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. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When 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.' 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.' 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.' 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.' 19Then 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. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
The familiar story of Jesus converting five small loaves and two fishes into a feast for five thousand people is the only miraculous event, apart from the Resurrection of Jesus, that is recorded in all four gospels. So, if all four writers thought it important, what, within its layers of meaning, might it have to say to us?
The offering and sharing of food, however much or little we may have, is at the heart of hospitality. Eating our food in the company of others is also important social interaction, a way of forming and strengthening relationships. Modern theologians, including our own Rev. Dr Andrew Dutney, have researched and written extensively about how central was the sharing of food, the giving and receiving of hospitality, in Jesus’ ministry. By sharing meals with those who were shunned or marginalized by mainstream society Jesus set an example of inclusion for all. So, giving and receiving hospitality on such a grand scale as the feeding of the five thousand sends a very powerful message.
The story begins with Jesus in a kind of wilderness place of the soul. He had been rejected by the people of his home town. And he had been told of the murder by Herod of John the Baptist – his cousin, the one who had prepared the way, the one who had baptized him. Imagine his grief – his need for solitude and spiritual renewal – but it was not to be. As the boat landed in what should have been a remote place, there were the crowds. Anticipating where he would land, they had followed on foot. And Jesus, disregarding his own needs as usual, driven by his wonderful compassion, went to work healing the sick and teaching. And this compassionate concern for the needs of the people remained at the end of the day. The disciples were all for dispersing the crowds, leaving them to attend to their hunger as best they could. But not Jesus. Far from their homes, with evening falling, the people must be given hospitality on the spot.
So what of this crowd? We are told that it was five thousand men ‘besides women and children.’ Opinions seem to differ as to whether there were no women and children, or whether they were excluded from the main group and ate separately. The account in John’s gospel suggests that there was a strong element of supporters who wished to make Jesus king by force. It does seem likely that the crowd would have been quite diverse in its makeup. Some would have been loyal followers, perhaps many more were the poor, the sick, the fringe-dwellers who sought hope in Jesus. Some might have been just curious, maybe there were some disapproving upholders of the religious laws, maybe even some gentiles. Jesus did not discriminate – all had needs, all were invited to sit, all would be fed.
But would such a diverse crowd find social challenges in Jesus’ inclusive invitation? Most would have been Jews, subject to very strict laws relating to eating – such as food purity, ritual cleansing, where and with whom one should eat. Yet somehow this mass of people responded to Jesus’ invitation to share a meal, and it became something of a social miracle – a bringing people together in spite of all kinds of barriers.
And what of the disciples? When told by Jesus, ‘You give them something to eat’ they saw only the limitations – the food that was available would never be enough. They learned that the power of God, channeled through Jesus, could provide more than enough. But they also learned that, although Jesus was in control, he needed to work through them. It was their hands that distributed the food and gathered up the remains.
There are many images and connections which come to mind when we read this story. We know the crowd had gathered on the shore of the lake, and the accounts in Matthew, Mark and John mention green grass. This suggests to me the beginning of the 23rd Psalm – Jesus, the true Shepherd, providing all that we need in peace and security.
Matthew, always eager to relate events in Jesus’ life to ancient scripture, would have expected the early Jewish Christians to connect with two other miraculous ‘feeding’ stories In Exodus 16 God, through a Moses struggling with leadership of his rebellious people, provides manna for the ancient Hebrews throughout their wanderings. Then the story of the prophet Elisha feeding one hundred with twenty loaves of bread, with some left over, is told in 2 Kings 4:42-44. But Jesus, providing much more than enough, is seen to be greater than either Moses or Elisha.
There is a powerful comparison in telling the story of the feeding of the five thousand immediately after the gruesome account of Herod’s birthday banquet. We have Herod’s meal of treachery, violence and death contrasted with Jesus’ meal of generosity and inclusive welcome.
The image that resonates most with us, of course, looks forward to the meal which we commemorate in our Holy Communion. Before this multitude, Jesus looked to God in prayer, blessed the bread, broke it, and gave it to the disciples to be distributed. And we remember that Jesus also said ‘I am the Bread of Life’, the one who provides all the spiritual nourishment we need for our life journey.
So what can we take into our own lives from this story, which is about so much more than providing bread and fish for a crowd of hungry people?
Well, firstly, we can be assured of Jesus’ boundless and all-inclusive love and compassion for us. And we can aspire to follow his example, in our limited human way, in the way we interact with others, in the relationships woven into our faith journey.
Secondly, with Jesus presiding, individuals within this diverse crowd could overcome any reservations they might have had about eating with strangers. They could sit together in groups, share the food, perhaps feel some sense of belonging, and trust that all would be well, whatever their differences. As Christians, we are at our best when we can act in such a way
Then, the disciples, despite their misgivings, became the servants through whom Jesus worked. And isn’t this just like us? We tend to see only the difficulties and limitations (and here in our little church they’re quite visible just now). But in our story Jesus knew that wherever there was plenty of God there would be plenty of everything else. If we can believe that, and allow God to work through us, the challenge might not seem so great.
I see Jesus’ feeding of the multitude as a metaphor for the Church. Like that crowd, we spiritual individuals choose to come together, and we make up its body. Jesus, as he was presiding at the feast, is at the head. God’s infinite love and forgiving grace comes to us through Christ, and like the food, it is more than enough. And, like the disciples, we share in bringing it to others. Amen
Contributed by Marlene Thatcher, a Lay Preacher at Greenacres Uniting Church
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This sermon first posted at churchrewired.org
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