Listen carefully: the miracle is not the feeding of the five thousand men, besides women and children. This miracle is important enough that some version of this same story appears in all four Gospels in the Bible. The miracle is that God trusts humanity enough to work together with us so that everyone is fed and cared for.
Jesus, in a time of mourning the tragic, grisly death of his friend and relative John the Baptist, Jesus sees the crowds and still has compassion for them and still heals their wounds and heals their sicknesses. Humans have proven themselves unworthy over and over again, yet God still has compassion, and God, in Jesus Christ, still heals our brokenness.
You’ll notice that in this miracle story, Jesus is not picking up rocks and magically turning them into bread. He’s not making bread appear out of thin air and tossing it around to everybody. Jesus says to his disciples: yeah, these people are hungry, so feed them.
And then the disciples lie and say “We have nothing here…” and I think this is the moment when Jesus raises his eyebrows, because then there’s this additional information thrown in: “well, except this tiny bit of food which doesn’t even count because it’s such a small amount as to be utterly insignificant and not worth mentioning and might as well be nothing…”
Jesus says “Bring them here to me.” Because it’s not nothing.
Have you ever been guilty of this too? Have you ever thought your contribution is so small that it must not even matter? Other people are doing bigger things, and my little things don’t even matter, it’s so tiny, it’s nothing.
Jesus says, “Bring them here to me.” It’s not nothing.
God chooses to be in relationship with humanity, even when we humans cannot stop competing with one another, even when we cannot accept grace as a gift because we’re never gonna stop trying to earn God’s grace, even when we complain that God hasn’t done enough for us, as though God is riding on the biggest float in the parade, just throwing out a finite number of blessings to whoever can catch them just because they showed up.
God chooses us even when we’re terrible. Jesus sees what we have to share, even when we lie and say “this is nothing.”
God chooses to work with us because God is about abundant life, about empowering. Jesus isn’t entering into transactions—“I’ll heal you if you say the magic words!” “If you confess me as your Lord and Savior then I’ll feed you!” Jesus is in relationship with people, healing people to give them back their sense of power. Jesus isn’t making people into victims. We tend to do that all on our own.
There’s a framework used by psychologists that describes how people can identify themselves as victims somewhere within a “victim triangle.” In this framework, imagine a triangle where the victim is at the bottom of, course, and that victim is experiencing harm from the perpetrator who hurts them but also harm from the savior who swoops in and fixes the situation, taking away the power and agency of the identified victim. But in this way of understanding, everyone is stuck in some kind of role, perpetuating harm, and everyone’s a victim somehow.
Jesus doesn’t treat people like victims, he’s definitely not harming people, but neither is he the savior who fixes everything because he has a need to be loved. No. Jesus enters into relationship, honors people’s boundaries and their agency, which is letting people decide for themselves. Jesus notices and values what people have to give even if those very people think their gifts are insignificant.
Jesus doesn’t take away what we have, and he doesn’t even take all the glory for himself, either, performing for applause, like “I healed you and fed all of you—you’re welcome!” Jesus delights in sharing the moment, savoring the abundance, and wondering at the mystery of these baskets and baskets of leftovers, like “Would you look at that?! Twelve whole baskets—how ‘bout that.”
That’s freedom. That’s agency. That’s not the work of a transactional God who demands your obedience before agreeing to fix all your problems. But some Christians see God this way because of how they’ve been taught to understand Jesus, as the savior of all humankind because of his sacrifice: Jesus died to save our sins.
This theory is called Substitutionary Atonement. Atonement is about explaining how God restores the relationship between God and humanity, claiming to know God’s reasons and methods—it’s pretty lacking in humility to suggest that humans have access to this kind of knowledge, but here we are.
And the word “substitutionary” means that Jesus is sent as the substitute to sacrifice for the sins of humankind—Jesus suffers for your sins, which all of our human rules say it’s only fair that you should suffer for your own sins. This idea of substitutionary atonement developed early in Christianity: that Jesus had to die as a sacrifice, to satisfy the bloodlust of a vengeful God, death being the only thing that could erase humanity’s sin.
Yes, we do confess that Jesus died, but was the purpose of his death to save humans from sin? Maybe sin is part of it, so that can be true, but is it faithful—or is it even fair—to say that the entire story of Jesus is only about saving people from sin? Why would he bother healing people or feeding people or teaching anybody if he only lived so that he could die? That just doesn’t make sense.
It’s important to consider the context, to situate our ideas about God within the whole story of God. It’s great to memorize Scripture, and there are words of wisdom throughout Scripture, but it can be dangerous to read something without considering the rest of the story.
For example, today we read a section of Romans, a letter written by the apostle Paul to a Christian community in Rome. Now if you come to worship every week, you might remember that we’re reading Romans piece by piece. And in the part we read today, Paul, who is himself a well-educated Jewish man, looks like he could be saying that he has great sorrow because God won’t save the Jews because they don’t believe in Jesus.
First of all, he does not say that. Second of all, we can’t be sure what Paul’s sorrow is about because the letter is unclear and Paul isn’t around anymore for us to ask him. Third of all, none of us, not even Paul, can be inside the mind of God and explain exactly how and when and why God will save whomever God chooses to save—let’s have even a sliver of humility about this, people.
And also: what we didn’t read today is what Paul wrote directly before this sidenote about Israelites and their place within the reign of God. What came before this? The chapter and verse numbers separate these into different thoughts, but Paul says this:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Not even our mistaken efforts to understand God’s actions or God’s purposes. At the end of the day, at the end of time, we don’t know what’s in God’s mind. And part of the real trouble with Substitutionary Atonement is that it makes us think we know exactly what God’s plans are—when we do not know and cannot know—and this idea of Jesus as primarily the all-time savior of sin cuts us out of the equation and out of relationship with God and out of relationship with the people of Israel, the Jews who came before us.
In Romans, Paul is saying that the Jews have the covenants, the law, the worship, the promises…and nothing can separate us from God’s love. Matthew Skinner, speaking in a podcast about today’s Scripture readings, said that the original sin of Christianity is anti-Judaism, getting worried about what’s going to happen to the Jews. Skinner points out that in Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul refuses to allow that God might be a promise breaker: if God cannot be trusted to keep promises, then we’re all in trouble.
Furthermore, when humans start erecting walls around who is saved and who is not saved, we’re not only denying the unity and unifying power of God, we’re opening ourselves to hating our own siblings. That’s where anti-Semitism comes from. Martin Luther had a lot of ugly things to say about Jews and Muslims too, things that the ELCA has had to edit out and say “We do not agree with how Luther interpreted this.”
Besides, why should we inflate our sense of worth by taking away someone else’s worth, and why should we drag God into that mess? As Pastor Katie Hines-Shah said in a social media post: “Substitutionary Atonement Theory is [manure.] It leads us to mistake acts of Hitler for acts of God, which is never a good thing to do.”
The God of Jesus is the same as the God of Jacob—God wrestled with Jacob in the story we read from Genesis this morning. God could have just struck Jacob down, God could have done any number of things, but God chose to be in relationship with humanity. We continue to wrestle with God, to wrestle with faith and the religious inheritance we receive through history and tradition: some parts of that inheritance are treasure worth keeping, and some parts of that inheritance can be discarded.
God calls us into relationship with God’s self, invites us to share what we have, even if it’s only a little. Witness what miracles can happen in the hands of Jesus. God calls us in baptism, calls us as co-creators in God’s kin-dom of healing. It’s not nothing. It’s not a victim triangle.
It’s twelve baskets left over. It’s abundance. It’s grace.
 Described in online article by Lynne Forrest, quoting work on “drama triangle” done by psychiatrist Stephen Karpman. https://www.lynneforrest.com/articles/2008/06/the-faces-of-victim/  Romans 8: 38-39  Working Preacher podcast for August 6, 2023: https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/915-10th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-18a-aug-6-2023  Rev. Katie Hines-Shah, in a social media post recalling a conversation at a preaching conference.