There is a good quote from the movie Signs, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. This is said during a scene in which a Pennsylvania family has just learned that creatures from another planet have started descending on earth. Their spaceships light up the sky all over the world. The father in the family, speaking to his brother, says:
People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance.
I’m sure the people in group number two are looking at those fourteen lights in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation is a fifty-fifty. Could be bad, could be good. But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they’re on their own. And that fills them with fear. Yeah, there are those people. But there’s a whole lot of people in group number one. When they see those fourteen lights, they’re looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever’s going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?
Do you believe in signs?
Or is life just a day-to-day routine of cause and effect?
I’m not arguing for or against either view; I think both are needed in the world, for sure. But I will say that in my experience, there have been signs that I felt I was supposed to notice. Sometimes it was as simple as an unexpected phone call; or a text; or an email. Other times it was a subtle change in a friend’s or family member’s behavior. A couple of times, it was a sign that seemed to scream out:
PAY ATTENTION TO ME!!!!!!
I’m always curious as I walk through this life to see how much people pay attention to stoplights and traffic signs and other signs that they obediently follow. Think about how much we pay attention to those types of signs.
And then think about how little we may pay attention to the other types of signs, like the signs that whisper to us:
You know that this relationship is unhealthy. Time to change.
Is this life of routine really living?
You’re not ugly, you’re beautiful. You’re not stupid, you’re wise.
I think that person needs my help.
This story in the Gospel of John is a sign story.
In this Gospel, scholars identify seven signs before Jesus dies. Seven, of course, is a number with significance. It is about wholeness, and so, it would follow that the seven signs of Jesus are meant by John to give the reader a “whole” picture of Jesus. The feeding of the 5000 happens to be the fourth sign.
Now any “sign” or “miracle” story always depends on the reader to make up his/her mind about how to interpret the story. Is the feeding of 5000 a literal miracle that actually happened, or is it merely a symbolic story to illustrate something else? Like always, you get to choose which type of reader you will be.
I will say, however, that there may be another way to read these stories. Rather than taking the hard right [literal] or the hard left [symbolic], what if we consider the writer’s perspective? Why did this person write this story, and what were signs in the author’s perspective?
So let’s give it a try.
John’s Gospel is trying to prove a point. More than any of the other Gospels, John is trying to say to its audience that Jesus was with God from the very beginning of time and therefore was God from the very beginning, as opposed to becoming divine at his resurrection. This is key for John’s Gospel.
But in order to prove that, John has work to do.
You see, the audience reading this Gospel would have been a mix of Greeks and Jews and Hellenistic Jews, etc. So many of them were well aware of the great religious prophets of old.
Moses? Yeah, pretty miraculous. Um, he talked to a burning bush that was G-D!!!!
And…the parting of the red sea? Come on….and there’s much more with Moses.
Man, maybe we should make a movie about that. Or two, or three, or a hundred….
So John’s Gospel wants to prove that Jesus was a great prophet like Moses, and even better. So the signs keep coming in the Gospel. And Jesus goes up on mountaintops just like Moses, but Jesus doesn’t need to wear a veil to hide his face from God like Moses did. Jesus doesn’t have to remove his sandals to talk with God.
And then there’s the prophet Elisha.
In 2 Kings 4 of the Hebrew Scriptures, Elisha performs a miracle! He feeds 100 people with only twenty barley loaves of bread. Wow! Elisha rocks!
So John has Jesus feed 5000 with some little kid’s loaves and fishes.
And it all adds up when you see the crowds say after the meal:
This is indeed the prophet who has come into the world!
I think listening to John’s perspective about signs and miracles can help us find some meaning in this story, because to be frank, a literal reading doesn’t work for me and here’s why.
5000 people are fed, and Jesus is portrayed in John’s Gospel as the bread of life, and that people will never go hungry. But hello? If Jesus were some magical Harry Potter prophet who could multiply food in the blink of an eye, why not do it for all the poor people? Jesus talked about the poor and cared for them deeply. If he really was so magical, why not feed everybody? Same goes for today. Not everyone in the world is fed. People are hungry–starving even. Some don’t have access to drinking water. Where’s God and Jesus in all of that?
But I also think that trying to explain away the miracle of the 5000 doesn’t so the story either. Often people react to literal readings of the Bible and go in the other direction. They try to explain every sign and miracle. So in this case, when the boy offered to share his food, then everyone else in the crowds realized that they also had a little bit, and if they pooled their food together, everyone could eat. I am not sure about that. Sounds like the children’s story Stone Soup to me.
So let’s return to the author of John. What was he thinking?
Well, I’m guessing, but the number 5000 is a bit arbitrary and not tied to any important numerology. 5000 is a significant number, though, and as the story states, a number like 5000 would mean that many people are now following Jesus. A crowd that size just might equal the size of a Roman legion. And that’s John for sure, because this Gospel is keen on that contrast between Jesus’ band of followers and Caesar’s band of soldiers. The Jesus way vs. the Roman occupation and the religious elites.
Secondly, in John, whenever people are fed, it’s not just about people getting food they can chew on. If Jesus is the bread of life and the shepherd who feeds his sheep, and the giver of living water—then we’re definitely talking about spiritual food.
I think that changes the story for me a bit.
I feel like Jesus is teaching his disciples [and the others gathered]. He is illustrating provision and sharing. Provision, because actually, there IS enough food and water for everyone in the world to eat. Yes, today we are overpopulated, but we still [via the land and water] have enough to eat. So Jesus tests Philip by asking him where they are going to find enough bread for all to eat. Jesus knows there’s already enough! Provision. It’s there. But without sharing, we don’t see that sign of provision. I don’t need to reiterate, do I, that the Western world is eating WAY more than we ever should? It’s insane. We don’t share well. We’re like a two-year-old who won’t share her toy with her brother. So the signs I see in this story are that we have been provided with all we need, and not just food. All we need to be whole and healthy people. And second, that we have a responsibility to share. If not, not everyone will be fed.
Now, to the end of the story. Did Jesus really walk on water?
Take that, Moses and Elisha!!!
The disciples were rowing in their boat, trying to cross over to the other side, and a strong wind comes. They are not afraid yet, even though they are alone.
But then, they see [don’t miss this word!] a sign: Jesus is walking on the sea and coming near the boat. Well, at this point they are a hot mess and freaking out. What Jesus says is so important:
This is the Greek form of the Hebrew name for G-d [YHWH].
This is the assurance of the divine presence–that they are not alone in their little boat.
He tells them not to fear.
John’s author, writing to a mix of people who weren’t sure about Jesus, and actually, weren’t sure about tomorrow, were encouraged to not be afraid.
Walking on water? A sign, but not of magic. A sign of encouragement, presence, and confidence.
I think that too often we look for the Hollywood Jesus stuff—supernatural miracles that are fit for 3D or IMAX. We want God to be an in-your-face action hero that blows us away with thunder and lightning, high mountaintops, raging seas, feeding of 5000, walking on water, and massive miracles. But the reality is that most of our lives we are walking on the ground, living day to day. Most of the time we’re not on high mountaintops or surrounded by raging seas or experiencing massive miracles.
Many days we’re trying to figure out how to pay our bills, send a kid to college, keep our job or find a new job; get through school, and sometimes, we’re just hoping to wake up in the morning and get out of bed.
So where are the signs in real life?
This is where the John story does speak to me. I argue that we overthink the signs. We want something miraculous and overwhelming; supernatural, maybe. But why?
Signs are everywhere, and we don’t have to look far.
It is about how much we decide to pay attention, and usually that means that we’ll have to slow down. Signs don’t come easy to those whose lives are one multi-task moment after another. The entire natural world around us is full of signs. But you won’t notice them if you speed past them or just consider them background noise.
Your feelings are signs. They are trying to tell you something. Are you listening?
Your physical body gives you signs every day. Are you paying attention?
Your dearest friends say and do things that are signs for you to notice. Are you noticing?
I encourage you to spend less time waiting for some miraculous event or a supernatural sign. Instead, expect to see signs in your day-to-day life.
Pay attention to them.
And this will feed you in an unexpected way.