8th Sunday after Pentecost
August 3, 2014
Matthew 14: 13-21
This story is one of the most famous in the stories of Jesus’ ministry, the only story that is told in all 4 Gospels. To me, that means that the stories of Jesus’ life and work were never told without including this story. We’ve heard it so often, actually that we may have missed much of the richness of Matthew’s telling of it, so let’s take a look.
In the story just before this, Herod has a great feast. He has already arrested John the Baptizer because John called Herod out for marrying his sister-in-law, immoral by both Roman and Jewish tradition. Herod wanted to kill John, and his new wife would like to see him silenced, too, but John was too popular to just get rid of him. So at the feast, Herod, enchanted by the dancing of the young daughter of his new wife, has John beheaded at the girl’s request.
John’s arrest was the beginning of Jesus’ public preaching and teaching, and now as Jesus gains more acclaim, Herod is afraid that Jesus is John come back to haunt him. So, Matthew tells us, Jesus withdraws to a solitary place. You bet. Not only has Jesus lost his cousin and ally, John, but he is now in Herod’s crosshairs. But as we hear, it is no longer so easy for Jesus to withdraw. Even though he is out on the other side of the lake, a crowd has gathered to hear him teach about God’s love, to have him heal their sick.
Matthew tells us that Jesus has compassion on the crowds. I can imagine Jesus’ weariness and his deep care, as he gathers himself to teach. The day must have been really long, because it is obviously late when the disciples remind Jesus that these people have to eat. They imagine that the village markets are still open and still have enough to feed this great crowd. But Jesus will have none of it. “You give them something to eat.” Like anyone else who sets out for a short jaunt that turns out to be a whole-day affair, the disciples feel unprepared and caught out. They don’t have enough. I’m thinking two energy bars and a couple of apples – the stuff I take with me on my kayak. But it doesn’t matter. “Give those two fish and five loaves to me,” says Jesus.
Now listen to this storytelling: Jesus looks up to heaven and blesses the bread and begins to hand it out. Think of Matthew’s story of Jesus meeting the Devil in the wilderness – he tempts Jesus to turn the stones around him into bread, but Jesus refuses to listen to the Tempter to feed himself. Think of the prayer Jesus has shared with them in his sermon on the mount in which he tells them to ask, “Give us this day our daily bread.” There are echoes of both stories in the Evangelist’s images. Food was scarce among working people in Jesus’ world. Rich people overate and threw away the scraps and working people and poor people rarely had enough. The story of Herod’s feast sits beside the story of Jesus parceling out five loaves and two fish to a crowd of thousands.
Jesus breaks the loaves and gives them to the disciples, who give them to the crowds. Beside the social and political resonances in this story, we have spiritual resonance as well, for this is the same language of Jesus breaking bread and giving it at his last supper with his disciples, as his own body was blessed and broken and given. “And all ate and were filled,” not only their souls, but also their bodies were filled by God through the work of Jesus; twelve baskets of leftovers, twelve being the mystical number of fullness and perfection.
What is it about this story that makes it so iconic that we hear it from all four of the Gospel writers even though the Gospels were written to different communities over a stretch of 30 or 40 years? It tells us beyond doubt that lives in the hands of God’s love have all they will ever need to thrive. It confirms the power of Jesus as God by meeting the basic needs of ordinary people, eating and healing. Even for us, the love of God has done all the work, our healing is complete, our souls and bodies are fed purely because God cares for us, not because of anything have or have not done. Whatever you need, God knows and God cares. This story talks to us, too.
In each of the stories of Jesus, people from different cultures and different walks of life hear different things. People who are struggling to feed their families will hear it differently than I do, and identify with different people. Imagined yourself in this story: who do you connect with? The disciples, people who were tired and bored, people who were getting hungry and had no resources to feed their families away from home? Maybe you identify with Jesus, able to trust God so completely that he is unafraid to rip up those loaves and fishes, expecting that there will be enough.
Here we are in ministry, called to be God’s people as Our Savior’s and as individuals. It’s easy to think that we don’t have the resources to answer God’s call to thrive, to grow, to meet new opportunities, our imaginations too tired and worn out to join in God’s dreams for us. This story can give us courage to trust that we are in God’s hands, and that our call to new ventures will be met with Jesus’ request, “Give them to me.” This story can help us imagine that something astonishing can happen from what we bring. Amen.