Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O God, my strength and my redeemer.
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
Jesus had been told that his cousin John the Baptiser had been beheaded by Herod. Herod had had a birthday party at his palace. There was entertainment, dancers and an abundance of food, John was part of the entertainment. Both John and Jesus have challenged Herod and his friends for their collusion with the Imperial power of Rome and the neglect of the poor and marginalised of Israel.
Jesus was upset, he needed time to reflect, perhaps to pray; but above all to be still, and not have people bothering him. Then thousands follow him to the deserted place.
We have an interesting juxtaposition of fear and death (in the story of John’s beheading) with that of fulfilment and abundance in the feeding narrative. The murder of John the Baptist is a result of power confronted and hypocrisy exposed. Where fear reigns, violence cannot be far behind. While the blood tinged birthday banquet represents the old order with its fear-mongering and death-dealing ways, the feeding of the five thousand heralds the new order: fullness of life and health for all (even women and children).
This juxtaposition couldn’t be more ironic or powerful. One moment Matthew is inviting us to focus on one more episode from the lifestyle of the rich and famous and in the next verse our attention is fastened on a scene portraying poor, sick and hungry people looking for relief. For the majority of the population in the first century Mediterranean world; food scarcity was the norm.
A few years ago when I was studying theology I was astounded by the comparison of the first century world and our own. Overcrowding, poor quality housing, densely populated cities, unemployment, poor health, urban drift and poor supply of food. They are the adjectives used to describe the world most of the people we see at the Mission. Nevertheless this is our reality and was the reality for the followers of Jesus.
We will never know how Jesus feed what was likely to be twenty thousand people, as the five thousand only referred to the number of men, and it doesn’t matter that we have an explanation. What is interesting is that this event is recorded in all four gospels. This miracle story is about highlighting having faith in a God of abundant life. Abundant life is not having more ‘stuff,’ it is more about doing and giving. This is quite a hard concept for some to grasp in our very consumer driven society.
Capitalism and consumerism drive the economics of our society. We are encouraged to spend our money in numerous places; the malls, cafes, restaurants, on travel and at various entertainment venues. We work to earn money and then spend it. It doesn’t sound very satisfying does it? For most of us this is an empty and unproductive way to life. The other side to this work-spend scenario is unemployment and the inability to spend. Throughout the world unemployment is now causing huge problems, especially unemployed youth. Our economic system of capitalism can no longer be maintained however we have no other viable option on offer. In the meantime we have worldwide social and ecological problems that need to be addressed urgently.
Warren Buffett, the world’s third richest man said of our economic system recently:
“… The rich are always going to say that, you know, just give us more money and we’ll go out and spend more and then it will trickle down to the rest of you. But that has not worked the last ten years, and I hope the American public is catching on.”
This is similar to the world that Jesus came to change and bring to the Kingdom of God.
The miracle in this story is not the feeding of many thousand with a meagre amount of food. The miracle is God’s compassion for us has no boundaries and requires from us only faith and belief.
The last verse of this reading is both poignant and powerful. …and those who ate were five thousand men, besides women and children. This is an inclusive statement that must have been ignored or lost for thousands of years given the battles women have had to fight for inclusivity over the centuries particularly in the church.
Last week Diane Robertson spoke to you of a project called Family 100. I was a researcher interviewer on that project. We wanted to find out what kept people in poverty. Listening to families stories for the twelve months was at times painful and at others times I was full of admiration at their resilience and lack of self-pity. There was always someone worse off than them.
The disciples never quite got it. They always seem to annoy Jesus. It was a little like having teenagers who just never quite get the message. However I do sympathise with the disciples feeding thousands with such a small amounting is indeed daunting. Matthew’s miracle depicts what happens when you move from a worldview of scarcity - “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fishes” - to one of abundance and gratitude. Despite their shortcomings, God used those reluctant disciples to care for the poor and hungry.
The twelve baskets of leftovers are a reminder that in God’s economy there is always more than enough. God’s endless supply of goodness and generosity is available illustrating the transforming power of a God always on the lookout for the vulnerable. And in our willingness to share our ‘stuff’ (our food, our money, our time ourselves) we find our own transformation- sometimes a joyful process, often a costly one, always a consequential one.
Frederick Buechner said “Greed is the mathematical truism that the more you get, the more you have. The opposite of greed- the selfless love of God and neighbour- is based on the truth that the more you give away in love, the more you are.”
God is still at work performing miracles through disciples eager, reluctant and everything in between, miracles that easily rival those reported in today’s reading.
My work at the Mission needs your donations of food, clothing and money because without them we cannot provide the food parcels to those that need them. The distribution of five loaves and two fishes at this gathering was likely to have been the sharing of everyone’s food resource there that afternoon. The idea of everyone sharing their resources such as food and water may also be the way to deal with our world economic problems. This is the essence of this miracle story, compassion by giving and caring.
We, therefore, must be ready to assist others, be more God-like in our ability to demonstrate compassion to others, and be ready to feed others as God constantly stands ready to feed us. Let us not be people of indifference. Let us instead take the time, as did Jesus, to feed with compassion and love those who come to us seeking solace.