“After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
John 6, 1-15
In their book ‘Saving Paradise’, Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker explain how Jesus’ act of feeding the multitudes, ‘regardless of status or need… undermined the paternalism of Rome, which was built on an elite and powerful few having so much that they might scatter their largess, distributing 20 percent of their grain as a dole to the vast masses’. They describe how food was used by the Romans as a means to subdue the population of Palestine – the Roman empire had a monopoly on grain, and by being given just enough, the oppressed were expected to participate and maintain an economic system which led to their own continued subordination – the Romans created a dole system, and used it to subdue dissent. The ‘generorsity’ of the occupying forces was in fact deeply manipulative, and a cycle of oppression and subordination was in full swing. Jesus’ act of feeding all and sundry to excess, was a demonstration of how the kingdom of heaven might look, a kingdom whose understanding of power and the value of the individual sat in direct confrontation with that of the Roman empire, which derived power from oppressive military force and economic exploitation. Whatever the source of the food that Jesus used to feed the crowd, it was not sourced from the occupation.
This story then, goes beyond a simple demand for charity, however noble that may be. Jesus was not just feeding those who were hungry, he was launching an assault on the system that kept their tummies just full enough to not cause problems. Jesus offered bread derived from love and community, and called on his movement to follow his example. In the same way, we should provide for our communities in a way that openly challenges the power structures that maintain subordination. We provide, yes, but we should provide in a way that both asks the question and provides a response to the systems and structures that make our ‘providing’ so necessary. As we give food, money or shelter to the poor we should see a question – “Why is it I am having to do this?” – and start to demand answers. If not, we are simply acting as a pressure release valve on a system violently out of control, and our participation in simply legitimises the mainstream discourse of scroungers, the undeserving poor, and of charity being a sufficient response (instead of system change).
Jesus’ act only makes sense as a response to an exploitative system, and our food banks, soup kitchens and every other charitable act is only necessary and only makes sense in the context of exploitative and degrading economic and political systems. Our punitive benefits system hands out a similar ‘just enough’ as the Roman occupiers in the first century, expecting credit and thanks for maintaining a social order where the poorest are considered tantamount to criminal. Our physical sustenance however, does not come from the state, from welfare systems or our earthly leaders, it is provided by the earth and by creation, by God, by our communities. It is our deep separation from creation that means we come to rely on the ‘generosity’ of oppressive structures and have no way of undermining or challenging them. The feeding of the five thousand is an image of hope – that beyond the vast, expansive desert of supermarkets and pre-packaged food that we see for but a fleeting moment as it passes over our lips – there is a different relationship we can create with our food, with our earth, and with our communities that is more wholesome, joyful and life-affirming.
 Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Ann Parker, ‘Saving Paradise’, Page 33.