He had a magic ring and he didn’t want to let go of it, couldn’t give it up. Oh, he knew he should, planned to pass it on to his nephew when he left town, but it kept ending up back in his pocket. Gandalf reminded him of his commitment, but Bilbo Baggins resisted at the last minute. Said the ring was “His Precious”, he deserved to keep it. Gandalf showed him a little bit of his power, tried to shake Bilbo up a little bit to help him see reason, give him the strength to do what he had to. So Bilbo did, managed to put the ring in an envelope, address it, and walk away, on the road to discovery.
He didn’t have the strength on his own, in a way, he would have admitted that if you asked. It was the strength of his great friend that helped him, that got him to think outside the box and let him get on with his life in freedom. It was faith in what was right and the help of a friend that helped Bilbo Baggins give up the Ring.
Today’s Gospel is an interesting story about faith, the faith of the disciples. They have seen these crowds follow Jesus, drawn by the power of his words and his presence. Imagine their panic build as the day goes on and Jesus keeps talking: they’re in the desert, there’s nothing to eat around, and they know that when the people come out of their daze and find out they’re hungry they may stop at nothing to find food. So, they get a moment to talk to Jesus out of earshot: “Hey, we need to let these folks get something to eat and find a place to stay. We’ve only got enough for ourselves–if we stretch it. Wrap it up, will you?”
Jesus turns things around on them: “You find them something to eat.” Imagine the looks of incredulity. Is this man crazy? We’ve only got five loaves and two fishes. We’re supposed to feed these people–without him? This is going to be ugly. I bet if they knew about rings like Bilbo Baggins’ ring, they’d put it on, but they’re stuck, they have to go through with it. And then the miracle happens, five thousand people get fed. How did they do it?
Well, one way to explain this is to say that the disciples task was getting everybody to share what they had: everybody had something to eat with them already, and seeing the impossible amount of food the disciples had to share prompted everyone to bring out what they had and share it around with everyone. But there are more layers to this story.
Five thousand was the approximate number of people who made up the Church at the time the Gospel of Luke was written. Having people sit in groups of fifty was a grouping into churches, or small Christian communities. The way “churches” met in those days, at people’s homes, made it difficult for more than fifty people to belong to a house church. So the task that Jesus sets for the disciples is to feed the Church, to give the Church what it needs. The number of items the disciples have is interesting, also. Five loaves and two fish add up to seven, which is the sacred number of completion. So the disciples have something complete to offer; they just don’t realize it. What do they need?
They need to have Jesus bless their work. It’s after Jesus takes the bread and fish, blesses it, and gives it to the disciples that they are able to feed the multitude, they are able to give the Church what it needs. The source of the miracle is Jesus. It is through Jesus that the disciples are able to feed the Church. Things are still like that.
It’s easy to look at what we’d need to do as Church and think that it’s impossible. We have a lot to do, and the task can seem like it’s too much. The faith that this story calls us to is similar to the faith that my Father has: we have to believe that things will work out in the end. We have to believe that if we let Jesus bless our work, if we act as Jesus would have us, if we’re feeding the world, in one way or another, then through the power of Christ there will be enough. It doesn’t matter if we’re trying to feed the poor of our community, or work for greater justice in our society, or even get some needed building done around here, through Christ’s blessing on our work it will get done. It may not be easy, and it may take quite a while. But if we start with Christ, we can be the Body and Blood of Christ that feeds the world.
It’s something we probably wish we could get away from, disappear like Bilbo did whenever someone unpleasant came up the other side of the road. Jesus tries to shake us loose from our reluctance, shake us loose from our fear, shake us loose so we can be the generous people He made us to be. Jesus overpowers us so we can remember who we are and what we’re here to do.