By: The Rev. Jacob Pierce
The Feeding of the Five Thousand in John’s Gospel is replete with theological themes and motifs. Preachers might choose to go in a multitude of directions with this story. But what has always struck me is the abundance of food and the attention Jesus pays to the leftover fragments.
Years ago, I attended a conference where Walter Brueggemann was the keynote speaker. Throughout the week, Brueggemann delved deeper into many of the themes in his writing, paying particular attention to this notion of “totalizing narratives.” Brueggemann argues that there exist narratives in our world that are in direct opposition to the narrative of God. These totalizing narratives are so consuming that the narrative of God is often lost. Brueggemann points to examples in scripture, of how God’s narrative has broken through the narratives of the world.
For example, the totalizing narrative of Pharaoh in the Exodus story kept Israel in bondage. Pharaoh’s narrative was that there was no life outside of Egypt, that if the Hebrew people left and went into the wilderness, they would die. And the Hebrew people believed it! After their liberation the people complained as they remembered the melons in Egypt. But it was in the wilderness, it was in leaving Egypt, that the people of Israel saw God. God’s narrative broke through.
Totalizing narratives, according to Brueggemann, always begin the same way: the people who have the most develop anxiety about scarcity, and from that anxiety comes accumulation, monopoly, and eventually violence. Pharaoh was the man who had the most, Egypt was all-encompassing, and the irony was that Pharaoh was afraid he might not have enough. Remember, the Israelites were building storehouses in Egypt, not pyramids.
In the first century, the Roman Empire was all-encompassing. The narrative of Caesar was that nothing exists outside of the heavy boot of Rome. Rome would supply just enough to meet their needs if they’d submit to its rule. But when Jesus multiplied the five loaves and two fish, it must have terrified the Romans. By feeding the people, Jesus was not only meeting their needs and revealing God’s glory, Jesus was offering a new narrative; an alternative narrative to the totalizing narrative of Rome. Jesus was revealing in a very tangible way that in God’s kingdom there is enough. But there is not only enough; there is more than enough—there are leftovers!
I’ve often considered this in the context of the Eucharist. The Holy Eucharist defies the narrative that food is scarce, that it must be earned, and that God only communes with certain people. Eucharist is an alternative to that narrative. At the Eucharist all people commune directly with God, uninhibited by scarcity and monopoly, and God provides more than enough.
One of my favorite reflections from Barbara Brown Taylor is when she notes that God seems to prefer things that are broken. One example she gives is that whenever Jesus is given bread in the gospels, he breaks it. This story in John’s Gospel is not only about abundance, but the special attention Jesus pays to the leftover fragments.
Preacher, you might consider the totalizing narratives of your own context. What are the totalizing narratives that keep your congregation from living out its ministry? What narratives keep your worshipping community from believing that the impossible is possible? We all have these narratives in our faith communities, the “we’ve always done it that way” excuse. You might also consider the narratives of our larger society: the division in our country, the partisan gridlock, the hopelessness that still permeates corners of our society after 15 months of a pandemic. Whatever you choose to focus on, remind them of God’s abundance. Remind them that God’s narrative is breaking through right now. And if they’re feeling broken Jesus is there to gather them up.
 For a full excursus on this subject, see: Walter Brueggemann, God, Neighbor, Empire: The Excess of Divine Fidelity and the Command of Common Good (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016).
 See: Barbara Brown Taylor, “Blessed Brokenness,” in Gospel Medicine (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995).