them. If we don’t believe, then we might as well go home now. But, if we read this Gospel passage and we say, ‘Yes, I believe this’, then it asks questions of us.
It asks us, ‘what difference does this make to my life? If we believe in the miracles, if we believe in the greatest miracle of all, that Jesus walked out of the tomb, if we believe that this Jesus is with us now, what difference has it made? What difference is it making?
Africa is full of superstitions; it is also a place full of faith. People with nothing, people who have only the clothes in which they stand up, people who eat only once a day; people with no reason to smile about anything; these people throng to the churches on a Sunday. They sit and stand and sing for three, maybe for four hours, filled with joy. They smile constantly. Stand among them and you are quite certain there is no doubt for them.
Do we share their belief? If we do, we have to ask, where is our joy? Where is our commitment? Where is our faith?