“Something doesn’t add up!” Sermon for Aug. 3, 2014
Matthew 14:13-21 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Feeding the Five Thousand
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
I am a very linear thinker. I like things to flow logically, I like to make lists and outlines and I like to have reasons and understandings of how and why something works. I like to figure out cause and effect.
So when I read a story like this, Jesus feeding over 5000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fishes, I say Whaaaat? Seriously!!?? My geologist friend that was here last week, and I were discussing this scripture and she told me she has a theory – turns out her theory is shared by others as I found out when doing more research. The theory is that the disciples brought out their 5 loaves and 2 fishes and started passing them around, and folks in the crowd were inspired by their sharing, that the members of the crowd brought out whatever food items they had in their packs and added to the overall meal. Kind of like a big, impromptu, pot-luck. I actually like this theory, but it is a theory – we have no evidence that supports it to be true or not true.
My family, for years, has enjoyed the show “Mythbusters”. In each episode the hosts take some sort of urban legend and try to prove or disprove its accuracy. I don’t know if they have done an episode on how Jesus and his disciples were able to feed over 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes, but it might be a good one to propose to the writers.
First they would look at the facts, which, for us is the context of this story in relation to where it occurs in the Bible.
Fact #1: Today we are reading it from Matthew, chapter 14. But the story also occurs in Mark, chapter 6, in Luke chapter 9 and in John chapter 6. You might remember that a couple of weeks ago I mentioned that Matthew, Mark and Luke are considered synoptic gospels, because they share the same source; John was written from entirely different sources. This is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels. That means when the Gospel writers are writing their version of important events in the life of Jesus Christ, some 40-70 years after Christ’s death, that this story was of such significance it made the cut to be included by four different writers.
Fact #2: The story is taking place in the first century, in a land dominated by the Roman Empire. The social reality was such that the hierarchical structure allowed for the elite to have much, and live with abundancy. The rest of the population was subject to their power, and most of the people lived at a level that it was rare to have sufficient calories and nutrition in their daily diet. The lack of food was part of the disparity and injustice that people had to live with, which left them not only hungry, but also often sick and without adequate immune systems.
Fact #3: bread and fish were two elements of the basic diet for the poor in Galilee. If you had three barley loaves you could feed two people for one day. The fish would have been pickled or smoked
Fact #4: Based on the versions of this story in Mark and John, green grass is mentioned, which indicates the scene probably took place more in a field or meadow. John also mentions the nearness of Passover, so the time was likely a spring day. Luke mentions surrounding villages, and the city of Bethsaida, on the northern coast of Galilee, so it seems likely that the geographical setting is in a meadow, in a desolate area, between villages, on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee in the springtime.
Fact # 5: The scene, especially in verse 19, is loaded with Eucharistic references and Jesus acting with in the tradition of a father, or head of a household in a Jewish family. In Jewish tradition, the head of the family thanked God for the meal. Also in the Jewish tradition, the head of the household broke bread to indicate the meal had begun. These are rituals that would have been familiar to the crowds. In later years, but still in the early churches, the leader broke the bread, and then the deacons distributed the broken pieces to the congregation.
What might seem odd about this Eucharistic reference is that this story comes before the time of the Last Supper. That is true chronologically. However, all of the gospels were written as a memory of the evangelist author who wrote it. So Matthew was writing this sometime in the late first century, probably around 70-80CE, and he would have had the context of his memory of not only this story but the experience of the Last Supper as well in which to write his gospel from.
Now in Mythbusters, Jamie and Adam would set about to re-create the scene and test the story. They would likely go about getting a crowd to represent the 5000 plus women and children. They would get two fish, of the size you could reasonably carry, and five loaves of bread. And they would set about to pass out the food and then see if everyone was fed and if there would be any left. And, you can imagine the outcome. Rationally we would have to say that two fish and five loaves don’t add up to 5000 feedings. So what is it?
There is one more fact about this story that is significant. The story follows the account in verses 1-12 of chapter 14, of the death of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. You see, just prior to the feeding of the five thousand, King Herod was celebrating his birthday with a party and a feast. Herod had wanted a relationship with his sister-in-law,Herodius, but had been told it was unlawful to do such by John the Baptist. Herod wanted to have John the Baptist put to death but didn’t because he was afraid of the repercussions that might take place from the crowd of people who followed John the Baptist – so instead, he had him put in prison. At his lavish birthday party, Herodias’ teenage daughter danced for the king. Herod was so enamored that he told the girl she could have whatever she wanted. The teenager’s mother, Herodias, intervened and persuaded her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Now Herod was in a real bind, but he didn’t want to back away from his promise, so he had John the Baptist killed. It was upon receiving the news of John the Baptist’s death that Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place. We can just imagine the grief Jesus was experiencing at the news of the death of his beloved friend and cousin.
I can’t offer a rational explanation to how a crowd of over 5000 can be fed on two fishes and five loaves of bread, but I can offer you these considerations to mull over.
It was an absolutely outrageous act of cowardice and violence that outlined the actions of King Herod in the killing of John the Baptist. Jesus could have reacted with revenge and violence, but instead, he did an equally outrageous thing by feeding hungry people. David Lose comments: “The juxtaposition couldn’t be more ironic or powerful. One moment Matthew invites us to focus on the Lifestyles of the Rich and Shameless, and the next he fastens our attention on a scene portraying poor, sick and hungry crowds looking for relief. It’s kind of like switching channels from the Kardashian’s to a news report on immigrant children. Matthew is indicating by these contrasting scenes just what kind of God Jesus represents.” (www.davidlose.net/2014/07/pentecost -8a-the-real-miracles)
Herod’s use of power is destructive and defensive. Roman rulers had to rely on marriages and relationships with their extended family to keep and expand their power. They responded with violence and hostility to silence those whom they viewed as a threat to their power or lifestyle. Jesus’ use of power, on the other hand, is merciful and beneficial. It is not manipulative, destructive or defensive. Jesus’ power is life-giving, not life-taking. Jesus’ ministry is motivated by compassion.
Jesus’ ministry is far deeper than the oppression and rule of the very shallow Roman Empire. Not only does Jesus act as a role model for how we should live, he uses his disciples to show how it is to live in a world of thankfulness and abundance. Matthew’s story tells us what happens with an attitude shift of scarcity, when the disciples say “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish” to an attitude of thankfulness and abundance when Jesus takes the food and blesses it, thanking God for what they had.
Jesus gave the disciples a command that they surely thought was crazy. “Bring me your fish and bread”. But they offered their limited resources to him to bless, and what they saw was nothing short of exponential blessing.
The miracle of the story might be more than a multiplying of food. The real miracle might be in the motivation to trust a little deeper, love a little broader and stand a little firmer in our faith. God is still at work performing miracles in disciples who are both eager and reluctant to serve. If you pay attention you’ll start seeing it everywhere.
Thanks be to God! Amen.