The secret of Feeding the Five Thousand #doubtingthomas

Tom invents the raffle, but the only prizes donated were a few dried fish and stale bread rolls.  Otherwise the day was a major success, with Jesus using every trick in the book to impress the huge crowds.  Peter finds it all miraculous.

Thursday August 10    

What a day!  There must have been over two thousand men there, plus women and children.  Peter made it about five thousand men, but even by fishermen’s standards  he exaggerates.  I don’t know how Jesus managed to make himself heard by all of them anyway, or how he could cope with the vast numbers brought to him for healing.  At least no one demanded a private consultation.  I saw one woman just straining to reach and touch his cloak, and such was her belief that she sprang up as soon as she succeeded, seemingly cured of whatever ailment she had.  She looked thunderstruck when he suddenly said, ‘who touched me?’ but I noticed that everyone else who had managed to touch him reacted as if he meant them personally too.  It was a good trick; I sensed the influence of Cyrus.

We got started mid-morning while people were still arriving, the idea being that we should then be able to finish at a reasonable hour, enabling people from nearby towns, the majority of the crowd, to get back home the same day.  Peter used the well-tried formula of starting with healings and exorcisms first, enabling everyone else to settle down ready for the preaching.

I decided to try out my lottery idea at this stage, while people were still getting themselves organised.  I had made myself a stack of papyrus tickets with numbers on, which I riffled as I walked around.  Jesus and Peter had seen me doing this earlier and were already calling my lottery a ‘riffle’.  They were also saying it would never catch on, but I kept the name and ignored their cynicism.

“Anyone want to buy a riffle ticket, or contribute a prize?” I asked as I worked the crowd, stopping to explain how it worked to one group after another.  It was hard going.  They all wanted to know why they should give me something for nothing, then pay good money for a ticket on the off chance of winning it back.

Then they wanted to know what sort of prizes I was looking for.  I thought I can’t ask them for clothing or jewellery, so I suggested perhaps something to eat.  But nobody had any food with them.  It was hard to believe that all these people had turned up for an all-day event like this without even a few crusts of bread, but that’s what they said.  I tried cajoling them to join in by saying it was only meant to be a bit of fun, and we just wanted to raise some funds for the mission, but to judge by their reaction I might as well have been trying to rob them at knifepoint.

After more than an hour of this I felt completely dejected and was beginning to believe all the doubters who said it was a mad idea.  I had collected a few small scraps of food and not sold a single ticket.  Then a boy stopped me and said he was hungry and would like a chance to win something to eat, but he only had a single mite, the smallest coin in existence, much less than the farthing I was hoping to sell tickets for.  I felt so sorry for him I gave him a ticket and told him to keep his mite.

The healing was in full flow by now and Peter called me over to help marshal the crowds.  Some of the more confident disciples were doing some hand-laying and oil-rubbing and having some success, particularly Thaddeus and Jamie, who were attracting almost as many people as Jesus.

Eventually we decided it was time to start preaching, before the demon-free majority started to get restless, so Peter asked Thaddeus and Jamie to move over to one side and quietly continue their work while Jesus moved on to the next stage.

He was magnificent.  He stood on a large box by the lake, with the crowd gathered on the sloping shore.  He did parables, he warned against the dangers of sin, and most of all he warned everyone to be ready for the arrival of the Son of Man and the end of the age, which could happen any day now.  Then he did something we hadn’t discussed at all beforehand.  He announced that the date of the coming of the Son of Man had been revealed to him.  The crowd first went silent with shock, then began to clamour for him to tell them the date.

Jesus refused to answer them and said that if they knew in advance, people would be tempted to carry on their old ways for as long as they could, and he wanted them to change now.  Most of them accepted it, but they had all pressed forward in their excitement and it was getting a bit scary down at the front.  Peter dealt with it in his usual efficient way, getting the fishermen to launch the boat, which had been dragged onto the beach when we arrived, and row it round for Jesus to stand in.  Jesus then preached for another hour from the boat before finally announcing he was going to take a break.

“But first,” he said, after Peter and Andrew had hauled the boat the few paces to the beach and he was about to step ashore, “we need to announce the winner of the…um…riffle.”

I had forgotten all about it but now I had to go over and whisper that the experiment had failed.

“But you must have sold some tickets,” he whispered back, eyebrows raised.  I shook my head.

“Well, just one.  The biggest problem was that nobody had any food or drink to donate, so I couldn’t get enough prizes to tempt people to buy any.”

“What, all these people and nothing to eat?  What are we going to do?  We can’t send them away hungry.”

We were getting sidetracked.  I explained that Peter and Andrew were going to set up their grilled fish stall, although there still wouldn’t be enough to feed a crowd twice the size of the population of Nazareth.  Jesus shrugged, and said that even if we had only sold one riffle ticket, we must still award the prize, and deal with the food problem after that.

“Quiet please!  The winning riffle ticket is…ticket number…one,” he announced bravely, looking around for a response.  The boy who I had given it to squeezed through to the front, the ticket damp and crushed where he had held it tightly in his hand all this time.

“And here’s the lucky winner, who takes all the prizes.  Let’s see, there’s two fine fish, and, let’s see…five fresh loaves.  Give the lad a round of applause.”

The boy looked so grateful I almost wept for him.  I had kept any whole bread rolls and thrown the other scraps away, adding two fish to the prize from our own supplies.  He grabbed his prize and started devouring it straight away.

“Now, there’s going to be a grilled fish stall in a few minutes,” Jesus announced, “but otherwise I’m told these few loaves and fishes are all the food you could find between yourselves this morning, and I’m a bit worried a lot of you will go hungry.”

I had never seen so many people looking sheepish, and I suddenly had this image of them as a giant woolly flock.  Within a couple of minutes, thousands of people started to rummage around under their cloaks, producing bread, fish and water.

“Oh look, would you believe it, another miracle!” I couldn’t resist blurting out to the other disciples.  “We only had five loaves and two fishes between us, and now suddenly there’s enough to feed thousands.”

Peter, who had just joined us after pulling the boat back up the beach, heard what I said and looked wide-eyed at the thousands of people stuffing their faces.  Oh dear.  I don’t suppose it will be long before this latest legend finds its way back to me after he has worked on it and spread it around.

By now Andrew and James had got the grill going and were selling hot fish in bread as fast as they could to a queue of eager buyers.  The crowd was dispersing and the sun was swelling and turning red, and there seemed little point in Jesus starting to preach again.  He had already made a huge impression and there wasn’t really anything to add.  No doubt everyone here would go back and tell their friends and families what they had heard, so the message really would be spread around.

I had a quick word with Jesus and Peter, both of whom had reached the same conclusion.  Jesus looked elated but shattered, and I thought the last thing he needed was to spend hours helping to clear up and then spend the night in a smelly tent.

“Why don’t you walk back to Magdala and have a rest,” I said.  “We can clear up and stay here overnight, and then row over in the morning to meet you.”

He tried to protest but I could see he fancied the idea, and the other disciples told him he deserved a break and should leave us to it.  What clinched it was an attractive woman turning up while we were trying to persuade him.

“You were very impressive today,” purred his wife.  “I haven’t really seen you in action before but I wanted to see if the stories were true.  I stood at the back and saw for myself how you hold a crowd.  Shame you can’t do the same for me more often.  Now, Tom is right.  You need a break, and I’m going to take you home to bed.”

So they left.  I helped clear up for a while but then managed to make an excuse so that I could write my diary while the day’s events were still vivid in my mind.  There’s plenty of food left for us all to eat well, and I will sleep soundly tonight.

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