Understanding the Loaves

Jesus walks on water, by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1888

So, what can we make of the walking on water miracle? First of all, at the most basic level, whether this miracle did or did not happen cannot be proven or disproven from the texts, and as such we tend to just allow the story to confirm what we already believe to be true. If we believe in the supernatural, this story appears to confirm that possibility, if we do not, and do not believe someone could walk on water, this story confirms to us the unreliability of the Jesus narrative. We know the laws of nature cannot be broken in this way, so how can we take the biblical narrative seriously? The scholarship response to this miracle has been two-fold: on one hand, though he appeared to walk on water, he actually didn’t, and on the other, that this story should be taken as a myth - its purpose is not to communicate to us historical events, but rather mythological truths.

So, first of all: he appeared to walk on water, but he actually didn’t. This is simply the assertion that although to the disciples he appeared to be walking on the water, he was in fact walking along the shore line, but due to the darkness, the choppy sea, and the high winds, which Jesus goes on to calm, the disciples were confused as to what was happening. When you read the Gospel of John, it sounds like the disciples and the crowd were all in one place, and then they travelled by boat to another place. It is implied in the text that this move from point A to point B required a boat. Though of course it didn’t. The Sea of Galilee is a lake, but not only that, the two places mentioned in John, Tiberias and Capernaum, are only a two hour walk from one another along the shore line. This geographical fact lends weight to the disciples’ confusion explanation. In the Gospel of John there is also a concluding sentence which seems to affirm this explanation. It says, ‘But he said to them, “It is I, do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going’.

Now, though I do think this explanation makes a lot of sense, and it certainly appeals to my more naturalistic way of seeing the world, the problem with it is that it makes the whole story rather pointless. It serves merely to emphasise the disciples’ ineptitude, particularly if you allow this explanation to shape our reading of the miracle as it appears in Matthew. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells them to not be afraid. And then Peter joins Jesus on the water, or should I say on the shore line, and Peter gets scared due to the strong winds and Jesus reaches out and catches Peter, and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” If this whole episode is transpiring on the shore line, well then, the disciples really are pitiful bunch. By taking this approach in general, always seeking to explain away the miraculous, one is in danger of entirely missing the function the miracle is playing within the narrative as a whole. That’s why I don’t think it’s a good approach to take when it comes to this or any of the miracles. It is clearly the case that within the construct of the narrative itself Jesus does walk on water. It’s consistent within the internal logic of the narrative. That miracle is there then, not for us the audience to dispute it, but rather to make a mythological point, and further, to bolster the claims made subsequently.

 Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

This tendency to explain away the miraculous is best exemplified in the Jefferson Bible, which I’ve mentioned before. Thomas Jefferson, the third president of America, wrote his own version of the Gospels in which he synthesised all four Gospels into one, and removed all the supernatural elements, including this miracle of Jesus walking on water, leaving just a condensed treatise of Jesus’ teachings. He first mentions this idea in a letter he wrote to Joseph Priestley, encouraging him to write the book for him, for he himself was too busy, being as he was at the time the president. We have no record of Priestley’s response, but he apparently did not do it, and so the next year, while he was still president, Jefferson found the time anyway and created his Bible. Unsurprisingly, he was from time to time accused of not being a Christian, particularly by Calvinists. To one such person he responded, “You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”  Now, though, I think there is some value in considering Jesus’ teachings and morality in isolation, as Jefferson encouraged. A contemporary example of this approach one can find in the red-letter bibles, which is a version of the complete Bible in which Jesus’ words are in red for emphasis. Though there’s value in this, there is also definitely a great deal lost. And so, returning to the walking on water miracle, we’ll now consider the second scholarship approach – that the miracle should be read as a myth, as conveying mythological truth. And in the case of this miracle, it has everything to do with bread.

After the miracle occurs in the Gospel of John, as we had read, we have this mini-homily about bread, in which he says, ‘I am the bread of life’. And in all three accounts of the water walking miracle it is preceded by the feeding of the five thousand, in which Jesus takes five loaves of bread and two fishes, and miraculously divides them to feed five thousand people. The feeding of the five thousand miracle, and the walking on water miracle, are very closely linked. It says as much in the Gospel of Mark - ‘when they saw Jesus on the water, they though he was ghost and cried out. They were afraid for they did not understand about the loaves’. So, what is there to understand about the loaves? In the feeding of the five thousand miracle, Jesus finds himself with the crowd, who begins to complain because there is not enough food. Upon hearing this Jesus divides the little food available miraculously to feed the large assembled crowd. After he does this, the people began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world’, and then they attempt to take him by force and make him their king. But he withdraws, and is able to slip away. This therefore has to do with the distinction between who Jesus is and what he embodied, vs. what Jesus can do for me. His nature vs. the function he can play for me.

In the first story then, the feeding of the five-thousand, the point is that when we live into our Christ identity, when we manifest the Kingdom of God amongst us, all will be fed, and no one will go hungry. Not through conjuring food, but by being aware of others’ suffering, and being generous from out of our abundance. But in the story, that quickly turns into ‘Jesus is a magical food producer - let’s make him king so he can make us all magical food forever!’ In the second story, walking on water, the point is something like: when we live into our Christ identity, when we manifest the Kingdom of God amongst us, amazing things can happen, if only our focus remains upon manifesting that as a reality in our present and not upon what I can get out of it for me. But again, in the story that is what happens. The story turns into a plea for help. Will Jesus not save me from this situation, from this storm, from these choppy seas? And finally, we get to this mini-homily which Tessa read out, in which Jesus sums up everything that’s transpired.

He begins by chastising them. “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” You’re not thinking about the Kingdom, or manifesting love in this world, you’re thinking about your stomach, you’re thinking about what I can do for you, the revolution that I could lead against the Romans, you’re thinking about the reward you’ll earn at the end of your life. It’s not about these self-centred, shallow things, it’s all about living into the Kingdom now. In the same way we understand Jesus’ assertion that he is ‘the way the truth and the life’, and we put the emphasis there upon ‘the way’ that he exemplifies, and manifests in himself ‘the way’. In the same fashion, we frame the words that follow, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” That we believe in the way he manifests before us. But still the disciples’ ineptitude continues. They reply, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?” Really by this point, how many more signs do they want?

Jesus says, ‘I am the bread of life’, but still they do not understand. He asks us to follow his example, to model our life after him as he seeks to manifest love and the kingdom around him. And yet we, like the disciples, continue to fall into the same trap over and over. Yes, but what about us, what do we get out of it, where is my reward, my peace? Can you not see, it’s not about you, it is about the way, it is about love, it is about the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

Lewis Connolly