21 January 2016
Jesus, Friend of Sinners
by Dr Mark Keown
I was working through John’s account of the Feeding of the 5000 in John 6:1–15 yesterday and realised something I hadn’t noticed. The miracle is the only one found in all four Gospels (Mark 6; Matt 14; Luke 9). As in the other accounts, in John, Jesus provides food for the whole crowd, which may have been as large as 20,000, as only the number of men is noted.
John adds cool details. The disciples are there on the mountain with Jesus, so they are fed along with the crowd. He tells us that the loaves are barley-loaves, the bread of the poor, barley being cheaper than wheat. The fish are ‘small fish,’ which are perhaps pickled. A boy who can be anywhere from a little fella to a young man (the Greek is fluid) provides the food; a neat touch, also showing that there are children present. The food is worth around 200 denarii, which is two hundred day’s money for a day labourer. If we assume a NZ minimum wage for an eight-hour day (and they did longer days too!), that is something like $23,600 NZD, a lot of money. It is unlikely Judas has that much in his moneybag. We also see the involvement of Philip and Andrew, who are much more prominent in John than the other Gospels—likely because they were known to John’s readers. We see that Philip is good at finances, an accountant? We learn the time of the event, just before Passover, so probably March. The grass is lush, it is the northern Spring; soon the grass will burn off in the heat of summer. The way the story is presented shows Jesus as a new Moses, or one greater than Moses, who feeds Israel in the wilderness, who is redeeming Israel in a second and ultimate Exodus. The crowd recognise that Jesus is someone special, thinking him the Prophet anticipated in Deut 18:15–18, they seek to violently seize him and make him king—they believe he is Messiah. Jesus does a runner, he is not interested in being that sort of king, one who takes over the world with violent force. He has another plan—contemporary Christians in a violent world take note!
What struck me is that in John, unlike the other accounts, there is no mention of the disciples distributing the food, Jesus does it (John 6:11). Jesus is thus the ideal host, and the one who serves the crowds. This is Jesus the Servant, who will be seen most clearly in Ch. 13 as he washes the disciples’ feet—a slaves dirty job. Most significantly, this will be revealed as he is glorified on the cross, fulfilling the mission for which he was sent, dying for the world as the Lamb of God.
What really struck me is who he is feeding. He feeds the crowds made up of all sorts, desperate for healing in a world where people died young. In the crowd are interesting people. Cast your eye to the end of John 6 and you will see that by the end of the next day, after hearing Jesus teach that he is the ‘bread of life,’ ‘many of his disciples’ found it a bit much. They grumbled, as they were offended. After a discussion, ‘many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.’ Jesus then challenged the Twelve, asking whether they want out as well. Simon speaks up effectively saying ‘no way, we are here for the long haul, you are the One! Jesus then reminds them that he chose them, and ‘yet one of you is a devil.’ John explains that this is a reference to Judas (John 6:70–71).
Even though these people would desert him and and Judas betray him, Jesus was prepared to provide for them and feed them! Further, he hands them their food himself. They all go home well-fed. There was even leftovers, the disciples gathering twelve baskets afterward. One of these was his betray Judas, ‘a devil!’ This is our God, who provides a world for all people, replete with food and drink; and even for those who hate him and deny him. This event again shows Jesus’ amazing grace toward sinners. He loved to hang out with them, and he delighted in serving their needs. Later, at the Last Supper, he would eat with his betrayer and his denier (Peter). Each Sunday we have Communion, Jesus dines with us, and we too are sinners. We come with differing levels of faith, yet Jesus does not discriminate, all are welcome to the Table. Jesus is truly the friend of sinners. So we must treat the world. I am glad Jesus will eat with sinners, cause I am one. There is yet hope for us all.