By: Paul J. Morrison
I am generally useless when it comes to math. I hold no anger or resentment towards the subject. One of my favorite facts is that Plato considered math to be a great instructor of ethics as it displayed the objectivity of the world. My issue is not appreciation, it is application. Don’t get me wrong, I did fine with it in school. Studying each year’s newest additions to the previous curricula, I built a decent understanding of the world of mathematics. From the geometry I enjoyed to the algebra and calculus I dreaded, I made my way through math. But over time, the formulas I once relied on found little use in my day to day life. I needed the space for more useless trivia or movie quotes. I couldn’t even tell you what grades I made (through fault of memory not of math), but it was at the same time the grades which stuck with me the most. The grading system is one of the few equations I can recall off hand. “Cross multiply and divide,” still rings in my ears when I need to move some fraction into a percentile. It seems this is the only tool I still frequently use. Whether it be to balance a budget or to compare more ambiguous statistics, the simplicity of seeing X/100 seems to make even the most ominous figures seem more approachable. Plato was observing a facet of God’s order and creation in the beauty and objectivity of math. The mind of God is consistent and ordered, unchanging and true. He is as faithful and sure as two and two is four. Yet as I was reading my Bible, I was struck by some math of Jesus that did not quite fit these sentiments.
Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.(Matthew 16:6-12)
Christ’s point is undoubtedly a warning towards his disciples, yet there is also a deeper truth of his character if we will see it. In his admonishment of the disciples for their grasp of his teaching, he reminds them of two great miracles, the latter of which they had just witnessed. The story is a familiar one. Christ on the hillside, healing the afflicted masses, is filled with compassion for them and decides to feed them using the limited resources there, displaying his power and glorifying God. Often we miss that he had done this twice in his ministry. Once with five thousand and once more with four (not to mention the women and children that would have also been there). It takes no mathematician to see a subtle inconsistency. Christ feeds more than five thousand people with a mere five loaves, and later four thousand, but with seven loaves. The math doesn’t add up. “Cross multiply and divide” yields two very different ratios. This of course is not an attempt to quantify Christ’s ability, as he frequently implemented varied methods to show that it was not the technique but the power of God. This is further not a dissuasion of the unchanging nature and character of God. Rather, I see it as an incredible testimony to his faithfulness and ability as one who is higher than our minds. In both miracles, an incredible number of needs are met using an incredibly finite source. Even the most finite source becomes an incredible thing in the hands of Christ. In his wisdom Christ used seven for four thousand and five for five thousand. There is no excess in the story, no footnote of how he only needed to use three and the remaining was unnecessary. To be sure, Christ didn’t even need the five or the seven. He chose to use what was there. He used a third less to feed a quarter more and both impossibilities to demonstrate the power of God. Is this not hopeful for us? That Christ’s faithfulness will use whatever he has to accomplish his purposes. There was no request of a certain number of loaves but instead a question of how much there were. I doubt the number, increased or decreased, would change the result much. The entire crowd would still be fed, and there would still be some leftover. In my own life and ministry, I have seen countless men and women, including myself, who feel as if what they bring to Christ is not enough. That they haven’t been formally trained, that they haven’t the experience, that they haven’t the knowledge. And this is the reminder that we all need. Seven loaves or seven hundred loaves is not enough to feed four thousand. Unless those loaves are in the hands of Christ. If we will only come to Christ with all that we have and ask him to use it for his purposes, he will do more than we could ever hope in our own strength. He may even use my math.