By The Rev. Sherry Deets
8 Pentecost, Proper 13 – August 3, 2014
Matthew 14:13-21 and Genesis 32:22-31
So, our gospel story today is the feeding of the 5000 – one of Jesus’ miracles. Today I want us to look deeper into just what this miracle represents. Notice, before going further into the story, the context of this scene. It begins with the transitional line, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” The thing Jesus just heard about was John the Baptist’s murder by King Herod at a feast. The juxtaposition couldn’t be more ironic, or powerful. One moment Matthew invites us to focus on one more episode from the “lifestyles of the rich and shameless” and in the next he fastens our attention on a scene portraying poor, sick, and hungry crowds looking for relief. It’s like switching channels from the Kardashians to a news report on immigrant children stranded at the border. Matthew is indicating, by these contrasting scenes, just what kind of God Jesus represents.
What do I mean by that? Well, in the first century, gods aren’t normally supposed to care about people like the crowds. The gods of the ancient philosophers, for instance, were considered dispassionate and so were regularly referred to by cozy names like “the Unmoved Mover” or “First Cause.” At the other end of the spectrum, the gods of the Greek and Roman empires were notorious for using humans as playthings and for ordering the world to their whims. At best, gods were supposed to take the side of the rich and powerful, to stand with people like Herod and his well-fed party guests, sanctioning their exploitation of the poor and even the bloody murder of a truth-teller like John. They were definitely not known for siding with the oppressed, the ordinary, the downtrodden, or the hungry.
And yet that’s what happens here, as Jesus renews, embodies, and fulfills the consistent call of the God of Israel to feed the hungry. Make no mistake, that was no minor endeavor, as what we now call “food scarcity” wasn’t only known in the ancient world, it was rampant.
So….. take the disciples in the gospel today. Jesus and his friends are in the middle of nowhere. The writer of Matthew calls it a desolate place. Jesus had withdrawn there to get away, but the crowds had found him and followed him to this deserted place.
At some point, the disciples realize that the sun is setting and that there is a crowd of 5,000 men with nowhere to go and nothing to eat. That’s 5,000 not even counting the women and the children.
“Send them away,” the disciples tell Jesus. “Send them back home, back to their villages so they can find food. We can’t handle all this need.” The disciples weren’t being selfish or unkind, hateful or unloving. In fact, to their minds, sending this hungry multitude away was the most compassionate thing they could do. It kept people from going hungry in the middle of nowhere.
“Send them away,” they say. But Jesus replies, “No, you give them something to eat.” “But we only have five loaves and two fish,” they protest.
When the disciples looked out at the multitude and at their resources, the disciples saw only scarcity — they saw what they lacked — and they responded with the only rational solution they could conceive. And, too often we, you and I, see the world this way, through a lens of scarcity, a lens that fears we might not have enough or might have what is rightfully ours taken from us. Whether that’s our food, our security, our stuff; our comfort, our complacency, our critical distance from those hungry people. And we respond with what we assume is compassion. Send them away. Send them away.
All we have here is five loaves and two fish.
It is not enough.
Jesus saw things differently though. He didn’t see the scarcity the disciples did. “Give them all the food we have,” he says. It wasn’t just five loaves and two fish. It was everything. But Jesus, I believe, understood something the disciples couldn’t fathom. The loaves and fish they had didn’t really belong to them.
You give them something to eat, Jesus says. But all we have here are five loaves and two fish, we say. The disciples that day gave everything away. It wasn’t much, really, in the face of such overwhelming need. But Jesus blessed it.
Afterwards, the disciples walked around, picked up the leftovers and realized they had more than they had started with. They had more than they could have ever imagined. Scarcity transformed into generosity. Meager gifts transformed into a feast. A desolate place transformed into a field for harvest celebrations where all can eat.
Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” In that one simple statement, Jesus is saying to his disciples, “Live already. You can’t sit back and watch me do all this awesome stuff. Live it. Live life. I am counting on you. I need you.”
This past week, Deanna Thompson, shared on her Facebook page a recently published article. Deanna was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer five years ago and yet, here she is, living. And living life fully and extraordinarily, called to new places of teaching and witness and vocation and discipleship because of her illness. She writes, “For too many who live in the aftermath of traumatic events, a tidy, linear cross-to-resurrection narrative simply doesn’t map the reality of their undone lives.”
This causes us to consider Jesus’ directive to his disciples in a different way. I wonder if Jesus is trying to disrupt our tidiness, our penchant for cause and effect. The disciples are thinking linearly. Practically. A deserted place? Where will the food come from? Late? Time to go home. We are done here. What more do you want? And come on, Jesus. These people need to fend for themselves.
This is a major lesson in discipleship. Discipleship is rarely tidy or convenient. What you will be asked to live — and when — may just be a miracle itself.
As Deanna writes later in her post, “If communities of faith are to help make it possible to ‘live like we’re dying’ for those of us haunted by the lingering, unpredictable effects of traumatic events, attention must be given to the space between death and resurrection. That space where we might experience healing and redemption, but sometimes only faintly. Where people go on even when they can’t.”
Surprisingly, unexpectedly, the feeding of the five thousand gives witness to what the space between death and resurrection looks like. For the crowd. For the disciples. Maybe even for Jesus. Where there is the knowing of profound lack, but experience of provision. Where we exist in the meantime of life, but can see, albeit dimly, solutions. Where and why and when we think we can’t go on, but then we do.
Because the real wonder of this story is that it continues: God still cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable – the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the downtrodden – and God continues to use us to care for them. Therein, perhaps, is the miraculous. Amen.
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