In the airport lounge about to board a flight with my wife and our two children, I have a hasty phone conversation with a good friend. He is a minister and he wants to pick my brain on the Bible passage he’s preaching on this Sunday. It’s the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew 14. I love these conversations. Being an extrovert I tend to have epiphanies and make new connections as I hear myself talking.
As we talked I encourage my friend to explore the way Jesus’ picnic in the desert challenged the table ethos of the Pharisees. In this culture, to eat together was to accept one another, to be reconciled. Therefore the Pharisees had to police their invite list pretty stringently, lest they break bread with someone unworthy of their company.
So when Jesus hosts a free-for-all banquet in the barren desert, it is a profoundly different kind of table fellowship, yet it still speaks of acceptance and reconciliation. While the Pharisees are busy patrolling the boundaries of who is in and who is out, Jesus goes somewhere where there are literally no walls, just hungry people, and feeds them. Apparently being hungry was the only requirement to be reconciled to the Son of God that day.
I thought this was good stuff as I talked to my friend and I was energised by the conversation. As an afterthought I told my friend that there was another perspective on the story, but that I didn’t think it was all that convincing. Scholars like William Barclay and novelists like Lloyd C. Douglas spread the idea that there was no miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish in the hands of Jesus. Rather they reckoned there was a miraculous opening of hands and hearts. Barclay and Douglas claimed that there was more than 5 loaves and 2 fish in the crowd that day. But, being aware of those who didn’t have anything, those who’d brought food kept it hidden for fear of not having enough for themselves if they shared it. But seeing the selfless generosity of Jesus, in giving thanks for such a meagre meal and sharing it, they were moved to be part of it. So they took out their hidden hoards of food and broke bread with their hungry neighbours. In the end there was more than enough to go around. 12 baskets more than enough to be precise.
So still a miracle, but a different kind of miracle. The emphasis turns onto Jesus being an example that leads us to share as he does, rather than the source of all we have to share in the first place. I told my friend all this, and that I wasn’t especially moved by this interpretation. Then I wish him well and sign off as it is time to board the plane.
We take our place at the back of the queue, which is the best place with kids if you ask us. We find our seats towards the back of the plane and settle in and wait. And wait. And wait. Then comes the announcement, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, there’s been a small malfunction. Its going to take an hour to fix. Please disembark.’ There is a collective groan.
Off we get, tailing a young mum with a baby in a front pack and wee toddler in tow. We begin chatting. When we get to the lounge there are no seats left, just a large patch of carpet. We plonk ourselves down. I offer to go and get coffee for my wife and the young mum. It is a long walk down past several gates, so I have plenty of time to think about having an hour to kill in a crowded airport lounge.
But when I get back I find that our camp has grown. There is my wife, our three year old and the 4 month old baby and the mum with her two littlies. They’ve been joined by a grandma with another toddler and a couple with four kids between 9 and 3. My sons toy cars are being zoomed around by 3 other children. His little wooden skittle set is keeping the older kids entertained, while the last of the skittles serves as a dummy for one of the babies. The young mum produces a little bag of jelly beans to share around.
Another couple of kids attach themselves to the group. The family of four don’t seem to have any toys to share but there are four of them, and they provide excellent playmates for the smaller ones. The grandmother shares around balloons and pipe cleaners and the fun continues.
Eventually the kids start to get restless, so we rummage through my sons bag and find his Beatrix Potter stories. I ask if the kids want a story. Of course they do. They all gather around. Then the 9 year old pipes up and asks, ‘Can I read it?’ and he does. Beautifully.
The little kids lose interest pretty quickly, but the magic of what I’m seeing catches hold of me. My wife tells me later she wanted to take a picture. I saw the expression of sharing and generosity had gone beyond parents who were managing a tricky situation as best they could, a mutually beneficial staving off of the dreaded ‘melt-down’ – now the kids had gotten in on the act. They were making it their own and carrying it on.
The young mum’s toddler had finished with my son’s Thomas the Tank Engine book so the older girl from the family of four came over with her felt pens and sketching pad and asks, ‘Would you like to do some drawing with me?’ and together they did, until we boarded.
Our gathering now numbered around 15 people camped on the floor in the airport lounge. But was it just the 15 of us? It was hard to tell where the boundaries were, because when my boy zooms one of his cars into the foot of an elderly man in a nearby seat, he zooms it back, with a wink and a smile, and seems quite happy for the game to continue with him involved.
My son makes firm friends with the 3 year old from the family of four who is also called ‘Sam’. When the boarding call finally comes and we begin to gather up our belongings, this Sam I barely know comes up to me as I kneel down picking up cars and skittles and crumbs and throws his arms around my neck. I am stunned. His parents look over and laughed out loud. ‘You’ve done well getting a hug out of him,’ says his dad. I hug the boy back, not quite sure what is happening, but grateful for whatever it is. I feel like I might be in the neighbourhood of a miracle.
When we get on the plane we find that we were actually seated directly in front of the young mum and her two little ones. And behind them was the family of four. It turns out we had been seated this close the last time we were on the plane, but we hadn’t known one another then. This time there are no polite smiles and meagre small talk. We greet one another with delight, like old friends, even though we are old friends who don’t know each others names. A community has formed in the modern wilderness of the airport lounge. I am no longer surrounded by strangers but friends. We have met together and thought we had nothing, but together we have found an abundance.
The sharing continues on through the flight. We share headphones and watch each others children while mum goes to the toilet. The other Sam even swaps seats to come over and sit with our Sam for a while towards the end of the flight. Games of peek-a-boo are played over the tops of the seats with parents and children joining in with equal enthusiasm. An easy, friendly camaraderie seems to stay with us all.
Half way through the flight, I find the half full bag of fruit bursts in the bottom of my backpack that I kept there for emergencies. I am struck by the thought that after all that had happened, we had not just squeaked through. There had, infact, been more than enough. Not quite 12 baskets left over, but still a miracle in my book.
[So this all happened yesterday evening. It’s also amazing since the Feeding of the 5000 is the gospel reading for this week in the lectionary…]