Scanty Supplies, Outstanding Outcomes

Old First Church

Guest Preacher

The Rev. Alice Batcher

July 29, 2018

Texts: 2 Kings 4:42-44; John 6:1-21

       This week, I have noticed similarities between these Old and New Testament stories. Specifically the reactions of those who are told to feed many people.In II Kings, we actually read the fourth miracle associated with Elisha in the land of Gilgal. A few verses earlier, we hear there has been a famine in the land. So this particular harvest of first fruits is a crucially important sign of hope for very hungry people. The arrival of that messenger from Baal-shalishah brought, literally, good news. A gift of fresh food for Elisha the prophet.When he sees the barley loaves and grain, Elisha immediately says, give the food to the people so they may eat. This foreign servant asks a genuine and practical question. How can the bread of the first fruits, these twenty loaves of barley and some other grain be enough for one hundred men? This unfortunate servant doesn't want to risk provoking a riot among a hundred very hungry people.

      Why can't Elisha just take this gift, which rightly belongs to the man of God? Go to his own home? Feed his own household for a while? In that annoying way prophets have, Elisha doesn't seem to answer the messenger's question.He merely repeats his directive, using exactly the same words he did the first time. Give (it) to the men that they may eat. Adding one small comment, “Just go ahead and do it. GOD says there’s plenty.” Elisha trusts God's promise that all of them will eat. There will even be leftovers. The servant/messenger can trust also.What do you know, in the last verse, with characteristic brevity, the promise came true. They ate and there was some left over, just as the Lord had said.

       The  resources may have seemed meager, but the results were amazing. Like with the Manna in the wilderness, God had supplied. Hundreds of years later, I wonder if those around Jesus recognized the similarity between their circumstances and what had happened in Elisha's day. All four Gospels relate a story of Jesus feeding a large crowd with a very small quantity of food. According to John, again it was early in the year. Passover comes just as the first herbs, lambs, and early crops are  beginning to be available.

        A large crowd is tailing Jesus because of the healings they saw him perform. They were eager to see more. In John's version of the story, Jesus sees this crowd, and realizes they are hungry. So he asks his disciples how they were going to feed them. The disciples were very down-to-earth, even up that mountain. They were overwhelmed by the need before them. Even without any responsibility to feed their hunger, Jesus raised their consciousness. They try assessing the situation, measuring their resources, and figuring out a solution. Only to feel powerless in front of so many hungry people.

         Jesus turns to Philip: "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" This gospel writer glibly claims this was to test Philip, for Jesus himself knew what he was going to do. Teachers are annoying that way. Philip responds "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get even a bite." Elisha had fed 100, this day Jesus' disciples were facing 5000 people! How were they going to be able to fill the bellies, or even give a token mouthful to each person. Apparently, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, had not only been estimating the size of the crowd, he had been assessing the resources. He announces "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?

          This barley bread is an interesting commodity. Barley may have been the very first grain that was domesticated by humans. Somewhere in the fertile crescent, barley grain was gathered, and then planted deliberately, and agriculture began, with civilization soon following. Certainly before wheat, likely before rice, perhaps before rye (there are new finds all the time), barley was a consideration for human sustenance. Humans worked with barley. They found it (still find it) excellent for malting and in the brewing of beer. A grain that swells in soups, adding texture and nutrition.                   Grinding barley into fine flour, humans have used it in many different recipes in home cooking. And they have made bread with it. But barley bread has been superseded by wheat for bread virtually everywhere since early Roman times. Because of wheat's wonderful gas-trapping abilities. Making wheat bread lighter, fluffier, seemingly tastier. We still grow more barley than rye in the world. But we use barley more in beer than in bread. For bread, even rye is used more than barley. 

          One cook describes trying to make bread using 100% barley flour and natural wild yeast (kind of like a sour-dough starter for wheat bread). The resulting loaf was nothing like wheat, nothing like rye. It soaked up much more water than a typical wheat loaf. When baked, it immediately took on the toughness and consistency of a nut. It did not rise. He scored it in hopes that the oven might do something for it. But no. It sat there, taking forever to bake, and it just got harder and harder and harder.Live and learn. You can't make 100% barley loaves like you would a wheat loaf, or even a rye loaf. You just don't.Hard as it was, he decided it tasted interesting. And warrants more experimentation. He ate about a third of one of these loaves before it got so stale he could not cut it with a knife.

         To verify that what he had made was ridiculous, he gave one of these awful loaves to a friend. When it was about a week and a half old--dry and stale. It was a joke. He told his friend that it was so hard, he might not even be able to compost it for his garden. But he managed to hack off a slice or two, and actually nibbled away at it. Brave soul.The friend reported that it tasted rather good, but he had to stop eating it because he was afraid he would break a tooth. He gave some to his dog (who will eat anything), and the dog took it. But that dog-who-chews-Giant-Kongs-to-ribbons spit out the bread later when no one was looking. Not even the dog could get through it.The friend was happy to get another bread  the next day, made of whole wheat.

         Jesus disciples may well have thought offering people rustic barley loaves, even if they were much softer and more edible than this experiment, would not impress the influential and prosperous people they needed to continue to underwriting their mission. But Jesus challenged them to feed the crowd. So they did. (At least there was plenty of nice grass for everyone to sit on.) Then, in words that have become very familiar to us, Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. He also blessed and distributed the fish, as much as they wanted. All their bellies were satisfied. When his disciples gathered the fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. The people saw this and began to say, "This must the prophet who is to come into the world. Let's make him King!” When Jesus realized that they were coming to take him by force to crown him, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.                For Jesus was not the kind of Messiah, or even prophet, people thought they wanted.Jesus had not come to magically make the Roman Empire, or famine, or illness, or poverty disappear from peoples lives. Rather he had come to demonstrate that God was, and would continue to be, with them. Eventually that servant in Elisha's day, then Jesus' disciples did feed the first crowds they were presented with. Jesus' disciples went on to regularly feed the hungry people around them. Perform the miracles they had seen Jesus do. Feed the bodies and the spirits. They had enough faith to believe that something could happen, and great things did happen! The supplies were scanty, even the faith was hesitant, but the outcomes were outstanding!