Summary: The feeding of the multitudes reminds us that Jesus wants us to help do God's work in the world. As Christ's disciples, we are to respond to the needs around us not with excuses, but with compassionate hearts, offering all we have to Jesus so that he migh
We've all heard it numerous times in our lives, or perhaps said it ourselves on occasion, "Excuses, excuses!" It could be our workout day, and we are sick and just don't feel like it. "Excuses, excuses," says the personal trainer. Or maybe we know we shouldn't have dessert in the restaurant, but we just can't pass up the opportunity to try the new house specialty. "Excuses, excuses." We could be trying to get our kids to clean up their room, and they suddenly decide they need to go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, and check their email. "Excuses, excuses," we say with exasperation. The list could go on and on. Quite simply, if there is something we don't want to do, we can usually come up with some at least semi-valid excuse not to do it. And usually we do.
Then again, sometimes instead of giving an excuse not to do something, we just "suck it up" and do it anyway. The scripture passage we heard just a few moments ago is full of opportunities to make excuses; and sometimes excuses are offered, sometimes not. Matthew's telling of the "Feeding of the 5,000" immediately follows news of John the Baptist's beheading. Upon learning of his violent death, Jesus and his disciples "withdrew to a solitary place." They were hoping to get away for a while, hoping for some peace and quiet to sort through their pain and sorrow. This was Jesus' cousin after all, not to mention a fellow prophet and friend. Understandably, Jesus needed time and space to mourn the loss, to pray to God, and to deal with his feelings of grief. But it was not to be so, Matthew tells us. No sooner had Jesus and the disciples shoved off in their boat, than the crowds began appearing on the shoreline.
It would have been more than easy, and definitely understandable, for Jesus to make excuses. "Just keep rowing guys, I need some quiet. My friend has been killed. I need to take a break from work while we get all this sorted out." He could have even looked over to the crowds and said, "I'm sorry friends, not today. My cousin and colleague has been killed, and I need some time with friends and family." And I believe those people would have been understanding. "You're right Jesus. I'm so sorry to hear of your loss. We will be praying for you." Then they would have turned and gone on their way, patiently awaiting the time when Jesus was prepared to return to the work of ministry again.
But Jesus didn't make excuses. Even though he was certainly feeling the grief of loss, he didn't keep rowing away from shore, seeking quiet and solitude. Instead, he turned, saw the crowds and, Matthew tell us, "had compassion on them." Then, even though he was hurting himself, even though he was grieving and wanting some peace and quiet, Jesus returned to the shore and healed the sick. But the story doesn't end there. We get the impression that Jesus worked all day, through the afternoon, and into the evening healing the people. And before he knew it, it was meal time. The disciples came to him with an excuse of sorts, an opportunity for a break and some peace and quiet finally. "Jesus," they said. "It's evening. You have to stop now. The people need to get back home so they can eat."
But hear again Jesus' response, "They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat."
"But Jesus," they said, "we only have five loaves of bread and two fish!"
You can almost imagine Jesus shaking his head, can't you? "Excuses, excuses!" he must have been thinking. But instead, he just said, "Bring them here to me." And after he blessed the bread and broke, the disciples handed out the food. And everyone ate and had their fill, with food to spare. "The number of those who ate was about 5,000 men, besides women and children."
Amazing isn't it? To think that over 5,000 people ate to fullness with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Imagine how disappointed those people would have been if Jesus had made excuses and continued on to find a place of solitude. Imagine if Jesus had listened to the excuses of the disciples and sent everyone home early. People would not have been healed. People would not have been fed. Miracles would not have happened, much less been witnessed by those great crowds. People would not have known the love of God and the miracle of God's kingdom at work on earth. And it all could have gone sour with just a few excuses. But Jesus doesn't make excuses, Jesus makes sacrifices.
That is the gospel story at its simplest. God in Christ Jesus loves us unconditionally, even to the point of sacrifice. The "Feeding of the Multitudes" is the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels precisely because it strikes at the very heart of the gospel message. It is a story of great power not simply because of what happens, but because it demonstrates that God is love, it teaches what it means to follow Christ, and it assures us of God's power for good in the world. The key reality in the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is that Jesus had compassion. Despite all the hurdles and difficulties, despite the powers stacked against him, and despite his own personal hopes and needs, compassion for people was Jesus' prime motivation. He cared about the wholeness and well-being of all people, and Jesus made sacrifices, even the ultimate sacrifice, for the healing of the nations and for the good of every person.