Word Problems

“Jesus said, ‘When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ The disciples answered, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ Then Jesus said, ‘Do you not yet understand?'” – Mark 8:19-21

I loathe math “word problems.” The problem is I don’t see a problem. I see many. Take this classic word problem for example:

“At 10:00 a.m., Train A left the station, and an hour later Train B left the same station on a parallel track. If Train A traveled at a constant speed of 60 miles per hour and Train B at 80 miles per hour, then at what time did Train B pass Train A?”

The problem with this problem is that no two trains, or any moving object, travel at constant speeds unless they are in a vacuum (like outer space) with no friction or resistance of any kind.

And no two trains have the exact same weight/load with identically performing engines. Thus, each train would reach its cruising speed at different unknown points, making it impossible to predict when one train would pass the other.

So there.

Jesus posed a word problem one day: “Five loaves fed five thousand people with twelve baskets of leftovers. Seven loaves fed four thousand people with seven baskets of leftovers. Understand?”

No, I don’t. And neither did the original disciples who witnessed both multiplication lessons. Ditto for centuries of biblical commentators. 

Most commentators latch on to the numerical significance of twelve, for the tribes of Israel, and seven as the number of perfection. That’s good, but it doesn’t explain the five loaves for four thousand people and the seven loaves for five thousand people.

Here’s my take: There is no numerical solution because numbers are not the point. The point is, gratitude plus generosity equals abundance for all. Try it and you will understand.


Eternal One: my data-driven, bean counting brain is great for things like annual budgets, but it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans when it comes to your infinite grace.

ddauthormattlaney2014.pngAbout the Author
Matt Laney is the Senior Pastor of Virginia Highland Church UCC in Atlanta, GA and the author of Pride Wars, a fantasy series publishe by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for Young Readers. The first book, The Spinner Prince available now.