When I was a boy I used to like bible stories and when I was quite young my parents gave me an impressively substantial ‘Picture Stories From The Bible’. It had a burgundy cover with its title in gold letters and inside it contained water colour comic strip style stories of the scriptures. God was depicted as a booming voice from heaven, angels would swoop about in the sky and occasionally descend to earth to give helpful advice and deliver messages and the stories were full of sagely old men with kind faces, white beards and flowing robes.
I read the stories over and over again, for me some of the best were David and the slaying of Goliath, Moses and the parting of the Red Sea and then, there was Samson who used his tremendous strength to defeat his enemies and perform other heroic feats such as wrestling a lion, killing an entire army with nothing more than a donkey’s jawbone, and tearing down an entire building with his bare hands. At the time my favourite was always the story of Noah and his Ark and I can remember being slightly sceptical to read that he allegedly lived until he was nine hundred and fifty which even at seven years old seemed a bit farfetched to me. Adam, the first man, did nearly as well but only lived until he was nine hundred and thirty. My favourite story about Noah now however, is not the Ark, but the fact that after the great flood he settled down and became a farmer, experimented by planting some vines and invented wine. We should all be eternally grateful to him for that!
At school too I always enjoyed bible stories and to illustrate this I have come across an old drawing that dad kept for many years in his scrapbook. This was my early attempt to create a pictorial record of the feeding of the five thousand and it always amused him because he always wondered where the other four thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine people were! Please try and remember that I drew this picture nearly fifty years ago so I have absolutely no explanation to offer as to why it has failed so miserably to capture the scale of the event and why there is only one person in it. Actually, as it happens, there were a lot more than five thousand because this didn’t include the women and the children. Possibly the person in the picture is Jesus himself and the crowd is behind me listening attentively, or perhaps I was just being meticulous and concentrating on producing a perfect picture, or maybe it was the end of the day, the school bell rang and I simply ran out of time but I’m afraid I will just never know.
The feeding of the five thousand was always one of my favourite bible stories and it is also one of the most important and the only one of the miracle stories, apart from the resurrection that is (which is the most important of all), that is recorded in all of the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These days there is obviously a lot of scientific and theological debate about the miracles and I don’t know if they were true or not but as a child I recall that these were ripping good yarns.
This one goes something like this. It had been a difficult week. Jesus had been having a bad hair day, and I think I have captured that nicely in my picture. He had been pretty annoyed when he learned the bad news that his friend and spiritual mentor John the Baptist had been executed by King Herod the day before for criticizing him for his wedding arrangements (thank goodness we live in more enlightened times) and he felt the need to have some time alone, so he wandered out of the town of Bethsaida, which was near the Sea of Galilee and went to a quiet place he knew next to the River Jordon. A real problem for Jesus was that he was very popular because he was known as a great prophet and deliverer of miracles so people pestered him a lot and followed him wherever he went and it was hard for him to get quality time to himself. On this occasion, as usual, the crowd followed him out of town and in their rush they forgot to stop by at the corner shop on the way out and pick up a sandwich or whatever for later on.
Jesus stayed out all day moping around and as it was getting dark the disciples started to get concerned and came to him and suggested that he send the people back home because they didn’t have enough food to feed them if they all spent the night out in the wilderness. It’s quite likely that they didn’t want to be stuck out here all night themselves in the wilderness and probably had thoughts about a glass of wine or two at the local inn. Jesus had other ideas and gave the disciples a challenge and said ‘they need not depart, give ye them to eat’. I can imagine that the disciples thought this was a huge joke but Jesus just told them to see what food was available. Luckily they came across a boy who for some reason had a basket containing five loaves of bread and two fishes, he was probably planning on having a b-b-q later or something and making a shekel or two, but the disciples quickly confiscated it and gave it to Jesus. No one knows how the boy felt about this, it’s quiet possible that he wasn’t especially pleased to have his groceries appropriated in this way.
The disciples gave the food to Jesus who must have felt like a contestant on Ready Steady Cook. Imagine him looking expectantly through the bag of today’s ingredients and trying to figure out what on earth he was going to do to feed all the hungry mouths. What are you going to cook for us today chef? They might have asked. What can you do with bread and fish? Unless you are Rick Stein of course! What Jesus did, and this is where he is brilliant, is that he took the food, probably added a bit of wild asparagus or whatever else was available, blessed it and broke it up and multiplied it many times so that there was more than enough to go round. It was a miracle on a grand scale. Even without a b-b-q he managed to feed everyone, the five thousand men and all the women and children and afterwards he had twelve baskets full of leftovers for the beggars and the birds. Brilliant!
I’m afraid that I have to concede that my humble picture has really failed quite miserably to capture the huge scale of the event …