Our gospel reading for today comes from the 14th Chapter of Matthew. It’s the story of the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. But before I read the gospel verses, I’d like to put the event in its historical context for greater understanding of the forces whirling around Jesus, his disciples, and John the Baptist.
According to tradition, and maybe to fact, John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin –– his friend –– his helper. They had grown up together, and according to the gospel, John saw his mission as preparing the way for Jesus. But John had run afoul of King Herod –– and with Herod’s wife, Herodias. You see, Herodias had been married to Herod’s brother, but Herod had persuaded her to divorce his brother and to marry him. This is a story of betrayal and intrigue, and was as immoral and unacceptable in Jesus’ time as ours, but was typical behavior for the Herods.
Jewish law prohibited a man from marrying his brother’s wife –– unless the brother was dead. Herod’s brother Philip was very much alive. John the Baptist denounced Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. When John denounced King Herod, he was moving into dangerous waters. In fact, Herod would have murdered John, but John was so popular with the people that he hesitated to touch him, so Herod threw him into prison instead.
But Herodias, Herod’s wife, had no such qualms. She sent her daughter, Salome, to dance at Herod’s banquet. Herod was so pleased that he promised Salome whatever she wanted. After consulting with her mother, Salome asked for John’s head on a platter. Having made a public promise, Herod had to keep it. He had John beheaded, and presented John’s head to Salome, who gave it to her mother. John’s disciples buried John’s body, and then went to tell Jesus what had happened. That’s where our Gospel lesson picks up today. In Matthew, Chapter 14, starting with the 13th verse, we read:
14:13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.
14:14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
14:15 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.”
14:16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
14:17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”
14:18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.”
14:19 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.
14:20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.
14:21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Matthew, verse 13 says, “Now when Jesus heard this (in other words, when Jesus heard that Herod had beheaded John) Jesus withdrew…in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Jesus had drawn large crowds wherever he went, but now he needed to be alone. He needed a chance to think –– to grieve –– to pray. He needed to shed a tear for John, who had been his lifelong friend.
But the crowds wouldn’t allow Jesus his opportunity to mourn. They didn’t know about John’s death. They didn’t know about Jesus’ grief. They knew only that Jesus was a great teacher and a great healer –– and they wanted what he could give them. Jesus had departed by boat, but they guessed where he was going and got there ahead of him. When Jesus arrived at his destination, there was the crowd –– waiting for him.
A lesser man might have been angry or disappointed at this intrusion, but Jesus wasn’t angry. He had compassion for these people, who were so needy. He stepped out of the boat and began to heal those who were sick.
Keep in mind that Jesus had intended to go somewhere private –– remote –– a place where he could be alone. That’s exactly what this would have been if the crowd hadn’t figured out where he was going, and if they hadn’t gotten there first.
Jesus’ disciples, seeing the great crowd in this usually deserted place, began to worry. It would soon be suppertime, and there was no food to feed these people. They advised Jesus:
“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” (v. 15).
I’ll have to confess that I admire these disciples. They had the foresight to spot a problem before it became a problem –– and they had the street-smarts to come up with a solution. They didn’t wring their hands, and they didn’t wait for the situation to spiral out of control. They came up with a practical solution –– send the crowds away now –– and advised Jesus to do that while there was still time.
I admire these disciples for another reason too. They were concerned for Jesus, and they wanted to make sure that Jesus didn’t get himself into trouble. They were also concerned for the crowd, who would soon find themselves hungry and miserable as the sun began to set. The adults might have managed all right, but what about the children! I doubt that a chorus of children crying themselves to sleep on that hillside would have been pleasant. There was the potential for a good deal of misery, and the disciples wanted to help Jesus –– and they wanted to help the people.
So the disciples advised Jesus, “Send the crowds away!” Send them away NOW, while there is still time! TAKE CHARGE, Jesus, and get ahead of the problem before the problem gets ahead of you! End the day on a positive note, and end it NOW!
But Jesus had his own solution. He told the disciples, “They need not go away; YOU give them something to eat” (v. 16).
The disciples looked at each other and took stock of their meager resources. They said, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish” (v. 17). They must have been thinking, “Come on, Jesus! Get serious!”
But Jesus said, “Bring them here to me.” Bring me the bread and fish. Then Jesus ordered the crowd to sit down on the grass. That was a bold step, because Jesus was, in essence, inviting the people to prepare to receive a picnic lunch. He was raising their expectations beyond reason.
Listen carefully to what Jesus did next. He TOOK the loaves and fish –– and looked up to heaven –– and BLESSED them and BROKE them and GAVE them. Do you recognize that language? That’s the kind of language that we use at the Lord’s Table. It’s the kind of language we use to celebrate the Eucharist.
In other words, Jesus is going beyond feeding these people. He is transforming this moment on this remote hillside into a holy moment –– a sacred celebration. He intends to offer these people something to eat, but he also intends to offer them something more. He intends to involve them in a holy occasion –– a moment when they can experience the presence of God in their midst –– a moment when they can see Jesus revealed to them as the Son of God.
I’m not saying that this was the first Lord’s Supper, because it wasn’t. But I am saying that, in Jesus’ hands, the bread and fish became something more than bread and fish –– something blessed.
In her book, Two-Part Invention, Madeleine L’Engle tells about the evening her husband, Hugh, proposed to her. Hugh took her to a nice restaurant for dinner, and then took her back to her apartment. He suggested that they play some music, and selected a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Then, as the music played, he took a book of Conrad Aiken’s poetry from her bookshelf and leafed through it until he found just the right place. Then he read these words to Madeleine. He said:
“Music I heard with you
was more than music,
And bread I broke with you
was more than bread.”
And then he asked Madeleine to marry him.
Of course, Madeleine said Yes! Of course, they got married!
“Music I heard with you
was more than music,
And bread I broke with you
was more than bread.”
With those words, Hugh was telling Madeleine that their time together had become something more than ordinary time. It was time that went beyond working to eat and eating to survive. Their time together was time raised to the next level –– time in which there was deep spiritual communion –– holy time. His proposal of marriage was an invitation to spend the rest of their lives at that higher level. It was an invitation to bless and to be blessed –– to love and to be loved. Of course, Madeline said Yes!
I don’t know if the people in that crowd experienced that moment on the hillside with that kind of awareness. Some probably did. Most probably did not.
But the disciples did. They saw something they could not have imagined. Jesus blessed the loaves and broke them and gave them to the disciples. Then the disciples gave the broken loaves to the people. As the people passed the baskets of bread from one to the other, each person took enough to satisfy his or her hunger. The story then concludes this way:
“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” (vv. 20-21).
Five thousand men –– PLUS women and children. How many would that be? Seven thousand? Ten thousand? We don’t know exactly how many that would have been, but we do know that it would have been a huge crowd. It would have been far more than the disciples could have fed with five loaves of bread and two fish.
Everyone ate, and everyone’s hunger was satisfied. But there was food left at the end –– twelve baskets full of food –– a symbol of abundance –– evidence that a miracle had taken place –– evidence that Jesus was not bound by the usual rules of arithmetic –– evidence that God was present on this hillside.
The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle reported in all four gospels, an indication of how important the event was to the early Church. But not all scholars believe that a supernormal event took place. In John 6:8, we read “One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Some have pointed to this young boy, who supplied the small amount of food that Jesus then blessed, as an indication that people brought food with them that day. This makes sense, of course. How many of us have hastily packed a sandwich – or even more – if we know we’re about to travel far and don’t know how long we’ll be gone. In this case the miracle would have been that everyone shared what they had brought with those who had brought nothing. And sharing is no small miracle! But, in John’s version, as in Matthew’s, the miracle comes about in the presence of an emotional catalyst – compassion. And compassion leads to caring for your neighbors as you care for yourself. It’s putting the Golden Rule into action.
Let’s take a minute to talk about catalysts, since it’s important to this interpretation, and since many don’t know much about them. In chemistry, a catalyst speeds up – or even causes – a chemical reaction but is not changed itself. It can be used over and over to speed up reactions. For instance, that’s what a catalytic converter does in a car. There’s something in that device that changes the composition of the exhaust so that it does not harm the environment. The catalyst purifies – in the case of a car’s catalytic converter, the catalyst changes noxious fumes to something not so harmful. And it remains unchanged; it can be used over and over again, and it does not wear out! Everything around the catalyst may fall apart, but the catalyst remains unchanged. I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of compassion as a catalyst before, but it’s certainly an active principle here – both in Jesus’ healing of the crowds, and in his assuring that they receive a meal.
In either case, Matthew miracle or John miracle, compassion takes an active and primary role – and I would suggest, in both accounts, that the miracle is activated through the compassion of Jesus, though the miracle requires the help and compassion of others; it is the disciples, after all, who distribute the bread; in John’s account, it’s the young boy who freely offers what he has for all. Compassion acted upon is always an expression of love and must have a profound effect. It is the expression of “we” more than the expression of “I.” Jesus calls us, by his example, to be compassionate toward all. When we are taught to be rugged individualists all our lives, this is a difficult lesson to learn.
I wish I could have been there that day. I wish you could have been there too. I wish we could have shared that moment with Jesus. If we had been there, I wonder what we would have seen. I wonder what we would have believed. Would we have been among those who saw only that they received enough food to satisfy their hunger? Or would we have been among those who saw something more? I don’t know.
But I do know this. I know that Jesus still touches lives today in miraculous ways. Jesus still transforms people’s lives. Jesus still breaks into our world in ways that break the rules of basic math. Jesus still and always will be the God of compassion and love. And I know that some people see that, and others don’t.
We, like Jesus’ disciples on that momentous day, are always tempted to believe that we don’t have enough. Not only are people starving in places like Africa –– there are hungry people here in my town of Urbanna, and likewise here in Foneswood. Not only is there an AIDS epidemic in Third World countries, but there are epidemics at work in right here in the good old USA. There is an AIDS epidemic, yes –– but there is also an epidemic of drug use –– and an epidemic of alcoholism –– and an epidemic of mothers and fathers who fail to provide for their children’s’ basic needs –– and there is an epidemic of violence. There is an epidemic of obesity, caused by the very abundance that we misuse.
In the midst of such terrible need, we are tempted to throw up our hands and say, “What can we offer in the face of so much need?” What can we offer those who are hungry other than a box of canned goods? What can we offer those who are infected with AIDS other than a few dollars? What can we offer those who have lost their homes in a natural disaster beyond a few blankets and a few prayers?
But Jesus says, “Bring them here to me.” We say, “But we have only a few cans of peaches and a handful of green beans” –– but Jesus says, “Bring them here to me.”
Then Jesus blesses the little that we have and sends us out to meet the need. We, in this congregation, together with Christians around the world, make a huge difference in the lives of millions of people. We are able to do that because Jesus invites us to bring what we have –– and then he blesses it and enables it to bless those who will receive it.
As he did on that deserted hillside, Christ invites his disciples –– invites us –– to be his partners in compassion and love. When we see hungry people, he says, “You give them something to eat.” When we protest that we do not have enough, he says, “Bring it to me.” Then he blesses it and makes it enough to do what he intends to do.
Jesus calls us to be faithful, and he calls us to be compassionate. More, Jesus calls us, as Christians, to be the catalysts that transform the world through love, through compassion. If we will do what he calls us to do –– and go where he calls us to go –– he will bless the little that we bring –– and he will bless us –– and he will bless those to whom he sends us.