Counting On God, III: The Comfort of Five
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Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish,
he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples,
and the disciples gave them to the crowds. —Matthew 14:19
Five was a number of great comfort to the ancient Israelites rich with nuanced and implied meaning rather than pointing to a single idea.
Our scripture reading is a story and will be embedded near the end of the sermon. Please do not be anxious, wondering if I forgot. In anticipation of hearing God’s word and asking for a blessing on our meditation, please pray with me.
Dear God, We come before you seeking to be found. Silence in us the noise around. Join our minds with your spirit that we find your truth. May we be startled by the grace of your son in his gifts of nourishment and comfort. In his name, amen.
Numbers are the playground of more than just mathematicians and accountants. Psychologists, neurologists, linguists, theologians and the list goes on of those who delight in examining the human response to numbers.
Numbers cause us to believe and behave in ways with little regard to the numerical count one might think is their sole meaning. Please set aside how a number may express your income, expenses, or months before a loved one returns home. A number alone can arouse feelings of comfort or unsettle us.
Let’s make this personal. What is your favorite number? Is there a number to which you are averse?
British science writer and self-described “math blogger,” Alex Bellos, asked people to submit their favorite number and why in an online survey. The 44,000 responses and explanations he received were varied and surprisingly tender. Consider the following favorite numbers:
- 17 for the number of minutes it takes to cook rice
- 24 because the respondent sleeps with her leg kicked out like a “4” and her boyfriend sleeps curled around like a “2”
- 6 since the sixth track on the respondent’s albums are usually her favorite song.
When Harry Kraemer, professor at Kellogg, Managing Partner at Madison Dearborn and former CEO of Baxter, spoke at our Faith & Leadership event several years ago, he loved the number of the hours in a work week: 120. This man, with an undergraduate degree in math and numbers rolling in his mind his entire life, is dedicated to living his life with the reverence each hour is a precious gift from God. Value the time you are given, it cannot be replaced.
“2126” is one of my favorites. When my casual clothing is too worn for “public” view, they become “dog-walking” clothes. After my pants become embarrassingly frayed or a sweater is pilled beyond repair, but remain comfy, they become “2126” clothes. These articles of clothing are not to be worn outside of the confines of 2126 Fremont’s property line, our home in Chicago. “2126” means comfort.
A dear friend and her sister never think of the number 1-4-3-7 as 1,437; for them it means “I love you forever.” As a simple text, this number connects and comforts them. To see just portions of this number sequence such as 437 or 143 lifts their spirits. Since all their friends knew their respective garage door codes were 1-4-3-7, we were not surprised when their kids figured out 1-4-3-7 it would unlock their mom and aunt’s iPhones.
Some numbers have been proven to make us cringe. Researchers asked participants in a study if they liked, disliked, or felt neutral about every number between 1 and 100 as they appeared in a random order. The even numbers and those ending in 5 were much better liked than odd numbers.
Double digits of negative numbers such as 39 or 53 produce what is called an “odd effect” since it takes longer for our brains to process these numbers.
What is your favorite number? What number points home? Is there a number that implies comfort?
We know humans have been counting and categorizing life events around the number five since we were able to grasp a paintbrush or quill. As a species, we rely upon our hand to help us count to five. The basis for our decimal system of ten obviously derives from a total of ten fingers; ten is considered a complete number. If we had six fingers per hand, we would likely have a decimal system of 12.
But, we have five fingers, so the number five has become the number of choice for lists because we can count them on one hand.
The ancient Hebrews became devoted to the number five in relation to the most sacred writings. The Torah is given in five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Also considered the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses, these books provide all the history, laws, and guidance to live a holy life before God.
The Psalms are also divided into five sections as is the book of Proverbs.
Scholars debate why five is so essential to the Hebrews—is it sacred because there are five books or were the ideas written into five scrolls because five is memorable? Some claim there are five books to draw attention to the center book, Leviticus, with Genesis and Exodus on one side and Numbers and Deuteronomy on the other. They frame the holy laws in Leviticus and showcase the law in the very center of Leviticus for an Israelite to “Love your neighbor as yourself —Leviticus 19:18. All the Torah hinges on “love your neighbor.”
God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sari became Sarah by appending the heh and to signify God’s blessing and their devotion. For this reason some scholars believe the letter, “heh (ה),” in the Hebrew alphabet is holy, which is the fifth letter.
Five turns ordinary into holy for an Israelite. Five symbolizes order and structure. Five leads us to “love your neighbor.” Five always arouses a connection to God, the source of all comfort and security.
Francois Bovon, professor at Harvard Divinity School claims “the early Christians used the categories of ‘name’ and ‘number’ as theological tools. Written with an economy of words, the texts they wrote to give birth to the Christian faith needed to do double duty in expressing the life and ministry of Jesus as well as pointing back to and reclaiming ancient beliefs.”
The Gospel of Matthew was written decades after Jesus’ death for a largely Jewish audience to bring them to believe Jesus was the long-prophesied Messiah.
Conceived in five sections, Matthew mimics the Five Books of Moses. Matthew paints an early portrait of Jesus’ life to align with Moses’ history.
Like Moses, Jesus’ parents defy the authorities who sought to kill the infant, Like Moses, Jesus spends time in the wilderness before taking up his mantle to do God’s will. Like Moses, Jesus goes through the waters—only for Jesus it is baptism, and then, like Moses, ascends the mountain to teach. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus restores the laws in Leviticus from the corruption they had endured so they again point to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Matthew reports Jesus quite specifically states “I have not come to abolish the laws or the prophets…. I have come to fulfill them.”
Like Moses, who called upon God to feed the wandering Israelites in the desert and received manna from heaven, Jesus will care for those who have gathered to follow him.
Listen for God’s word in this story and the way a weary Jew may come to recognize Jesus as God’s son as I read…
When Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’
Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’
Then Jesus ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Did you hear it? Five loaves! Five loaves are enough for the disciples to feed 5,000 plus women and children with twelve baskets overflowing. This is like a neon sign for the Jewish listener of this gospel. Through the number five, God is speaking to these Israelites; they are welcomed in Jesus’ care.
By the first century, generations of Jews had been persecuted and lived in an ethos of Greek and Roman gods who played people like pawns to humor their whims. These gods supported the interests of the political powers or those with the financial resources to offer elaborate sacrifices and seemed to be winning.
If those oppressive gods were not enough, the milieu still revered the gods of the ancient philosophers who were dispassionate, called sterile names such as “unmoved mover” or “first cause,” who were disinterested in the daily cares of humans.
Matthew’s writer is assuring the Jews, Jesus’ blessing of five loaves, and inspiring his disciplines to feed 5,000 starved souls, not only points back to all that has been, but he is, indeed, God incarnate to comfort them and bring them new life.
We can never know the “how” of the miracle, but when we wonder “why” and for “whom,” Jesus’ saving act reveals the God of the ancient Israelites still cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable.
Through Jesus, God places the task of feeding multitudes in human hands, demonstrating the possibility to love your neighbor as yourself.
What is your favorite number? A child’s birthday? Perhaps your favorite number reminds you of someone you love? Is your favorite number your golf handicap or ideal handicap, recalling a time when you were at your best?
Your favorite number likely recalls a blessing and gives you great comfort. The mere mention of a number calls us to remember who we are and whose we are. Maybe you can relate to the Israelites?
If you don’t have such a number, when you feel vulnerable, look down at your hands and count to five. Remember when God was present with human hands, blessing bread, healing us with a touch, guiding us with clear direction, and teaching us to love each other.
When your mind is troubled, and you don’t know how you will continue, join your hands and pray the right hand of God will guide you. You can always count on God. Please pray with me:
Precious Lord take our hands. Hold us through our fears. Comfort us with the assurance you will never let us go. Precious Lord lead us home. Amen.
 Alex Bellos “Why Odd Numbers are dodgy, evens are good, and 7 is everyone’s favorite,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/science2014/apr/13/favoritenumber, accessed July 9, 2018.
Elaine Goodfriend “Why Is the Torah Divided into Five Book,” The Torah: A Historical and Contextual Approach, https://thetorah.com/why-is-the-torah-divided-into-five-books/, accessed July 16, 2018.
 Francois Bovon, “Names and Numbers in Early Christianity,” NTS 47 (2001): 267.