The story of the feeding of the 5,000 offers a model for 21st-century Christian leadership, says Marty Alan Michelson.
In the first college course I took on the Bible, “Introduction to Biblical Literature,” I learned many things about the differences in the four Gospels. I learned about the uniqueness of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and what is vibrant in the various ways they tell the story of Jesus.
Yet I also learned that there is one story that appears in all four Gospels: the feeding of the 5,000. Naturally, then, this event was presented as a core of the gospel message simply by virtue of its repetition.
The repeated use of this story demonstrates its importance for the Christian community in the first century -- and the 21st century. I believe the centrality and imperative of this story has a deeper connection with the message of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), which has important implications for the practice of Christian leadership.
The details differ, but each Gospel story (Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, John 6) includes some key facts: after a crowd gathers, Jesus takes bread and fish, gives it to people, and they eat. Taking, giving and eating.
Of course, it is not just in this central, repeated story that Jesus takes, gives and eats together with people. In fact, this language and activity characterizes what Jesus does on many occasions. It is this language that is used to characterize the inauguration of the Lord’s Supper, and in our church liturgy, when we partake of the Eucharist, we take, give and eat.
The practice of Jesus’ ministry -- as narrated in each of the Gospels -- is to gather persons for shared fellowship around a common meal for giving and extending life. The leadership practice of Jesus is marked by repeated events of giving to others.
This giving to others is antithetical to the earliest Bible story we read about human action in the world.
Genesis has its own tale of taking, giving and eating. Eve also takes and eats. She also gives to the only other person, Adam. In some sense, the first independent story we have of shared human action is precisely this story -- taking, giving, eating.
In Genesis, though, the first humans take for themselves against the prohibition of God. Their action is not for others in fulfillment of God’s hope, but for their selfish discovering of becoming like God. Adam and Eve partake of a meal, but it is not for union and communion with God; it is instead a transgression against God. Though the languages of the Old Testament and the New Testament differ -- Hebrew and Greek -- the words used to describe the story of Adam and Eve and the story of the feeding of the 5,000 are similar. Eve and Adam take, give and eat for themselves. Jesus takes and gives, and crowds of people eat.
At the theological level, what Adam and Eve do in God’s creation Jesus comes to undo. Jesus inaugurates a taking, giving and eating that is for the other, not for the self against God. Giving to and for others reflects God’s original intent of giving creation to human beings in Genesis 1:29.
Christian leaders both share communion and take for others, in order to give, in shared fellowship. As they do so, Christian leaders reflect and embody the faith and leadership of Jesus -- and restore creation.
What makes the inbreaking of this kingdom so transformationally radical is the way in which this kingdom of God -- and its patterns of leadership -- inaugurate new forms of life for us. The celebration of Eucharist is a call for us to see the difference between leadership in the world and leadership in the kingdom of God, to turn the failed patterns in Genesis to the formational patterns in the Gospels.
Theologically, the Gospel writers invite us to see the transformation that comes with Jesus -- the new Adam. Each Gospel writer wanted us to see this.
But it is not just about theology and what Jesus did. Jesus did not only or simply take and give and eat as a symbol, or as a theological lesson, but also as a way to model leadership for his followers. The leadership of Jesus was about extending real food and real resources to real persons. Christian leaders are to reflect and embody these practices.
If Jesus led in this way, then Christian leaders should find practical ways to live this out -- not simply as a theological lesson, but as a way of life. There are numerous implications for what this might mean for Christian leaders in practice; let me offer a few examples.
Christian leaders should reflect on the desire of Adam and Eve to take for themselves, compared with the desire of Jesus to take for others. There is a profound example of humility and generosity modeled in how Jesus gives. Christian leaders should put away any desire for becoming important and give simply out of generosity for others. Of course, this may not get people to the top, but it will faithfully reflect the leadership of Christ.
Christian leaders might be working too hard to advance their institutions or the church’s governance. The model of Jesus demonstrates that Christian leaders should not work primarily to advance an institution or a church body, but rather to promote the care and livelihood of other human beings, first and foremost. Christian leaders cannot get too far removed from the people they are called to serve.
Jesus’ routine practice of eating meals with people is a practice for life that Christian leaders should consider. Too often lunch becomes a lunch meeting and dinner becomes a business dinner. Perhaps Christian leaders can reflect Christ by turning off agendas at mealtime to really encounter people in shared fellowship. This could be further advanced in churches by creating at least some small form of a food-sharing program.
These are some pragmatic ways to follow Christ’s model of leadership. May we find ourselves as distinctly Christlike leaders, seeking to take for people, give to people and eat together.