Jesus Feeds the 5,000+
I like to refer to this story as “Jesus Feeds the 5000+”. It’s not as catchy a name or convenient a number, but the bible records that the 5,000 number was just counting the men in attendance, not including the women and children who were there. While I think it would have been no less miraculous if Jesus had fed 30 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish, I refuse to continue bible publisher’s patriarchal narrative of the account. There were women and children there as well; they ate, they count, they matter.
I’ve listened to the commentaries provided by those at Luther Seminary who put out this Narrative Lectionary and heard this sermon preached on probably a half a dozen occasions or so throughout the years. And what I know from those experiences is that there are seemingly endless ways to exegete this passage of scripture, that is, to look at this story.
There’s the aspect of what’s happening before we find Jesus and His disciples here, of John the Baptist being beheaded. When our lectionary passage for today begins with “Now when Jesus heard this.” The “this” being referred to is the news Jesus had just received of John the Baptist being ruthlessly killed. So, some read it as a story of grief and perseverance and radical love and service and how those are all present in Jesus.
Some have preached on the idea that even Jesus needed to “withdraw” to a “quiet place” before he continued His ministry. Kind of a contemplative approach. Still others have preached on it from a humanitarian stand point, of the call of Christ being one to heal and to feed. And I may touch on that today.
But the aspect of this story that I have never heard anyone preach on are the miracles themselves that are present in this story. And I have my theories as to why. I mean, it may be because it seems like the miracle of multiplying the food is so obviously the main event that it’s maybe not worth touching on? It’s not too cryptic seemingly. And Jesus healing the sick in the crowd is a miracle as well, but it’s not exclusive to this passage. That’s present in many stories in the Gospels and in much more detail in some cases.
I wonder if we’ve heard this story so many times that this unfathomable miracle just doesn’t seem all that miraculous? My guess is that it doesn’t have much to do with this passage in particular, but that some of us just don’t know what to do with miracles, right? We don’t know how to think about them in a pragmatic enlightened society.
You know a couple summers ago I was reading a book called The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi. Maybe some of you have heard of it or read it. The “little flowers” in the book are the miracles St. Francis is said to have performed in His travels because of his trust in the Lord. Most of the stories in this book are quite miraculous, and to be honest, a little unbelievable.
It was in the reading of this book a few years ago that I had to confront how I felt about miracles. And I would have this inner dialogue as I would read an account of a St. Francis miracle and I would think, “No way”
I would ask myself, “well why not”
I would answer myself, “because that’s impossible”
And I’d go, “well you believe in miracles when Jesus did them”
To which I’d say, “well yeah, but that was Jesus, Francis isn’t Jesus”
And then I would remember Jesus own words to his disciples in the Gospel of John. He said, “Very truly I tell you that whoever believes in me will do even greater things than these.” And that dialogue continues to this day for me and, think if we’re honest, will continue forever.
I bring up that story, not to get into that conversation here, but to say that I think the disciples have a similar, doubtful mentality, initially, in our passage today. Not fully thinking it through, and yet they do get there I think. Verse 15-18 read:
“When it was evening, the disciples came to [Jesus] 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.”
See the disciples aren’t God -but Jesus is God. I know it’s kind of a funny sentiment, but that’s the heart of the message of this story for me today.
I think the most commonly missed extraordinary act in a story chalk full of miracles is on the part of the disciples. This miracle is made possible by the faith that someone would think, “If I hand this food that I have here over to Jesus, something might be different?”
See I think there’s two big misconceptions about the miracles in this passage and about the concept of a miracle today:
1. The first is that belief comes after the miracle.
That if God could just prove something to me first, then I would believe. See the disciples in this story had to believe first that if they handed over what little they had to God that a miracle might just happen.
My Old Testament Professor at Seminary, Dr. Thronviet, lectures to his classes about the fairly common misconceptions we can hold about belief in our culture and in the church. The idea that what constitutes belief is thinking a certain way about a handful of Christian doctrines that means you ‘believe’ in Christ.
When he lectures on this topic he likes to tell this story from a few decades ago, when individuals performing tight rope stunts across the Niagara Falls were popular. Someone would start by just walking across, then another performer would do it blindfolded, and so on, each attempt more extravagant than the last. Eventually someone said he was going to walk across the rope pushing a wheelbarrow. A huge crowd gathered, and he goes from one side to the other, with everyone cheering. He asks to the crowd “Who believes I can go back across now?” A guy in the front of the crowd says, “Yeah, I believe you can. Go for it!” And the tight rope walker says, “Alright, why don’t you come hop in the wheelbarrow then!”
2. Which leads me to my second misconception about miracles: that they are easy.
See the disciples had to get into the wheelbarrow so to speak. They had to hand over the food. And it takes belief to hand over what you’ve got. I am sure that here it did because it’s my understanding that this was their food! I don’t think the disciples were carrying around 5 loves and 2 fish just in case there were 7 hungry people in a crowd of 5000+!
And even after that, Jesus does not just say the magic words and everyone’s stomachs are full! It was not a case of the disciples just handing the food over, and God will do the rest. The old thoughts and prayers approach that so many politicians love to employ today. Verse 19 reads that “Jesus ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass” and the disciples gave the food to the people. See that’s why I say that upon first glace someone might read this passage and think miracles just happen. No! Miracles take work. It might actually cost you something and then you might have to go out and put your back into it if you want to see a miracle happen.
So Jesus’ multiplication of the food was a miraculous act of God, I don’t want you to miss that. Like I said earlier, the disciples aren’t God, but Jesus is. But Jesus miraculous multiplication of the food didn’t mean that people were fed. That was the disciples’ job.
And this is still the language that we use today regarding these kinds of situations and issues, right? If I said that we could end hunger and food insecurity within our lifetime, someone might say “Oh wow, that would be a miracle, wouldn’t it?”
So, how fitting is it for this passage that while the United States Government was using the food on thousands of Government workers and contractors tables as collateral during this latest shutdown, that this congregation, in collaboration with other churches, religious groups, and humanitarian efforts were supporting organizations like the Little Kitchen Food Shelf to provide food for that “crowd” of food insecure people, if you will? It’s incredibly fitting. I wonder how many of those parents, directly affected by that shutdown who were wondering how they were going to feed their families that week, looked at the food provided by those organizations and saw a miracle?
Scott Bessenecker, a professor and author I heard speak once at a workshop, said, and I’ll never forget this, “I don’t think it’s the existence of extreme poverty or extreme wealth that breaks God’s heart. I think it’s the co-existence. I think it’s Lazarus at the gates of the rich man.”
So while it’s true that we can never forget that it is our job as the church and followers of Christ to feed those who are hungry, like in this story, it is also our job to stand against powers and systems that make people impoverished to begin with. And if you would like other examples of this happening in really inspiring ways please research Dr. Rev. William Barber and the Poor Peoples Campaign. It’s an incredible movement. It’s miraculous really.
See the thing is whether you have a strict definition of what a miracle is or a loose one it doesn’t change the fact that Jesus and the disciples feeding those over 5,000 people in that “deserted place” was a miracle. And, yet some might also call concepts like eradicating poverty by speaking truth to power and dismantling the systems that perpetuate it a miracle too. But the thing about our God is, that our God does miracles. Matthew 14 tells us that. And they’re not figurative, they’re literal. But Matthew 14 also tells us that God doesn’t do miracles alone. Amen.