Something to Eat
Can I make a confession? Sometimes, lulled by the familiarity of a scripture text, I forget to be wowed by what I’m reading. It’s a shame, for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that we have so very little recorded from Jesus’ life and works that it is a serious flaw to be less-than-dazzled by anything we get to read! But it’s also a shame because it means that I’ve probably stopped engaging with the scripture text in a way that helps me learn, dig deeper in faith, and be transformed in my discipleship because of my encounter with Christ in the scriptures. I’ll admit that the account of the Feeding of the 5000 is one of those texts that I sometimes overlook because “I know it already.”
But it’s worth a closer look because this event is one of the very few stories that appear in all four gospel accounts. There are very few events, particularly outside of the death and resurrection of Jesus, that appear in all four gospels. As similar as Matthew, Mark, and Luke are to each other, still they each have many of their own stories, and each of them exclude some of the stories for one reason or another. And the gospel of John is usually going off in its own direction altogether. So when an event occurs in all four gospels, we should stop and take notice and ask questions. Clearly, the event must have some particularly strong meaning and message to be so included. One such event is what we call “The Feeding of the 5000.” Of the miracles of Jesus, it is the only one recorded in all four gospels, and in fact, two gospels, Matthew and Mark, include two feeding miracles. There is, of course, some variation in detail, in specifics, but all four gospels carry the same essence. Today, we’re looking in particular at Matthew’s account. And I wonder, given my confession about sometimes feeling un-wowed by such a miraculous event - what’s so special about this that it is important to every gospel writer to include it at least once. Let’s take a closer look.
When the text opens, Jesus has just received some bad news. Jesus receives word that John the Baptist, his cousin, has been put to death after a time of imprisonment by Herod. Jesus is reeling. He’s in pain, he’s grieving. And maybe he’s even feeling the weight of knowing exactly what happens to people like John and like Jesus who rock the boat and speak truth to power. And in that frame of mind, Matthew tells us that Jesus takes a boat by himself to try to just get away. He needs some time alone. But it isn’t to be. The crowds hear that Jesus has taken off by boat, and they decide to find him, going by foot around the lake, so that by the time Jesus comes ashore from the boat, a crowd is all ready to greet him. I’m not sure how you’d feel in Jesus’ place, but I can imagine how I would feel, being overwhelmed and just wanting some time to myself, only to find a crowd waiting. I’d want to turn around and get back on that boat. I might feel a little cranky, or resentful. I might burst into tears at the thought of having to deal with a whole crowd.
But Jesus, Matthew tells us, looks at the crowd and is filled with compassion for them, and begins curing the sick they have brought to see him. The word here used for Jesus’ compassion is my favorite Greek word. It’s a mouthful of a word: splagchnizomai. It means literally that we’re so moved with concern that our insides are kind of churning with the deepness of our care. It’s like when we say “our stomach is twisted in knots” over something. That’s how Jesus looks at the crowds. And in fact, this word is applied almost exclusively to Jesus in the Bible. Jesus himself uses the word in Luke’s gospel to describe how the father of the prodigal son feels and sees when he first glimpses his wayward child returning home to him. It is in this way, with gut-churning compassion, that Jesus most often looks at the crowds in the Bible, and the way he looks when he comes ashore and sees them waiting for him.
As the day draws to a close, the disciples come to Jesus and tell him, “Look, this is a deserted place, and it’s late. Send everyone away so that they can go get themselves some food.” I don’t know what you hear in their words, but I hear some disciples who felt like I thought I might upon seeing the unexpected crowd. They’re done. Jesus has done what he can, and now, they think, he should just send them away, so that they can get on with their own plans. He’s done what he can. Let them take care of themselves now.
Jesus isn’t having that. “They don’t need to go away,” he says bluntly. “You give them something to eat.” The disciples are flummoxed. “We only have five loaves and two fish!” they insist. Again, I hear their unspoken sentiments: We have five loaves and two fish – and they’re for us. We have five loaves and two fish – what could they possibly do for a crowd of thousands? We have five loaves and two fish, and we just want to enjoy our dinner. Send everyone away. You’ve done enough. Let them take care of themselves. But Jesus just says to them, “Five loaves and two fish? Give it all to me.” He takes everything they have, gets everyone to sit down. He takes the food, blesses it, breaks the bread, and gets the disciples to start handing things out. “And all ate and were filled,” we read, and the disciples gather up the leftovers, “twelve baskets full.”
So, what’s so important about this text? Is it just something cool Jesus can do - make a few loaves and fish feed thousands? Or is there more to it? One special thing about the Feeding of the 5000 is that if you read through the text again, you’ll see that it follows the same pattern that Jesus uses in the Last Supper, the communion meal: Take, Bless, Break, Give. In instituting communion at the Last Supper, Jesus takes the bread and cup, blesses them, breaks the bread, and gives these gifts to the disciples. And here in this miracle story, he does the same: He takes the bread and fish, blesses the food, breaks the bread, and gives it to all the gathered hungry. When he shares in the Last Supper, Jesus asks us to remember him whenever we share in the bread and the cup. And I think we can extend his directive: whenever we share in a meal, whenever we gather together, whether for communion or something more informal like takes place at the miraculous feeding of this large crowd, we remember, we are thankful, and we are mindful of the pattern: take, bless, break, give.
Jesus takes what we have, and he blesses it. God works with what seems like very little to make something that reaches a crowd of thousands. The disciples didn’t think that they had much to offer, and what they did have, they didn’t seem too keen on sharing. Their strategy was: everyone should just take care of themselves. But in God’s economy, in God’s reign on earth and in eternity, in the Body of Christ, we’re meant to take care of each other. And God can take even what you consider to be hardly worth offering and make it into abundance. How often have you looked at your gifts, your talents, your assets, your life and thought that you couldn’t make a difference in the world? How often have you thought that hunger was too big a problem for you to confront, that poverty was too overwhelming to change, that the “isms” of the world were too hard to tackle? Jesus wants to feed the crowds, and he says to us, “You give them something to eat.” He believes that we have the capacity, the resources, the ability, when we offer what we have to God for blessing. What are you holding back from God, afraid that you won’t have for yourself if you share, or afraid that it simply isn’t “enough” to be of much good? Whatever we have, let Jesus take it and bless it. He takes our ordinary stuff, and blessing it, makes it holy, fit for God’s purposes. And so a little bit of food becomes a feast for thousands. A miracle. Take, bless.
Jesus takes our brokenness too. Take, bless, break. Think again of the compassion of Jesus that leads him to offer healing and then offer a meal to this crowd. Jesus lets his grieving, weary heart be transformed into a heart of compassion. To be able to turn our pain into care for others is a gift. Two of my favorite books are the Eight Cousins/Rose in Bloom set by Louisa May Alcott. They never gained the popularity of her Little Women series, but they are worth a read if you’re a fan of her writing. In the books Rose is a young woman trying to find her place in the world, trying to live as a thoughtful, ethical young woman, although she has a large fortune at her disposal, and although she is often tempted to spend her days attending parties and spend her money on the latest fashions. At one point in the story, she is feeling distraught and upset. The adults in her life have made some decisions that leave her feeling heartbroken. And in the midst of her anger and sadness, Rose remembers that her great aunt has always told her that when you’re feeling like this, the best way to move beyond your pain is to start serving others. So Rose decides to turn her pain into helping others. Through serving others, Rose is able to gain some perspective, and transform her own feelings into making a positive impact on her community. The pain and sorrow we experience in life is real, and hard. And we can’t always just “snap out of it.” Healing is important. But I believe serving others, loving others, showing compassion to others can be part of that healing. We heal better when we love others than when we are thinking only of our own needs. Offer your brokenness to God along with the rest of your heart, and God will use it to do miraculous things. Take, bless, break.
And give. At first, Jesus tells the disciples, bluntly, that they should feed the crowds. They don’t think it’s possible. And so Jesus acts in another way. But I wonder: What if they had believed that they could feed the crowds? What if they had found a way? What if they had believed God would work in and through them to make the impossible possible? We can’t know what would have happened then. But we can imagine. And we can commit to believing that when God calls to give, God, for whom nothing is impossible, will enable us to answer the call. Jesus gives himself, gives his heart, gives sustenance both tangible and intangible, and he invites us, empowers us, challenges us to do likewise. Take, bless, break, give.
It’s a simple pattern that makes space for miraculous happenings. Jesus, take our hearts, our lives, and all that we have. They’re yours. We are yours. Take our ordinary stuff, and make it holy, bless it for your use, for service in your name. Compassionate Jesus, we even hand over our broken hearts, that in our brokenness we might learn to look with the same tied-in-knots vision you have. You give us everything, pouring out your life for us. Help us see what’s possible when we pour out our lives for others. Take, bless, break, give. An ordinary miracle. Amen.