Shared meals are so much a part of our lives, I think sometimes we don’t stop to take notice of all that happens when we gather around the table. Just to begin, I’d like you to stop and think about the meals you’ve had this week – who was there, what you ate, the table you shared. Remember one of those meals, what was good about it.
Our Scripture passage for today is about a shared meal. We almost have a shorthand for this text; when people asked me during the week, “What is our passage?” all I really had to say was, “Jesus feeding the five thousand.” It’s a good story, one of food and fellowship, it has a happy ending.
But to find the full sweep and magnitude of this passage from Matthew, we have to go back just a bit. We have to understand that Jesus has just heard of the death of John the baptizer, and we have to think about what an impact that might have had on Jesus.
This was the man who had stood with Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, stood in the cold, rushing water of the Jordan River, calling on God to bless the journey ahead; to do through Jesus, the perfect will of the Holy One for all of humanity. John had been there at the moment when God’s voice proclaimed, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” pouring out the Spirit in blessing, proclaiming God’s pleasure with the One sent on our behalf.
John’s path had diverged from the path which Jesus had taken, but we know from the Scriptures that they were both aware of the other’s ministry. Jesus undoubtedly knew that John was in great peril, that he had been imprisoned for speaking truth to Herod, that his life could end at any moment.
But we think, it must have been a wild shock, nevertheless. When the message came, on rushing feet, with a breathless voice, “John has been killed!” – we can only imagine the blow to Jesus’ heart, and how grief must have filled him.
And so Jesus goes apart. To find some quiet, to come to grips with the loss of John, that powerful prophet of God who never feared to speak the truth, and had given his life for it. To pray, “Father, into your hands I commend my brother John. Receive him with love.”
The people in the city hear soon enough. Confused, worried, they seek Jesus out, hoping perhaps for some reassurance that God’s plan was still on track. That Jesus could still redeem what seemed to be unraveling moment by moment.
Jesus sees their fear and the illness it brings on. We know, don’t we, when our lives are flying apart around us that it is our bodies which give way. An aching stomach, an aching head, a wound that won’t heal, our bodies react to stress almost before we can wrap our heads and our hearts around what is going on.
Jesus’ response is to begin healing. We can imagine the scene, with people lining up, the disciples helping, person after person saying, “It’s my arm, Jesus… It’s my knee… It’s my heart, Jesus, it’s broken…”
Hour after hour Jesus and the disciples work. The day lengthens and then begins to move into evening shadows. Everyone is exhausted. Realizing their own hunger, the disciples ask Jesus to send the crowd away so they can find food.
Ah, but Jesus has one more healing on his mind. No, he says, we’re not going to send anyone away. You feed them.
These strong and faithful men must have felt every atom of their helplessness. “All we have,” they answer, “is five loaves and two fish – barely enough to take the edge off of our own hunger. Even if it were only the twelve of us and you, we could eat it all and our stomachs will be rumbling by midnight.”
Jesus often waits. He waits for us to know what we need. He waits for us to ask. He waits until we really understand because he knows that the lesson we really need to learn will not stay in our hearts and grow there until we are ready.
He asks the crowd to sit. He takes the loaves of bread and breaks them, just as he would later break bread at the table with his friends on the night when he was betrayed.
For a long time, I thought of this as magic. Jesus took the bread and broke it, and everyone got to eat. But Jesus’ action was so filled with miracle. The first miracle was that, by sharing such a small thing – just five loaves and two fishes – he opened the hearts of the people to one another. You see, we expect that in that day and age, when there were no fast food restaurants on every corner, people who left their homes or went out of town carried food with them. So it is likely that the families who followed Jesus out of his hometown had brought something with them. But they may have been reluctant to eat, thinking that others who had no food would ask to share.
As difficult as this miracle would be, to turn people to each other in compassion, the greater miracle I think is this – that in showing the crowd (and the disciples) what could happen when their hearts were opened, Jesus made present the fullness of God’s hope for humanity. In this small and simple act, in breaking bread and sharing it, the undeniable abundance of God our Creator and Sustainer breaks through all of our reservations and fears about what is possible when the people of God live into God’s promises.
We are people called to abundance. I like the way Walter Breuggemann puts it: “When you are with Jesus you are inescapably in the bread business.”
It is so easy for us, who are uncertain about the future, who are worried about today, to think that we cannot, will never, have enough. It is so easy for us to look around us and think, “I may not have even what I need, so I had better protect what is mine.” Our resources, our time, our energy, our hearts. Why give away what we may need for ourselves and for our own? Especially when we are weary.
But it is on that day: when it is as it was for the disciples and the crowd, when the bad news is just overwhelming, when leaving is the only thing that you know how to do, when you’ve gone as far as you can and you still need healing, it is on that day when you should reach into your pocket, for God has filled your pocket with all you need.
Remember, Jesus did not send the crowds away. He does not send us away. He does not tell us, “Go and feed yourself.” He takes what we think will be barely enough and makes it more – not even just what we need, but everything overflowing, abundant. He breaks bread for us daily, he feeds us at his own table, healing not only our pains, but the deepest fear that we hide in our hearts: that there is not enough of God’s love to go around. Reach into your pocket every day, and find there what you need. Jesus will feed you. And through you, he will feed the world.