Sermon from 8.3, Matthew 14:13-21
The Feeding of the 5,000
This is one of only a couple of stories that appears in all four gospels. Another example would be…the crucifixion. And so this means preachers get to preach on it every year, and to tell you the truth, we get very tired of it. What more can you say? People hungry; Jesus feeds. Good thing? Yes. Miracle? Yes –or people really had bread they were squirreling away and decided to share. Or is it just a symbol of the Eucharist? Blah de blah de blah. Sound familiar to many of you?
But here's the thing I noticed this time around reading this version in Matthew: Jesus doesn't talk very much. Maybe that doesn't seem like a big deal, and maybe it isn't, but I found it intriguing. Isn't he going to preach to people at all? No, not here. All he does is cure people and then, later, tell them to sit down. His words to the disciples are minimal. And I was intrigued to see, also, that once Jesus blesses and breaks the loaves, he gives them back to the disciples with no further word of instruction. The disciples go on and give the bread to the crowd with no more information at all.
So I looked at the versions of this story in all the other gospels and realized Jesus's approach with the crowd was slightly different in each gospel. In Mark, "He began to teach them many things." In Luke, "he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured." And in John, he skips right to the feeding part. But here in Matthew, "When Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick." No preaching; no message about the kingdom – not in words. He feels compassion, he cures people, that's what he does.
Then I looked through the whole gospel of Matthew and I realized that in Matthew's gospel, Jesus really doesn't spend a lot of time preaching at the crowds. The Sermon on the Mount? If you look closely, you'll see he's preaching to his disciples. He spends a lot of time talking to the Pharisees. But over and over again, when it comes to crowds of people, all Jesus is interested in doing is meeting their physical needs: healing and feeding. The people to whom he preaches, for the most part, are those in power and those who have agreed to be his closest followers.
About a year ago, I spent a week as the Episcopal Chaplain at Chautauqua, in upstate New York. The week I was there, I read a book by the author in residence, Stephen Kuusisto, in which he tells the story of giving $10 to a woman panhandling for money. Stephen Kuusisto is blind, and a cop, seeing what he thought was a pushy panhandler bothering a blind man, came to his aid. Kuusisto kept trying to tell the cop that it was OK. He wrote, "As we walked together, I told the cop that no one knows who is really hungry and who is merely saying it. I told him that's why Jesus fed everybody."
I think Jesus probably had a good idea that everybody there was hungry. One of the many things I learned in Uganda was what it felt like to be hungry on a regular basis when food wasn't readily at hand. Before I went to Uganda, my friends and family had learned that if I didn't get lunch, I would get cranky. They would make sure that we would stop so I could get fed so that I wouldn't be irritable and nasty. In Uganda, however, nobody knew I had this requirement and so people there would do what they would normally do, which is not eat lunch. Maybe a snack such as what they called a pancake, a small round patty of banana bread, around mid-afternoon. Or maybe not. And because I was a guest, I did my utmost not to be cranky and irritable when I was hungry. And suddenly I found that I didn't have to be cranky and irritable when I was hungry.
Mostly what I learned is what most of the world's population experiences: that food is bought in small amounts on a daily basis; that you have to walk or travel by public conveyance to get it; and that it is generally simple and sufficient for your hunger and little more. When I read the feeding of the 5,000 today, it was with that image in mind. Hunger was undoubtedly a regular part of life.
So Jesus might very well have known the people were hungry. But what he didn't know was who could afford to buy food in the villages and who couldn't. And it now seems to me that this was the main reason to keep people there and to feed them, rather than the fact that they were hungry. In parallel to what Stephen Kuusisto said, Jesus feeds everybody no matter their condition in life.
I actually wonder if another reason Jesus kept the crowds there and made sure they were fed was because…he liked them. "They need not go away," he says. Now, again, me getting cranky and irritable, I would have said, "Good, let them go away, I want some dinner and I want some peace and quiet." This is one of the many ways you can know that I am not Jesus. But Jesus, withdrawing (as he thought) to a deserted place by himself, has been dealing with the crowds all day, curing people. And then it is evening and he says, "They need not go away."
There's good news there. Because if Jesus is not going to send people away under these circumstances, it means he is never going to send us away.
I was just reading one of my favorite blogs by a minister who goes by the name of PeaceBang. She was writing about taking over the full-time care of a beagle after the end of a relationship. She wrote, "I realized that my fears about caring for the dog I had adopted were actually spiritual fears that have plagued me all of my life: how much love and care are we allowed to ask for? How much nurturing can we expect from those who claim to love us? When does our need for love and care tip into the category of 'too needy,' and is there any such thing?
"I believe that there is not. I have been told by people I once trusted that there is such a thing as being too needy, and I no longer believe them."
When it comes to one another, we may have to set and recognize our limits. When it comes to Jesus, I agree with PeaceBang: we are never too needy.
This Jesus in Matthew's gospel is a wonderfully pragmatic savior, none too talky, and in that he gives us a wonderful example for those of us already deeply involved in the life of the church: talk amongst yourselves, but for everyone else, just help out however you can in whatever way they need.
But this Jesus also gives us an image of his compassion, a compassion that we may each need in our own way. A compassion that goes beyond what is expected of him and beyond what is hoped for. People came hoping for healing and got fed as well. They were not too needy, too demanding, too much of a bother. And neither are you. When Jesus sees you coming, he feels nothing but compassion. You need not go away. Come and be blessed. Come and eat.