Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with 2 Kings 4. Here an unnamed man came to the prophet Elisha with some food and Elisha told him to “Give it to the people to eat.” The man protested that there were too many people and not enough food but Elisha insisted that he feed them. When he was done there was food left over. In John’s Gospel we see that a large crowd has followed Jesus, impressed with Jesus’ ability to cure the sick. Seeing the crowd Jesus asked his disciple Phillip how much it would cost to feed the crowd and Phillip told him it would take 200 denarii to give each only a small portion. Another disciple, Andrew, told Jesus that he found a small boy who had 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. Jesus instructed them to tell the crowd of 5,000 men to sit down; he then blessed the loaves and fish and instructed his disciples to give the crowd as much as they needed. After all had eaten the disciples filled 12 hampers with the scraps.
Last week I spoke about leadership and I think these readings continue that theme. I spoke about the difference between dominant leadership and servant leadership and how we are all called to exercise servant leadership. Those who exercise dominant leadership enjoy the perks of their position: nobody can challenge them and they enjoy the lion’s share of scarce resources. There are reports that North Korea imports $1,000,000 of Russian vodka each year. I’m going out on a limb here but I’m going to predict that it’s not evenly divided among all North Koreans. Instead I suggest that Kim Jong Un and his inner circle consume a disproportionate amount of vodka while the average North Korean struggles to find enough calories to survive another day.
Servant leadership, on the other hand, gives the lion’s share not to those in power but to those who are most in need and we see that clearly in the first reading. Most Jews and Christians have vague but positive feelings about the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha and we’re right. They were called by God to care for the poor, those who were easy to ignore. Those who didn’t even dream of getting a share of the imported vodka. It’s hard to imagine in our world today, but for most of our history most people lived with the recognition that starvation caused the death of much of our population. Before the advent of farms and the ability to hunt our ancestors spent their entire existence desperately seeking enough calories to see another day.
When this unnamed man approached Elisha he had enough food to impress and feed Elisha, but not enough to impress and feed everyone. We know little of him or his intentions, but I think we can agree that he saw Elisha as someone useful and worthy of his generosity (or bribery). But Elisha turned the tables and demanded that he not feed the top of the food chain but the bottom. When he protested that he didn’t have enough (attempting the coward’s way out) he was proven wrong. All were fed, even those in most need.
Our Gospel continues this theme. Servant leadership demands that all, particularly the poorest of the poor, are given what they need. Of all the miracles that Jesus performed, the feeding with the loaves and fishes takes center stage. It’s the only miracle that all four Gospels describe. Ask a Christian about “loaves and fishes” and nearly all of us will talk about feeding the masses with almost nothing. Most of the time we think about the “magic bag” where Jesus and his disciples pull out a loaf or a fish, reach in and find that there are still 5 loaves and 2 fish.
That’s not a bad image and in a place that feared starvation a magic bag gave some comfort. But as we look at these readings in over 2000 years later I think we can find additional wisdom.
When the unnamed man approached Elisha with food, Elisha didn’t take charge. Instead he instructed this man to feed the crowd. In the Gospel Jesus asked Phillip how much it would cost to feed the crowds. Both of them protested that they weren’t rich enough for the job and assumed that they could rely on a miracle to take care of things, and in fairness they were right that a miracle took care of those who were hungry.
But both Elisha and Jesus looked into the eyes of their disciples and recognized in them servant leadership. If dominant leadership is top down, servant leadership begins at ground level. Certainly God can provide food for everyone and we can see how God provided Mannah in Exodus 16. When both Elisha and Jesus challenged their disciples to feed the hungry they were being empowered and they played a key role in feeding the crowds.
Servant leadership calls not just a few, but all of us. In previous homilies I’ve looked on the miracle of loaves and fishes and suggested that the surplus food didn’t come from the magic bag but instead from the crowd. I’ve argued that some came with no food, others came with enough food, and some came with more food than they needed. The miracle of loaves and fishes centers on the idea that the crowd was moved by Jesus’ teaching to the point that they decided to share their surplus to care for those who didn’t have enough.
I like to think that’s the case, but for our purposes in these readings I like to look at the role of the disciples. Jesus employed his disciples in feeding the crowd because he knew that he wasn’t going to be around forever and feeding his flock would eventually depend on those who followed him.
Today we have the ability to lead by serving. We have the ability to feed those in need. Some are hungry for food, some are hungry for love, and some are hungry for connection. In our Gospel Jesus can be seen providing for the hunger of the crowd, but perhaps we can see that his disciples command a new role. I like to think that they had a role in feeding the hungry.
But at first they didn’t think so. Phillip told Jesus that feeding all those people would tax them beyond their ability. A denarius was the normal wage paid to an agricultural worker for a day’s labor and Phillip basically said it would take 200 days worth of wages to feed the crowd. But Jesus wasn’t talking about currency, but instead the role of Phillip and the other disciples in leading the people. In that case they had more than enough.