Tuesday, January 19, 2010

understanding Jesus: numbers not important

I've been meaning to blog about this since Sunday when the scripture I will reference was discussed in Sunday school. Here are the scriptures describing the two separate occasions when Jesus fed thousands of people by miraculously multiplying a tiny amount of food.

Mark 6:39-44

And he ordered them to make all the people recline in groups on the green grass. And they reclined in groups of hundreds and of fifties. And he took the five loaves and the two fishes and, looking up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and the two fishes he divided among them all. And all ate and were satisfied; and they gathered up what was left over, twelve baskets full of fragments, besides what was left over of the fishes. Now those who had eaten were five thousand men.

Mark 8:1-9

In those days when again there was a great crowd, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples together and said to them, "I have compassion on the crowd, for behold, they have now been with me three days, and have nothing to eat; and if I send them away to their homes fasting, they will faint on the way for some of them have come from a distance." And his disciples answered him, "How will anyone be able to satisfy these with bread, here in the desert? He asked them, "How many loaves have you?" And they said, "Seven."

And he bade the crowd recline on the ground. Then taking the seven loaves, he gave thanks, broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few little fishes; and he blessed them, and ordered them to be distributed. And they ate and were satisfied; and they took up what was left of the fragments, seven baskets. Now those who had eaten were about four thousand. And he dismissed them.


Alright, there are so many things that one should discuss and understand about these two miracles, but I have found that a very common error in approach to understanding these miracles derails most of the modern discussion of these events away from their core spiritual and literal meanings. Sure enough, right after reading one of these passages our Sunday school teacher (who I really like, so this is no criticism) almost immediately fell into the derailment by reading what all these highly educated commentators have said about these miracles: *I'm rolling my eyes* .... "the symbolism of the number of loaves and fishes".....*I'm rolling my eyes again, as I can't even repeat this without being frustrated, argh*

He then starts to repeat what "they" (the wonderful commentators) have "analyzed" about the "meaning" of how many loaves and fishes they were, and what holy numbers they symbolized, blah blah blah. I interrupted him right there and said something like, "I know all the commentators discuss it but they are wrong: there is absolutely no symbolism in either of these miracles by Jesus." I briefly stated why and here I will explain it to you.

First of all, let's discuss why people get so easily misled into missing the events and then worthy analysis of the miracles' greater meanings (not "symbolisms" as a greater meaning is different than "symbolism.") One cannot discuss a greater meaning of these events without first agreeing on the facts. So that is what Mark and the other gospel writers set forth when they wrote about Jesus: first the facts, then what Jesus actually did, and then any greater meaning (John's Gospel tends to include more of that kind of thought), including any explanation of how/why that Jesus provided. There are two reasons modern people are so easily mislead into discussing ridiculous things like the "meaning" and "symbolism" of "how many" loaves and fishes were used by Jesus. First of all, people today do not understand why such trivial data is supplied, unless it has a "deep" and "heavy" "symbolic" "meaning." That is because they no longer understand that detailing such small items (which happens throughout the Bible) is what people were taught to do, back when only oral history and verbal contracts existed, which is to "bear witness." I include the label here "witness" where I have previously explained this.

So what modern people think is either a trivial point (who cares if it was five loaves) or a big heavy "symbolism" (ooooh, it must have been "five" for "a reason," yeah, a "mystical reason..." followed by profound and eerie music and nods of agreement by the scholars who are paid and make names for being so smart) the reason it was recorded down to the number of loaves and fishes is that.... that is what actually happened, and the people of those times were all taught by their families and teachers to be scrupulously accurate in bearing witness to great events. It's part of the accuracy record, to them, and that is the automatic mindset.

One reason it is important to be accurate is so that readers (or those who hear the Gospel verbally) understand exactly how big or small an event just took place. Look at the two extremes in an analogy. If Jesus fed 5000 people with let's say 1000 loaves, that would not be such a huge miracle, would it? On the other hand, if Jesus fed people with no loaves, making the loaves out of thin air, it would be a huge miracle (but not more huge than what actually happened.) What, you say... why is that? Why would in theory no loaves be equally as miraculous as feeding from five loaves? Remember the Exodus, when Moses asked God to feed the people and manna fell from the skies. The Jewish people would all have been VERY mindful of that seminal miracle in their faith history, when God provided the bread of manna out of nothing, as it rained down from the sky. They thus would have viewed Jesus as having done the same thing, mediating between the hungry people and God, who provides for them out of nothing. So anyone alive during that time who carried witness either verbally or in writing would have routinely recorded how many loaves and fishes because it allowed the listener or the reader to put what happened in the proper context with the facts.

The second reason modern people, including supposedly smart scholars, fall into the trap of putting numinous and irrelevant meaning on the number of loaves and fishes is, well, there is no subtle way to put it, they are a bit weak in their faith. Either consciously but (to give them the benefit of the doubt) unconsciously, they tend to think that the number is important because it is contrived. I'm not saying they full out think this is a made up story, but there is always the temptation to disbelieve something so incredible, always nibbling and gnawing in the back of the mind. So these commentators figure, "Well, just in case this actually did not happen, we can still derive a 'greater spiritual lesson' by 'analyzing the meaning' of what the 'authors' (not God) did 'present.'" You see what I mean? When there is even a five percent of doubt of the literal accuracy of the Gospel in one's mind, no matter what a believer and a "scholar" you are, your understanding of the plain words will be mislead and warped. Previous generations could discuss "meaning" and "symbolism," sure, but they did so on the firm basis of 100 percent believing the facts of the miracles: that is the sad difference between then and these smarty pants modern times.

So how did I bring an abrupt halt to that line of thought? I will explain it to you now and offer it to you as a faith and reasoning case study. I said something like this. Well, if the numbers are so "symbolic" and "mean something else," does that mean that if only four loaves were there instead of five, Jesus would have hit his forehead and said, "Darn! Now I can't do the miracle! It's the wrong symbolic number of loaves!" Or if they had loaves but no fishes, would Jesus have said, "Wish I could help, but it's just not the right holy symbolic numbers of ingredients." Ha ha ha, yes, my readers, I did see a few fellow Sunday school members narrow their eyes at me ha ha when I said that ha. But they have to see in parody, sometimes, how silly they are being (or how easily misled). I mean, this is deadly serious: Jesus Christ, born of God by the Holy Spirit overshadowing the Blessed Virgin Mary, healed, performed miracles, and conquered death, resurrecting after being crucified and ascending into heaven. The facts are mighty just as they are, I mean, duh. The facts don't have to also be "symbolic" of like lucky numbers or something. The way to detox from such thinking (that there is some "formula" or "bigger meaning" to the small facts, the insignificant number of the loaves and fishes) is to test the theory that the number of each item is instrumental to the miracle taking place. That is what I did, by making the people answer, "Well, if those numbers are so symbolic, does that mean Jesus could or would do the miracle only if a certain number of the items were there?"

Would Jesus "not be able" to do the miraculous feeding if there wasn't the "holy symbolic" number of items? Of course not. Jesus could do it with zero loaves or 1000 loaves.

Would Jesus refuse to feed the hungry people because there isn't the "right number of 'holy symbolic' items there?" Imagine that, Jesus saying: "Oh oh, there is supposed to be five loaves because that's a really holy important number, and you have only four loaves, so sorry, I'm not going to do the miracles and you have to walk home hungry, hope you don't hit your head on a rock while you are faint with having followed me for days." Obviously not, and I included the passage where Jesus states his concern for the health of people who had been fasting for so long already (and that is the motivation for the miracle, not to demonstrate his power and authority).

You see, that is what people ought to be gleaning from their personal reading of the Bible, the facts, the context, Jesus' words and explanations, and the Gospel writers words and explanations. Young people who use computers, you know WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). The Bible must be read and understood that way, that what you see is what you get, and also "it is what it is." Jesus was followed by many people, on two different occasions, to remote areas for several days where there was no fresh food to gain after what people had brought with them had run out. Out of concern for them Jesus takes whatever is found and turns that through his miraculous God given ability into much food for the multitude. All that is documented so that the listeners and readers of these events comprehend how big and precise a miracle this was, so that they get it even though they were not there.

The key to the miracles is that Jesus demonstrated he can make do with what people provided. If it was no loaves or many loaves or, as in the reality, just a very few loaves, Jesus can and did work with whatever people had.

That, then, is the larger meanings of these miraculous events because yes, sure, there are the events and then there is the larger meaning to glean from it, but it's not "magic" or "holy" "numbers" kind of meanings. I can write more about them some other time as I really want to keep this confined to the case study of understanding how to avoid the pitfall of missing the really important facts and points of a Biblical event by derailing on something unimportant and thus not seeing the outline of what one should indeed contemplate. So here is in closing just a list of how to mindfully approach the "bigger and greater meaning" of the miraculous events.

1. Notice the circumstances and think about them. People obviously were so committed to hearing what Jesus said that thousands followed him into barren areas with no thought of their food or water.

2. Notice Jesus' motivation for the miracles, which is simple plain love and humanity for their plight, after showing such commitment and attention to him. This is far away from the nagging scribes and Pharisees, so Jesus is not performing these miracles in order to demonstrate his God given authority. It is plain and simple loving need.

3. Notice that Jesus uses whatever is available, for he has the might of God with him, and lots of bread and fishes or no bread and fishes, God can do anything.

4. Notice that Jesus gives thanks and don't slide over that thinking that is like saying grace before food, for it is not a pre-meal prayer of thanksgiving to God. Jesus is thanking God for the ability to perform what, only through God, he is about to do, which is feed the people. Jesus is thus both on his own thanking God for what is about to occur, but also giving the people a role modeling of how always to be so whenever one uses one's God given abilities, to be thankful first and foremost to God.

5. Notice that Jesus gives the food to the disciples to distribute. Of course some of that is logistics, as many hands can distribute the food faster. But the greater meaning is that Jesus is a) preparing the disciples and the people for the time when they can do some of this themselves, for remember all the Apostles and original disciples became able to perform miracles and b) that the word of God needs to be carried and spread by everyone, not just, as we would say today, the "guru." Jesus is always modest and that was a sincere modesty because he never for a second of his life forgot that everything he was able to do was directly from God the Father. Thus Jesus did not have to "showboat" and hand out the food himself so people would be grateful to him and impressed by him.... Jesus always demonstrated that a) all power and glory go to God alone and b) his disciples were extensions of him and Jesus did not always need to be "the one." Remember that Jesus himself did not baptize, but his disciples baptized their followers. Jesus was always showing how the faith community was to come together and function, as it would have to when he was no longer there.

6. Notice that they record what fragments remain. This is part of what I explained about the witnessing to the facts of what happened. It is also OK and valid to ponder the greater meaning that even after Jesus through God provides all that is needed, there is even more leftover. God's grace is always more than expectations and there is always more than the bare minimum of human needs.

I hope you have found this helpful! Do not be afraid to discover that even wise experts, in these modern times in particular, miss the forest through the trees. (That's an old saying, for those of you who are English second language or may not have heard it, meaning that some people are so obsessed with details that they notice one or two trees without ever realizing those one or two trees are accompanied by many trees in a forest all around them.) Glomming onto an imaginary importance of how many loaves is like missing the entire event because your mind is hijacked into thinking it's all about those loaves "conveying" a "numeric" "message" "from God," and thus you don't get points 1-6 at all as you look just at that diversion.

*Sigh* Like I said, much of this comes from lack of understanding the simpler times when people really did just write down the facts without an agenda.

Oh, that makes me realize something I can add quickly here, which is "spotting agenda." Here is a quick example that merits a huge amount of writing elsewhere.

OK, you've seen Jesus, and his Apostles, and all the events that took place. Maybe you are a distant relative of one of the disciples. The focus would be entirely on documenting exactly what happened. No one would have an agenda (except, as we saw, the Jews and Romans who put Jesus to death, for they covered up that he resurrected by bribing the guards and spreading the story that his body was removed and "hidden.") So the Gospels and the Epistles (the letters) of the New Testament are all agenda free because people in a really verbal and oral culture were attempting to get precisely in writing exactly what happened. What happened was so detailed and astonishing that for brevity much is left out that is repetitive. By that I mean that for example Jesus performed thousands of individual miracles, but the means to write down details of every one of them would have been impossible then. People memorized and shared the data of the essentials, writing down what people needed to know for the faith that had factually occurred.

But now let's imagine that some hundred years or more has gone by. Someone in your family may have been that relative of a disciple I mentioned (imagine if you belonged to Judas Iscariot's family descendants!) Now you have to watch for agenda. This is the problem with so called Books that people wave around once in a while and claim that they are "true" and "give the real story" of "what happened." These are well known, and a few years ago media manipulators tried to get everyone all excited about the Book of Judas with claims that he and Jesus had an agreement, blah blah blah. The same has popped up about Mary Magdalene and others. There is of course more pious versions such as the stories of the Blessed Virgin Mary and how Joseph selected her (or she him) with like a flowering wand or something like that. These are all written many years, often centuries, after Jesus, of course, was actually alive, by people who were not there.

How do I know they weren't there? Use logic my friends. If they were there it would have been in the Gospels, Acts and Epistles, duh. People were doing agenda-free documenting of all that needed to be known about Jesus (we don't know what side he slept on or what cereal he liked best) but we know absolutely everything about his ministry and the nature of the New Covenant with God. So anyone who actually had been on the scene and had a significant role would have been documented accordingly.

So through dating but also pure logic we know that all these extra books are ancient but not comtemporary with Jesus. Anything that pops up centuries later and claims to contain secret or "real" information is bogus because no one had any need to "hide" anything when Jesus was alive (except the Jewish religious authorities after he resurrected, ha). Jesus lived an entirely open life surrounded by hundreds of people constantly, and Jesus was doing a continual stream of teaching and role modeling, preaching and ministry at all time: there were no secret deals or any such imaginings. That would have lost the entire point anyway. Jesus did not have to arrange with Judas to be betrayed (it would be funny if it was not so faith warping) because, duh, the Gospels document how often Jesus had to flee or dodge people who wanted to kill him right then and there (even in his hometown).

So this is why you have to use a little common sense to discern agenda. The Gospels and rest of the New Testament had no agenda except to document and communicate the marvelous events that had happened, plus the teachings of Jesus. Anything from a later date that is not part of the Christian community communications via letter, sermons and so forth is going to be a combination of two very modern phenomena: 1) Spin doctoring by people who wanted to get their piece of celebrity action, so like I said, I bet Judas' descendant family members would have wanted to write a 'he didn't do it' saga and 2) Genuine remnants of memories of things like the life of the Virgin Mary, but now glossed with all sorts of sentimental fiction to romanticize her genuine purity and virtue (in other words, the "cute meet" story between her and Joseph that is supposedly preserved).

Thus remember, which is why I brought this up, the disciples had no agenda as they authored the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles, and Revelation, rather than to record precisely what had occurred as this was a nearly total verbal culture and society in the world. The model for such precision in writing was of course the Torah and all the books of the Old Testament. People used witnessing to get the facts in writing to reach those areas they could not achieve through travel, and also to preserve and hand down the information to the next generations of what had actually happened. Likewise God had no "agenda" other than send his Son, the Savior and Messiah, to do what he did. God did not have to plant "significant numbers" or "hidden meanings" or any such thing because that is self defeating and remember that God is all perfection. God is what he is. So don't get diverted thinking there is hidden or arcane meaning to be "gained" in the scripture, since, well, think about it, God seems to have to hit humans over the head again and again and again with the simple truth. Subtlety is lost on humans and God would have no reason not to make things very, very, VERY plain over and over and over. Points 1-6 rather than "oooooh, the number of loaves 'means something!'" Finally spot agenda before it spots you. Use common sense to discern the difference between people who were part of the fact checking witnessing of the group of disciples who were actually there versus writings by some sort of imaginary hanger oners years and centuries after the fact who have obvious "My grand pappy's neighbor's shepherd knew them too!" types of motivations (or like Judas Iscariot's poor family descendants, ugh, who would want to have been them?)

I hope this helps.