Friday, January 29, 2010 -- Week of 3 Epiphany, Year Two
Andrei Rublev, Monk and Iconographer, 1430
Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, 945)
Psalms 40, 54 (morning) 51 (evening)
Biblical commentators always say that whenever a number appears in a gospel story, pay attention. Numbers have symbolic meaning in ancient writing. Scholars of the Gospel of John emphasize that John's writing is particularly theological. John uses the narrative to convey his theology.
So what meaning is John communicating; what do the numbers mean in this story of the feeding of the multitude?
My first answer -- I don't know. When it comes to assigning meaning to numbers there are lots of imaginative schemes throughout history. Some numbers have a strong tradition of interpretation in Jewish and Christian tradition or in the neighboring cultures. So most of these numbers, I'm just guessing. But for one of these numbers in this story, there's a strong clue.
The first number that pops up is Philip's answer to the question, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" "Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." A denarius was the usual day's wage for a laborer. Two hundred days of labor would not be enough to buy bread. Ten is a number that has a traditional meaning in scripture. Ten represents a totality. Multiples and repetitions of numbers intensify them. So maybe 200 denarii is a way of saying "a whole lot" -- the totality of a day's wage doubled and multiplied. The New Revised Standard Bible takes the more mundane approach and translates it "six months' wages."
A boy brings five barley loaves and two fish. That's not much. First, it is from a boy. Feeding a hungry multitude would seem like a man's problem. But a child brings a meager offering, and it will be enough. (That'll preach.) What about the number five? And the detail that these are barley loaves? Here I'm not so sure. As far as I know, five is not a number that has a strong interpretive tradition. There are the five books of the Torah -- the heart of the Jewish Scripture, the Law. The Torah was given by Moses, who led the people through the wilderness where they were fed by the miraculous Manna. Five is also a number of life -- five senses, five fingers and toes. In some symbolic schemes it is a number signifying action. Jesus, the Bread of Life (as John will say later), creates action with these five loaves to feed the people as Moses did. He will be the new Moses, the new Torah, the new Life.
Barley is the bread of the poor. Jesus' act of feeding is among the poor and is facilitated by the modest gift from a poor child. (That'll preach too.)
One more possible meaning for the number five. It can be the number for grace. Four is the number of the created order (four corners of the earth, four winds, four directions). That's a very established meaning. Five is the created order plus something. The created order plus God is grace. These five loaves are the means of grace for God's divine activity through Jesus within the created order.
What about the two fish? I really don't have much of a clue. Two is usually a number meaning division or harmony. From one comes two. Either/or; yin/yang. Two can represent conflict or balance. There is also the requirement in Jewish law that there must be two witnesses to establish evidence in a legal matter. (There are two witnesses on the mountain of Transfiguration and two angels beside the tomb in Matthew's account.) But two fish as witnesses doesn't sound very compelling. I know that the fish became an early symbol for Jesus and for Christians. Maybe somebody reading this will have a better idea about the meaning of the two fish in this story.
The crowd was five thousand people. Five -- a lively, active group -- multiplied significantly. One little detail that gets missed in the NRSV translation. It is the men who sit down, and who are presumably numbered. In Jewish tradition, it requires ten men to be present for public worship in the synagogue. The counting of the men helps make this a religious assembly. It is also a large multitude.
But here's the number that caught my eye and started this whole thought process about numbers. "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost." From the fragments of the barley loaves "they filled twelve baskets." Twelve is an important number. Twelve is the number of God's people. There are the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve disciples. Twelve is the product of three (the spiritual order) and four (the created order). In this miracle of feeding, all of the fragments are to be gathered up, all of God's people will be included, "so that nothing may be lost."
We have a similar gathering in Mark's gospel, but this time in Gentile territory. (Mark 8) That crowd of 4,000 (the created order multiplied) is fed with seven loaves and there are seven baskets of fragments collected. Seven is the number of perfection, the sum of three (the spiritual order) and four (the created order). Jesus performs the same miracle of feeding for the Gentiles as he does for the Jews, and the fragments are collected wholly in both contexts, "so that nothing may be lost."
All are fed. All are included. All fragments are gathered. It is a message of universal grace and inclusion, "so that nothing may be lost."
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About Morning Reflections
Morning Reflections is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.
Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
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