Feast, Not Famine
Matthew 14: 13-21
This week, we have experienced a lot of transition in our community. We celebrated Beverly’s last Sunday last week and gave God thanks for her and her ministry here as she cleared out her office on Tuesday. Then, we lost two of our members this week – Margaret Brooks peacefully passed away in the early morning hours of Thursday, July 31 and then on Friday afternoon, Greta Bader quietly joined our celestial cloud of witnesses as well. Transition and loss often inspires us to hold fast to those things that are known, those things we can control, and we slip into behaviors that tighten the grip on what we have to ensure things won’t change until they are unrecognizable. If I’m honest, I felt a little like that this week – wanting to hold steady, hold fast – but as I dwelt with our scripture text for this morning the abundance of God’s love and provision for our flourishment and growth became more than evident. We might think we have little – little energy, little capacity, not enough money, not enough time – but, the reality is that Jesus calls us, time and time again, to know that we do. So, as our hearts may be heavy, may we have ears to hear and willing spirits to listen and respond to what God is calling us to today.
Let us pray: God of love, God of abundant life, may we know more of who you are and what you will have us do to serve your people well as we listen for your Word. Amen.
Matthew 14: 13-21
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 feeding of the five thousand – this is a familiar story to many of us. This story – of Jesus and the disciples feeding the multitudes – is found in all four of the gospels. There are some details that are different in each story – but the story is told in all four, nonetheless. It’s a familiar text, a familiar theme and in the gospel of Matthew, it is yet another example of the abundance of God’s love for the world, particularly when scarcity is the prevailing expectation.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the context of the feeding of the 5,000 is compelling. If you open your Bibles and look to the text just above our story for today, you will find that a pretty racy and gruesome scene precedes this idyllic scene by the lake. You see, Herod, the ruler, had been having an affair with his brother’s wife. John the Baptist called Herod out – John kept telling Herod that Herod shouldn’t be with her – that it wasn’t right for him to have an affair with his brothers wife. Herod ended up arresting John the Baptist because he didn’t like that John kept calling him out on his affair so Herod just locked John up, silencing John’s critique – though, Herod told his servants that he locked John up because he was a threat to them because John possessed the same power as Jesus. Herod wanted to put him to death right then, but he was also afraid of the people – the people believed John the Baptist to be a prophet and would riot if John the Baptist was put to death so, Herod simply held John in prison. Then, Herod’s birthday rolled around and there was a great party – a great banquet – to celebrate his birthday. Food and drink flowed and Herod’s niece, the daughter of his brother and his mistress, danced at the party. Herod was so mesmerized by her dancing, that he swore an oath that whatever his niece wanted, she would have. Her mother, the mistress of Herod, then took the opportunity to convince her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Herod, distressed because he was afraid of the consequences of having John the Baptist killed, apparently chose this opportunity to remain faithful to an oath, while he was in front of the guests at the party, and had John the Baptist killed. Right then. During the party. John the Baptist was beheaded and his head brought to the party – on a platter – and presented to the niece who then brought the head to her mother.
It’s a wild scene – sex, deception, lust, power, murder, image, politics – it’s all there. In my mind, Herod is starting to take on the likeness of Kevin Spacey as the story of the TV show House of Cards unfolds. Herod, in the position of power in the empire – under the pressure of the public, under the pressure of his own desires, under the pressure of maintaining power – He wants to have it all and when a voice of justice and reason interrupts, he silences the voice with brutal force. And, this is the norm for imperial power – this is a scene of a banquet of the empire.
And then, there’s Jesus – withdrawing to a deserted place. Upon hearing of the death of John the Baptist, Jesus retreats and seeks solitude to gather his prayers and his thoughts and to mourn the loss of his cousin. He then discovers that there are crowds of people – perhaps the same crowds Herod was so fearful of – crowds of people waiting for him on the shoreline. Jesus sees the people gathered – the people who have been under the thumb of the empire, subjects of the ruler Herod, weary from the rat race, weary from the banquets where only a few are invited – and he shows them compassion. The story does not say he preached or taught or told them what to do next – Jesus simply had compassion for them and tended to those who required healing.
The banquet scene in our text for today offers quite a contrast to the banquet the empire. Jesus goes to a deserted location – not a banquet hall with accents of grandeur – he goes to a place that is simple, natural, and removed from the pressures of the expectant empire. And, remarkably, crowds follow him – huge crowds of people choosing an alternative to the empire. They seek, and Jesus offers, an alternative world where compassion overturns status and stands in stark contrast to imperial brutality. While the Herodian imperial banquet results in the killing of a local prophet, Jesus attends to the daily life and needs of the crowds – and they stay there together, even into the evening.
Which brings us to the scene of the miracle – this well-known miracle. What a beautiful scene – five thousand men…that doesn’t include the women and children so you can imagine the crowd. Here today, there are probably, what, 40 or 50 men but the sanctuary feels full with the rest of us. Can you imagine 5000 men and then women and children on top of that. The Verizon Center, when the Washington Wizards play, can hold over 20,000 people – I would imagine all those at the shoreline would just about fit in the Verizon Center. Each of them searching for a better life, a healthier way, healing for the brokenness, a fairer world – and they gathered at the waters’ edge that day. And, they stayed – even as meal-time was approaching, they stayed. Perhaps it was a hunger of the soul, a hunger of their spirit, that caused them to remain with Jesus, even after their stomachs started growling. They were satisfied to continue following the one who represented for them a different kind of fullness – they stayed in the presence of compassion, in the presence of healing. Perhaps we might relate to that feeling, as we withdraw each week to gather here in worship of God.
Then, it was the disciples who grew anxious about the crowds not eating. The disciples cared about the people, they too had compassion for them – they just couldn’t see how their physical need for food could be tended to right there. So, they asked Jesus to send them away to the surrounding towns to find food for themselves.
A tension is identified in this moment – the disciples, with a strong desire to care for the people, sought a way to feed them through simplest means. They saw the crowd, the great crowd of unmet need and they identified the problem. They didn’t believe they had the capacity to feed them, so they asked Jesus to send them away. The volume of the crowd, the greatness of the need, the immensity of the hunger, they thought, was too much for them to tend to. Paralyzed in the face of large-scale need – “Send the crowd away” may have been more of a confession of their own powerlessness, than a solution. They couldn’t envision how they would feed all those people. They couldn’t envision themselves affecting meaningful change in the situation.
And, this is a moment where the paradigm shifts. The disciples didn’t think they had enough to meaningfully change the situation. They had the 5 loaves and the two fish to share. They had compassion for the people and they wanted to feed them, but all they saw in front of them was 5 loaves and 2 fish – and they also wanted to eat. They turn to Jesus to resolve the situation, but Jesus didn’t respond as they did when he saw the situation – instead, Jesus implored them to engage with him and with the people. He didn’t say to them, “Just give me those fish and that bread, and I’ll feed them myself.” Rather, Jesus’ response was much more communal than that. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat,” he says. He didn’t let them off the hook. He called them to action. He invited them – as they have been witnesses of God’s provision and care so many times before – to share what they knew and had with the people gathered there. And, after giving thanks to God, blessing and breaking the bread and the fish, all were filled. Nearly 20,000 bellies, filled to satisfaction – regardless of age, race, sexuality, class or gender – all were filled at the banquet with that which the disciples shared through Christ. And, there were leftovers, 12 baskets brimming with leftovers after feeding nearly 20,000 bellies. The large-scale need is real – and God’s vision of compassion and justice for all through God’s disciples is not only possible to address the need, it is what we are called to live into.
Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar and theologian, wrote an article called A Litany of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity. In it, he discusses much of the harsh reality present in at the banquet of Herod, present in the banquets we often attend. Constantly, we, like the disciples, are convinced by culture that amassing wealth, amassing bread and fish, is wise and good. And, when we have wealth, we need to protect it, because there will come a time when there isn’t enough to go around. Though we have two fish and 5 loaves, we should act as if our baskets contain “nothing”. With this mindset of scarcity, our reactions tend to be limited, like the disciples – send the hungry away, we believe we have nothing to offer them. Brueggemann says: “We never feel that we have enough; we have to have more and more, and this insatiable desire destroys us. Whether we are liberal or conservative Christians, we must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity — a belief that makes us greedy, mean and unneighborly.” But, as people of God, as followers of Christ, we are called to live a life which reflects belief in a God whose love is unending, whose grace is unrelenting, whose strength and power to provide healing in the broken places is unparalleled. The evidence is mounting – scarcity is not our reality and it is no longer an excuse for not participating in meeting the needs of the world.
In the midst of the anxiety of not having enough for themselves, or for the crowd, Jesus called the disciples to change their ideas about their own power in the world. Jesus called the disciples to engage with the daunting reality before them, to engage with hope, and to engage without fear of scarcity. With God’s help, ‘you feed them’ with what you have. Jesus encouraged the disciples to draw nearer, to feel hope, to give out of the sense of abundance and in doing so, the miraculous beauty of God’s love will become so evident you might even taste it, and watch it pour over the brims of baskets when all are filled. Reminding them of their call, Jesus empowered the disciples to have confidence in God’s provision, in God’s vision of a new and alternative banquet, and to feed the people, to meet the needs of others.
As a community of faith, we gather around a Table and we listen to the words of scripture and we are fed. As if on the shoreline, we look on as Jesus gives thanks to God, blesses and breaks the bread and we feast upon it. This meager bite, this crust of bread and a splash of juice and we are filled. There is always room for more to gather around the Table and there are always leftovers. And, just as we discover the abundance of God’s provision in this Holy Meal, our visions of scarcity must necessarily fade away. We are called to use the gifts we have – both fish and all five loaves of bread – to feed God’s hungry people. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”