Feeding the Multitudes (on a Budget)

Commuting to New York City by bus can be an epiphany. When an hour-and-a-half scheduled ride stretches into two-and-a-half (I spent three-quarters as much time commuting as I did actually at work yesterday) you have plenty of time to look at the scenery. In New Jersey this translates into several towns and cities of differing socio-economic viability. The bus is a great leveler of people: corporate, business types sitting next to those who can’t afford a car or bicycle. As we trundled through Plainfield yesterday I spied a restaurant called Two Fishes & Five Loaves taglined Soul Food for all occasions. The name, of course, is borrowed from the story of the miraculous multiplication of food from the Gospels. This story fits particularly well in this setting.

According to the Gospel writers—this is the only miracle to appear in all four of the Gospels—a crowd following Jesus in a lonely place grew hungry. Instead of sending the crowds away, Jesus took the five loaves of bread and two fish they had with them and fed the crowd of 5,000 with that little morsel. When I was a student it was customary to interpret this story as one of a human-dimension miracle. The crowd, seeing Jesus sharing the food he had, each offered to share with their neighbors. Once the idea caught on, those without food had enough and those who’d brought extra had the right amount. They even had leftovers. This naturalized version of the story illustrates the message of Jesus quite nicely, although those who prefer supernatural intervention naturally reject it.

Plainfield is a town with stunning wealth and abject poverty. This situation is not unique to this location; indeed, it is a hallmark of capitalism. Those who have do not willingly give it up for the sake of those less fortunate. The free market is not really free. Today most readers like to see the story of the feeding of the five thousand as divine intervention. That matches our bail out mentality. When our circumstances make us too selfish, God comes to the rescue with conjured seafood and crumpets—or Tea Partiers—and the rest of us look on hungrily. By the end of the day, enduring that long bus ride home, I too was hoping for a miracle. Instead, as we crawled by Two Fishes & Five Loaves, loaded with people of every status, I was living in a Gospel story.

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