Summary: The Feeding of the 5,000 is a great miracle story, but it wasn't the only miracle that happened that day.
The Meal, the Message, and the Miracle
Proper 13A – Matthew 14:13-21 -- August 3, 2014
Food! Be it blessed or tempting, it is filled with meaning that may not have anything to do with the food itself. Kringla, with its subtle hint of nutmeg, reminds me of grandma, who not only made these doughy cookies tied into knots, but also hid them on the stairway to the attic as well as in the basement freezer, so that my brother and I could have two each whenever we visited. During my internship year, a woman named Joyce Farr made me a rum cake every month for every intern the congregation had – I was the 17th; I am certain that Joyce used a full bottle of Bacardi in each cake!
Food is a necessity for us, but it isn’t just about nutrition. This is not just a recent phenomenon. The Gospels have many stories of food and it seems that, whenever food is present, Jesus is also there. Jesus didn’t just share bread and wine, he identified himself AS bread and wine. And around the world, 2,000 years later, we continue to repeat his words and share in a memory that was written for us in the Scriptures.
Back in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness and given manna – perfect food, everything they needed for life. But that wasn’t enough. They remembered the smells and tastes and textures of the food they had when they were enslaved. And they wanted that instead.
Today’s Gospel story is probably the best known of all of the food stories in the Bible. It begins with a mite of food and ends with baskets of leftovers. Loaves and fishes. Nothing fancy, but it met the needs of the thousands gathered there to see and hear Jesus. Instead of everyone trudging all the way back to their homes for a meal, they got to experience a miracle!
We call this story “The Feeding of the 5,000” but we know from the text that only the adult males were counted. When the women and children were included, were there 10,000? Even 15,000? We don’t know. What we do know is that what started out as 5 loaves and 2 fish turned into much, much more. This is a rare and special story in that all four Gospel writers include it, though each includes different details.
We don’t know how the miracle of multiplication happened. Some say that, seeing the young boy’s generosity, others opened their coats and satchels to share what they had brought. Others say it was God’s power alone. It may well have been a combination of both, but that doesn’t make it any less a miracle of huge proportions.
And, from that day on, when people walked by that location, they remembered the meal, the message, and the miracle. Dr. David Lose of Luther Seminary calls this “a sign of the character of God” (1) and he challenges us to look beyond the food to see more signs of God’s character in Jesus Christ.
When today’s story begins, Jesus had just learned that his cousin John had been executed, and he attempted to get away by himself and grieve. But the crowds followed. No doubt many of them had heard of John’s death as well, and they were hungry – not for food at this point in the story – but for a word of hope in the midst of this tragedy. And in spite of his intense grief, he had compassion on the crowds and cured those who were sick. This also is a sign of the character of God – the ability to put aside one’s own needs and desires in order to help those in need.
As Lose explains, in the first century, gods aren’t supposed to care about people like the crowds. Those gods were either completely detached or delighted in seeing humans as playthings. And all of these Gods were on the side of the powerful and wealthy. They would definitely have sided with Herod over John and may have been said to have laughed out loud at John’s head on a platter.
But God’s character in Jesus turns this upside down. Those who hunger for wellness and truth are at the front of the line, even before God cares for God’s own needs.
God’s character is also seen in the way Jesus treats the disciples. Initially, they were the ones who wanted to get rid of the crowds, sending them into the villages to buy food. That would be a great way to put an end to the gathering, but the disciples seem to have forgotten that the crowds were filled with the poorest people around. They weren’t the sort of people who had money to buy fast food in town. Let’s be real, here: the disciples themselves weren’t the sort of people who had money to buy fast food in town! For the disciples to say this was clearly simply dismissive; they didn’t care about the crowds in the same way that Jesus did! But God’s character in Jesus doesn’t yell at them or criticize them, he teaches them by saying, “YOU give them something to eat.” And Jesus then takes the mite of food, gives thanks for it, divides it, and hands it to the disciples for distribution. And by their participation in this, the disciples would never forget the message, the meal, and the miracle.