Todays readings for 9th After Pentecost Genesis 32:22-31 Psalm 17:1-7, 31 Romans 9:1-8 Matthew 14:13-21
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton.
“The Miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand”- what do we as modern scientific rationalists make of this? Is it a test of faith, if we can believe that it happened just as the text says we are really Christians but if we can’t we have somehow failed and won’t be in the Kingdom? And if we do believe it is the simple fact that the miracle proves that Jesus is God the whole point? I think that if we take this kind of attitude to the narrative we are missing the Gospel writer’s point entirely, so let’s do a little exploration of the text.
The first thing to note is that this is the only miracle that occurs in every one of the Gospels. The three synoptic Gospels have similar accounts, there are minor differences in each one and John has the same story but with a major difference- but we will come back to that. So here in Matthew’s Gospel, and I am not going to highlight all the differences between the synoptics, but here this feeding takes place after the beheading of John the Baptiser, and this I think is significant for a couple of reasons, first that the beheading of John happens at a banquet, and what is brought in on a platter, for the guests delight is the head of John the Baptiser. So just hold that in your head for a moment. The second thing that is significant is that this act by Herod typifies his desire to stamp on the Jewish people- they have a prophet that they flock to hear, who somehow is giving them hope and Herod, acting out of a place of personal desire reveals his complete contempt for the people. This gives us a context for Jesus’ withdrawal, partly personal grief and partly despair over his nation, I would think. This has resonance for us, in our day and age, doesn’t it?
Jesus comes ashore and the text tells us that Jesus had compassion for them and literally, cured their “weakness”. The first allusion here is to the Shepherd of the sheep who has compassion for those sheep without a shepherd. The second thing to note is that the word here translated as “had compassion” literally means he was ‘gut wrenched”- this is a visceral response to their weakness- one would think a justifiable response to those who were feeling overwhelmed by Herod’s actions. Now this healing process took some time and the day was over the Greek says, we have a different way of measuring days but for the Jew the day is over at sunset. The disciples are anxious about the people and want to send them away, but Jesus says, “they have no need to go away, you feed them!” This scenario of the multitude who are hungry in the wilderness has two, at least, parallels in the OT. The first and most obvious one is Moses who feeds the multitude in the wilderness by means of manna, though of course it is God who feeds them at Moses behest. So that sets up the first parallel, Jesus is like Moses who leads his people towards the promised land. But more than that, he is God himself. The second is a story from 2 Kings 4:42-44, where Elisha, during a famine tells a man to share the small amount that he has brought as a sacrificial gift to the prophet, with the multitude and they are all fed. So Jesus is also like Elisha, and therefore, Jesus is greater than both the Law and the Prophets. There is a long history of the association between “bread” and the “word of God” so you have a complex allusion to Jesus, who in John’s gospel will tell them at this moment that he “is the bread of life”.
The poor disciples respond, out of their scarcity, that they have nothing but five loaves and two fish. Now the five loaves are the five books of the TORAH, the two fish are more difficult to understand. There are lots of references to fish, but whatever they are meant to say, they became for the early church a symbol of the Eucharist- there are Early Christian paintings with the five loaves and two fish on the table. Mark, in his version makes an allusion here to the Passover, but Matthew leaves that detail out. Regardless of that Jesus’s next action prefigures the inauguration of the Holy Communion, the sacrament of bread and wine, as he stands and blesses and breaks the loaves and gives them to his disciples to give to the crowds.
All eat and all are filled, which is a reference back to the passage we read recently from Isaiah 55 about God’s abundant banquet, a symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven. They feed the 5,000- a number that symbolises the Israelites, and of course the women and children as well! There is so much left over that it is enough to feed all of the twelve tribes of Israel, from the twelve baskets. And in the next chapter we will see the feeding of the 4,000, a number that symbolises the Gentiles with enough over to feed everybody in the 7 baskets, symbolising completion and perfection. It is in stark contrast to the banquet for Herod’s birthday which ends in death and a complete lack of compassion and care. That is an earthly banquet and this one is the Kingdom of Heaven.
This story then tells us a lot. It has a Christological focus as it tells us about who Jesus is, his nature and identity, that is, more than Moses and more than Elisha, God himself. And in saying that it uses these two great ‘types’ of the OT and brings together the Law and the Prophets. It is also an Eschatological text, it tells us about the end times where it will be Jesus who feeds us in the great banquet in God’s presence, Jesus will be the fulfilment of that tradition.
And perhaps most importantly for us, it is Sacramental, because it tells us that the Word of God will feed us, in the bread and wine, with himself. This is a story of God’s compassion for us, in our fragile human condition, and about the amazing generosity of God’ response. God is gut-wrenched when God sees our weakness, and God’s response is to heal and to feed.
The challenge for us is that as God’s disciples, in this Matthean version, we are to be those who do the feeding on God’s behalf. This is the big difference between the synoptics and John, which highlights the two different sides of the same coin. For John, it is all about the great “I am”. Jesus is the bread of life, it is him whose broken body will feed us. In the synoptics generally and Matthew in particular the emphasis at this moment is on discipleship. You, the listeners, are the disciples who are sent out to do this feeding, on behalf of the ‘bread of life’. And we are still called to bring people to the feast where they can be fed. I, as your priest, break the bread and offer the food of the kingdom of heaven to you so that you can be satisfied. And this is food that can be had in abundance, it never runs out. There is enough food for both the Jews and the Gentiles, and indeed for the whole world, and then some left over. God is not a God of scarcity, but a God of abundance.
And here in this place, we offer compassion, healing and feeding. We offer a place where we can be forgiven, and a place where we can grow.
A thing that I found fascinating as I was thinking and reading was that Jesus’s response to the events which trigger this feeding of the 5,000 is not to stir up the crowd into a force to go and sieze power from Herod, but rather to heal them and feed them. I have heard of a number of people this week who as a response both to the revelations of the conversation between Turnbull and Trump and also the frightful things that have been happening on Manus, armed attacks and the withdrawal of water supply, and then subsequent return of it, are feeling absolutely wrung out, overwhelmed and feel as if they cannot go on. They are like the crowd upon whom Jesus had compassion. Our response, as his disciples, must be to seek healing and feeding from our Lord and to attempt to provide it in his name.
We as the church, must respond to the needs of the world around us not out of a feeling of scarcity, that there isn’t enough of God’s grace to go around, we are poorly resourced and old and in need ourselves. No, rather we need to respond from the position of abundance and offer the banquet to those who hunger and thirst. “They have no need to go away,” Jesus says, “the place of abundance is here, gathered around my word and feasting at my table”.