For the last few weeks we have been hearing Matthew’s version of the parables of the Kingdom. Last week we talked about the idea of tiny hidden things bringing forth abundant or generous fruit in the kingdom. After the teaching of the parables Jesus goes home and as we read last week he is rejected by his neighbours. Then he hears the news of the death of John the Baptiser at the birthday banquet of Herod Antipas. This is a very dark moment. John, the prophet, is killed to silence him. So, Jesus withdraws to the wilderness, presumably to fast and pray. And even though he is tired and down-hearted, you would suppose, the multitudes of people who have been following him to listen but also more particularly to be healed, follow him. And even in his own personal state of grief he is gut-wrenched by their need. Overwhelmed by compassion Jesus heals them. This is the God of mercy and compassion who is moved by the need of the people.
At this precise moment in our history there is a lot to be gut-wrenched about. The situation in our aged-care facilities is gut-wrenching. The illness of medicos is gut-wrenching. The effect of the pandemic all over the world, particularly in poorer nations is gut-wrenching, and God is beside us in this terrible situation, encouraging us to feel deeply and to be moved to do whatever we can. We share our compassion with God.
This picture of Jesus healing and feeding is a picture of the kingdom in action in context. Jesus deals with the situation that he finds himself in. We are called to be in the Kingdom now as those who heal and those who feed.
In the narrative the healing took some time, there were a lot of people, and the day was over, the Greek says. For the Jewish people the day is over at sunset. The disciples are anxious about the large crowd and want to send them away, but Jesus says, “they have no need to go away, you feed them!” Jesus is calling on them to be Kingdom people at that moment. I can imagine being terrified at the prospect.
The poor disciples respond, out of their scarcity, that they have nothing but five loaves and two fish. I don’t think that we are meant to take this literally, but rather, symbolically. 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 this morning from Isaiah 55 about God’s abundant banquet, a symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven. They feed the 5,000 men- 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. 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 banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is a demonstration of the parable of the mustard seed, or of the yeast being worked by the woman through the flour. This is a demonstration not only of God’s love and compassion but of the disciples being able to share in that Kingdom ministry. The disciples are not observing Jesus healing and feeding, but are participating in the action. This is the Kingdom of God. 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. I think it is important to say that the ‘healing’ and ‘feeding’ can mean, giving people whatever it is that they need, and the emotional healing of a listening ear is just as much part of it as the physical healing that we have entrusted to the medical profession. The feeding of good conversation, or of a sermon that gives us something to chew on is feeding as well. You, the listeners, are the disciples who are sent out to do this feeding, on behalf of the ‘bread of life’, that is the Christ, whose body is broken in the Eucharist. But, like the disciples, it is a group effort. The twelve male disciples, along, one would presume, with the large group of women who followed Jesus, are called on together, to feed the twelve tribes of Israel, on this occasion. 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 together we take that nourishment to enable us to feed and heal others. It is one of the most difficult things about this pandemic, that physically we cannot be together as the body of Christ and we can’t share in the communion. But it is nonetheless true that the body is broken for you, week by week.
The picture of the banquet that we saw in Isaiah is one of generosity. There is no need to pay for the food, it is provided, in fact we cannot pay for this food. And this is food, and wine, that can be had in abundance, it never runs out. God is not a God of scarcity, but a God of abundance.
In the kingdom we must offer compassion, healing and feeding to those around in both a practical and a spiritual way. We offer a place where all can be forgiven, and a place where all 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 seize power from Herod, but rather to heal them and feed them. At this moment, when our world is in turmoil and fear, it is compassion that is required. I don’t know about you, but I am finding this second lockdown more difficult than the first and I feel as if I am running low on the reserves that enable me to be compassionate and meet other people’s needs. Our response, as Jesus’ 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”.
Rev. Roberta Hamilton