Matthew 14:13–21 (NRSV)
Feeding the Five Thousand
(Mk 6:30–44; Lk 9:10–17; Jn 6:1–14)
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 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 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.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 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. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
There are times in life that we seem to get stuck in a rut. We eat the same thing on the same day of the week, we watch the same shows on T.V. at the same times, and we may even say the exact same prayers. There is something to be said about routines, it is not all bad and I am guessing that even Jesus would have encouraged us to develop healthy routines. I think this because Jesus does demonstrate a rhythm of life, a routine or discipline where he worships in the local synagogue, he withdraws often to the isolated places to pray, and he ministers to the people around him. Routine is a wonderful thing. It allows us to develop a sense of security. Personally, I am a total fan of knowing what I am going to eat on a given day, sometimes as work is drawing to a close I get to anticipate it so much I begin to smell the family cooking and my stomach begins to growl. Of course, I work early and supper is still hours away, but I love that anticipation. There is also a down side to a routine, life.
The excitement in life occurs when the routine is broken. The fuse in the stove blew and you cannot cook your regular tacos on Tuesday because the repairman cannot come out until Wednesday sometime between 10 am and 12 pm…and they show up at 3:30 but who is really keeping track. You hang up the phone and turn. Knowing that you now must ask that dreaded question, “where do you want to eat.” After a heated discussion that has lasted beyond your normal supper time you are all entering hypoglycemic shock and you have narrowed the possibilities to McDonalds because its close and quick or that new place down the street you drive by every day and have always said you should try sometime. Life happens.
Think about the most memorable times of your childhood. The stories that you will often repeat revolve around the times that the routine is broken. We remember because it was out of the ordinary. Most of my life I have been broke. My mom and dad both worked and most of the time they worked a couple of jobs. I remember one-day dad came home early and we went across the street to the park and played catch. I remember this because it was out of the ordinary and it was not our routine. I also remember because the game was cut short because the baseball hit and broke my dad’s fingernail (again not the normal routine). Life happens when routines are broken, but for routines to be broken you first must have a routine to live without a routine life is chaos and overwhelming. There is peace in a routine and excitement in the breaks from routine, a life of balance is important.
Jesus lived a disciplined life, he had a holy lifestyle that had a distinct rhythm. He would worship, pray, minister, and repeat. Today’s passage begins with Jesus withdrawing to spend some time by himself. This is a normal part of his routine, but this time he is withdrawing because he is mourning the death of his cousin and ministry partner John the baptizer. Jesus was stressed so he withdrew to pray, he withdrew to commune with God the Father so that He could have rest and restoration for his soul. These times of communion and communication with God are the times where God can bring healing to our bodies and souls. These times of prayer where we slow down to relax and meditate on scripture and allow God to speak to us and release our burdens to him, we can find the strength to enjoy the breaks of routine and see them as the joyful life-giving periods of time where memories are formed. Jesus withdrew often to pray.
This time of retreat was different. Jesus withdrew to mourn, but the rest of Israel was upset as well. There were two major voices in the religious community that were bringing challenging the contemporary faith traditions. John the Baptist was crying out in the wilderness telling the religious community to repent for the kingdom of Heaven is near. John challenged the religious community, basically telling everyone that would listen that no one is worthy of living in the promised land that even the most holy Pharisee is no better than a Gentile and need to pass through the waters of Jordan just as their ancestors had done. Baptism in this manner was a rite that Gentiles would have to go through to enter the Jewish faith. John lived a life like that of a Nazirite, he did not drink or eat the flesh or juice of a grape or wine and he wore unique clothing representing poverty and sorrow. The only difference is the Nazirites did not cut their hair and we are not told if John practiced this but the similarities remain. John’s message was one of abstinence as a symbol or sign of holiness. His life and lifestyle challenge the religious elites because often they lived lives of comfort and ease.
Jesus also presented the religious community with a challenge. Jesus spoke the exact same words that John spoke, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Jesus spent time with sinners, where John lived in the wilderness. John challenged the holiness of his contemporaries and Jesus challenged the judgmental attitudes. Together they challenged the totality of the established norms. One life an austere ascetic lifestyle, the other lived one of service to the marginalized of society. They were opposite ends of the religious spectrum yet they worked together to the point that John said that Jesus must increase and he must decrease, not only does this mean that Jesus must be greater but Jesus’ lifestyle must be more important, holiness is only good if it heals the ill of society. If we withdraw entirely from society and do not engage it eventually the message will be lost.
Both John and Jesus had disciples, and they had people following them and listening to their teachings. When John died, all his followers were left without their teacher they were like lost sheep without a shepherd. Jesus withdrew to mourn the loss of his cousin, and his cousin’s disciples along with others followed him to the wilderness because maybe Jesus would give them the hope the craved. He ministered to them, he provided healing for them, he encouraged them in whatever way he could. We are not told what illnesses he healed or what words he spoke. Matthew did not think that these were necessary to record, but what we do know is that Jesus had compassion for them.
Before we proceed into the story I want us to consider this for a moment, Jesus had compassion for them. What does that look like? What would that feel like? The sense of the word compassion is that Jesus was moved to the bowel. Which is not exactly something we would say today, but what that means is he had pity, and empathy that affected the very core of who he was. This group of people came in breaking his routine and the brokenness and pain that he sensed within this crowd broke his heart. The empathy he felt toward them disrupted him to such a degree that nothing else mattered at that point except them. He felt compassion for them. It affected the core of who he was. It knotted up his stomach and broke his heart. He had compassion. To walk away would make him physically, emotionally, and spiritually ill. Do we have compassion? Is there something in our community beyond ourselves that we cannot move away from without it causing our innermost being real distress? If we find that, when we discern that you will know your true calling in Christ. That is where we will find the wholeness and purpose of our Christian journey.
Jesus had compassion for these people, and the disciples were concerned as well. Evening was fast approaching and they were out in a deserted area, this vast multitude of people were gathered there and they were getting hungry. “Send them away so they can go to the villages and buy food,” they say to Jesus. They were worried for the wellbeing of everyone there and that was the only solution that they could think of was to send them away. The disciples were concerned but they were looking to their own understanding, they were trusting only in their own power and at that point they looked at all the people and though, “we only have five loaves and two fish, this won’t even feed us and John he’s a teenager and will eat this and more. We need to leave now or there will not be any food available for all these people.”
Jesus looks at the disciples and tells them straight up, “They need not go away, you give them something to eat.” They looked again at the crowd and they looked at the meager basket of bread and fish sitting on the ground. “We have nothing but five loaves and two fish.” These were not loaves like you buy at the grocery store which are nicely sliced and could make several sandwiches. These loaves were little more than dinner rolls. Today this basket would basically have contained five slices of bread and a can of sardines, it would be enough for one person, but not something to brag about.
Jesus looked at the disciples and said you feed them. The disciples looked at the basket and felt like complete failures. They had nothing in themselves. They had a great concern but had nothing. Send them away is the best they could do. We are not good enough teacher. We don’t have enough resources, rabbi. The need is great and we do not have enough to even make a dent. Can you identify with the disciples? Can we identify with what they might have been feeling? I am not a multi-millionaire, in reality I’m not even a multi-hundredaire, what could I possibly have to offer? Our Meeting barely has enough to make a decent group of disciples how can we possibly help with the world’s problems? Jesus looked at them and said you feed them.
You feed them. Jesus wants his disciples to get involved. He wants them right there with the people for whom Jesus has such compassion. Jesus looks at them and says You Feed Them. He is not calling someone else, but he calls his own. If we have compassion we have a holy obligation to get involved, to get down into the crowd and be right there with them. To take what we have to offer and give it all. But if we do it in our own power we will be overwhelmed, because we do not have enough. Five loaves and two fish a simple meal for one person what is that for a multitude?
“Bring them here to me,” Jesus tells them. One of the disciples picks up the basket, and reluctantly carries it over to Jesus. Jesus looks out at the crowd of people spread out before him and he tells them to sit down. The crowd knew the time, they knew how far they walked and how far they needed to walk to get home. They were beginning to pack up their belongings to head back home, and Jesus looked at them and told them to sit. No one is leaving here without eating. He takes the loaves and fish and he looks up to heaven and blesses the basket. He breaks the bread and hands the pieces to his disciples, and they then begin to pass the pieces to the seated crowd. They continue this until everyone has eaten, and eaten their fill. Now remember, there was at least one teenage boy in the group. Matthew says they were all filled, how many of you have ever known a teenager who has been full, yet even John was full along with five thousand men, along with women and children who were not counted. They just kept passing the food and when everyone was done, the disciples gathered up what was left. Each one of the disciples filled a basket. Twelve baskets filled with food remained from what started as one.
I do not care how you look at this story, you can see it as Jesus inspiring the generosity of other or Jesus literally multiplying the food to satisfy the needs of the multitude, you might even think that it was everyone getting a single bite and the spirit of God coming in to ease the pangs of hunger within. No matter how you look at it, it is a miracle because even inspiring the generosity of five thousand hungry people is amazing to me.
The point is there are things out there that inspire us to great compassion. They turn the very core of who we are upside down with pity and empathy. We look at what we have and who we are and we clearly see that we are not enough, but Christ is. If these things affect us, if they instigate compassion within us, if they disrupt our routine to such a degree we cannot move forward. We cannot send them away. If we have compassion God is calling. If we lack compassion we might want to consider why. But if we have compassion, we take whatever we have, present it to the lord, and we pray. We take what we have and we go. And we go with God. Life might disrupt our routine but if we have the holy routine that Jesus demonstrated working in and through us, we have God with us. We go knowing that God will not leave us. We go praying, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” We pray give us this day our daily bread, because we do not have enough in ourselves to meet our needs along with the ones we sense the compassion of God sending us to. Jesus is calling, Jesus is sending, Jesus we pray that you will provide what we need, when we need it, to minister to those you have called us to.
Our routines are often broken. And at times, that moment is a moment that will go down in our history. I pray as we enter into this time of open worship that we will be inspired to take on the life and lifestyle of Christ, his routine. And I also pray that that very same routine will be broken in such a way that we will experience the compassion of Christ. I pray that our routine would be so disrupted that two thousand years from now people will look back and say it is amazing what God did with so little. That our lives will become an inspiration for those future generations, encouraging them to follow us as we follow Christ. That they will look at our holiness and be stimulated to take on the lifestyle of Christ. And that they will look at our compassion and be stirred to their core to minister as well. I pray that we can experience and encounter the amazing compassion of Christ working through us.