Five Loaves, Two Fishes: A “Lean Alternative”

Proper 13A/Ordinary 18A/Pentecost +7

July 31, 2011

Genesis 32:22-31

Psalm 17

Matthew 14:13-21

Arcosanti – a world-famous experimental ecology community – stands in the middle of miles of sagebrush and desert grass as far as the eye can see.  The community was designed by Italian architect Paolo Soleri, who was born in Turin in 1919 and still lives in Paradise Valley, AZ at a hale and hearty 92 years old.  The structure of Arcosanti combines super-compact urban architecture with large-scale solar greenhouses on 25 acres, housing roughly 100 students, laborers and volunteers from around the world.   The present complex (the dark grey part of the scale model below) is only a fraction of what the architect eventually envisions – a critical mass community of 5,000, serving as a pilot project for urban development around the world.  Newsweek called it “probably the most important experiment undertaken in our lifetime.”    

Soleri saw Arcosanti as the antidote to urban sprawl and its prodigious waste of land and habitat.  By using visionary architecture to bring people to live and work together in close proximity – while keeping the impact on the natural

Arcosanti amphitheater, with adjoining housing

environment to an absolute minimum – Soleri intended to achieve a “Lean Alternative” to the sprawling waste of suburbia and exurbia: “Organisms are lean phenomena.  Once conceived they do so much with so little.  The moon does less than a bacterium”[i]

In the Gospel story of the miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes, Jesus’ disciples are faced with a dilemma: how to feed 5,000 people who have thronged to hear Jesus speak (oddly enough, the same number as Soleri’s envisioned critical-mass community).  Jesus says to the disciples, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (vv.16), even though the disciples point out that all they have to give are five loaves and two fishes.  So the disciples are in a situation of extreme scarcity, in the middle of a large population, and they get told to do something about it.  Talk about doing “more with less”!

The first thing that Jesus did was order the crowds to sit down on the grass (vv.19).  Note that he did not queue them up in a bread line.  The Greek word used for “sit down” (anaklino) also means “to recline”.  The multitudes were

"Fellowship," Paula Winter, 1978 - on display in the Arcosanti cafe

not just crowded together – they were eating in community.  When we consume as a community, we often find that we bring to the table more than we think we have.  Catholic writer Rosemary Radford Ruether points out that there were most likely “hidden resources” that the women in the multitude brought to the table: 

 … the reason there was so much food was that all the women, as women are wont to do, brought picnic baskets, food enough for themselves, their children and one or two neighbors. So of course there was more than enough for all. [ii]

The next thing Jesus did was break and bless the loaves.  This action demonstrates that the few resources we have must be treated with reverence and blessing.  We must stop treating the material world as a playground where “the man with the most toys wins.”  Soleri’s “Lean Alternative” treats resources very differently through the practice of:

1.)    Wise agriculture and an effective, intensely alive relationship with habitat, and

2.)    Wise containment of habitat in complex, urban systems coherent with agriculture and nature. [iii]

The natural habitat is used so carefully in Arcosanti that not even the landscaping goes to waste.  The trees that decorate the complex are a combination of cyprus and olive trees, and the latter are used (in season) to press and sell Arcosanti Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  The walkways are decorated with sprays of mint and rosemary, which are also picked and used in the Arcosanti café.  Rainwater is collected in cisterns and re-used to water the landscaping and greenhouses.  Even the heat from the foundry where the famous Soleri bells are cast is captured and channeled under the apartments by the foundry to heat them in the winter.  The result is an environment where volunteers are able to live rent-free in Arcosanti housing, and meals are $2.

Finally, Jesus gave the loaves and fishes to the disciples, and the disciples

The world-famous Soleri bells, made in Arcosanti

distributed them to the crowd (vv.19), where “all ate and were filled” (vv.20).  In the end, the disciples were the ones doing the actual feeding, not Jesus.  The miracle of the loaves and the fishes comes about when actual real-world people make a decision to do something positive about their environment and the people in it.  It comes about when we think of the world around us as blessed (and scarce) and act accordingly.  It comes about when we stop living as alienated, stressed-out individuals and come recline together on the grass as a community. 

As we are faced with potential “economic Armageddon” this coming week, it is good to hold before us the example of communities like Arcosanti where people have come together over the long-haul to create communities where people live – if not lavishly – then at least happily and productively.  These communities do not come about overnight (Arcosanti has been 40+ years in the making), but they at least offer an alternative vision when we are faced with scarcity in our own communities – which may be happening sooner than we would like to think.


[i]  Soleri, Paolo.  2002.  Quaderno 1: Introduction.  Mayer, AZ: Soleri Books Initiatives/Cosanti Foundation.  (pp.11). 

[ii]  Ruether, Rosemary Radford. “Miracle of the loaves and picnic baskets: uncounted women make world food go round.”  National Catholic Reporter.  September 6, 1996.  http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1141/is_n38_v32/ai_18676179/.  

[iii]  Soleri, Paolo.  2002.  Quaderno 6: Lean Hypothesis/Lean Alternative.  Mayer, AZ: Soleri Books Initiatives/Cosanti Foundation.  (pp.11).

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