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.
There is only one miracle story that is found in all four gospels, and that is the feeding of the 5,000 – plus the women and children. Whatever happened that day, it caught the imagination of the Gospel writers. We can debate over whether an actual – factual – miraculous event occurred in which Jesus multiplied a few loaves of bread and a few fish to feed thousands. To do so likely misses the point of the story. As Brian McLaren suggests, when it comes to miracle stories, perhaps we should consider a third alternative viewpoint, which stands apart from the traditional yes and no arguments. Instead “we could ask another question What happens to us when we imagine miracles happening?” That is, what does this story do to us now? How does it challenge our assumptions and imaginations? Thus:
Perhaps, by challenging us to consider impossible possibilities, these stories can stretch our imagination, and in so doing, can empower us to play a catalytic role in co-creating new possibilities for the world tomorrow. [McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 97].
Keeping in mind Brian McLaren’s suggestion about a story like this playing a catalytic role in creating new possibilities for the world, what might we hear in this passage for today? Consider for a moment that in Matthew’s gospel, this story follows immediately after Herod has had John the Baptist executed. Jesus, knowing that his co-conspirator in proclaiming the realm of God has been killed, wants to get away from the crowds, so he can regroup. Could he be next? His attempt to get away – to go on vacation – fails. Jesus’ inability to get away reminds me of what it must be like to be President. Stuff just follows after the President. He can’t let down, even for a moment, or someone will criticize him. Besides, he takes with him a team of advisors. I’m reminded too of how President Lincoln found it necessary to get away from the White House, just so he could think about what was happening in the war effort. So it is with Jesus. He needs to find a quiet place, a place in the wilderness. He even takes a boat so he can evade the crowds. But his efforts to find a secluded spot falter. When he sees them, he has compassion for them, and he begins to heal their sick.
As the day began to wind down, the disciples began to get anxious about the crowd. They had to be hungry, and a hungry crowd can be an unruly one. Fear is setting in. So, they encourage Jesus to bring the healing session to a close and send them off to the surrounding villages, so they can find something to eat. We can understand their concern. Anyone who is tasked with logistics understands that you have to make sure things don’t get out of hand.
Jesus, as you might imagine, has other ideas. Although he had refused to turn stone into bread to feed himself, he was willing to provide nourishment for those who had come to him seeking his blessing. Doing this was, of course risky. People can get used to such things – as John reminds us (John 6). They can get the wrong idea, especially if they think you’re the one who will rescue the nation from its current overlords. At this moment in time, as Matthew tells the story, Jesus isn’t too worried. Instead, he tells the disciples to feed the crowd. Yes, he tells them, you feed them. They’re flabbergasted. How does Jesus expect them, twelve guys, who can scrounge up just five loaves of bread and a couple of fish between them, to feed this massive crowd?
Jesus won’t be deterred by their groans (don’t you hear the groans between the lines?). He simply asks them to give an account of what they have. They say they have nothing, but they do have something. They have five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus tells them to give what they have to him. He looks up into the heavens, acknowledging God’s presence, gives thanks, blesses it, and then he gives the disciples this food and invites them to distribute it to the crowd. With that many people, this would take a bit of time. When they finish, Jesus asks them how it went. Did they have enough to feed everyone? Was it like a typical church potluck, where there’s always more food than people? Amazingly they had more food after the feeding than before. How that happened, Matthew doesn’t say.
This story invites us to consider the hidden abundance that is in our midst. I don’t know how Jesus did it. Was it a miracle? Or did Jesus set the example for those who had brought food for themselves, never intending to share, but finding it appropriate to share what they had once Jesus started the distribution? Again, we’re not told how it happened, only that everyone ate, was filled, and there was more food left over than when they began.
What about us? What about the hidden abundance that is present in our midst? Do we feel as if there is nothing in the pantry, or is there enough present to be used by God to bless others? As I think about this story, I’m reminded of the children who have come to our borders from Central America. They’re fleeing poverty and violence back home. Some of the children are as young as six. They’ve traveled hundreds of miles, often sitting on the top or sides of trains. They’ve risked death to make it to the Promised Land. Some hope to be reunited with family. Others simply hope that their journey will lead to a better life. What would Jesus say to them? Would he turn them away or would he say to us on this side of the border – you feed them. You clothe them. You house them. We say, but what about the cost. We can’t afford it. There are too problems here at home. What would Jesus say to us, as we down a second helping of dessert? There are no easy solutions to the crisis at the border or to the challenges facing our urban centers and rural heartlands. There is plenty of poverty here at home – but the challenges of the border don’t prevent us from handling these crises. We’ve been ignoring them long before these children showed up at the border.
The story of the feeding of the 5000 falls not just after the death of John, but in Matthew’s version, it comes after Matthew has laid out his collection of parables of the kingdom. He has shown us through Jesus’ words what the kingdom looks like (Matthew 13). Now, in a series of miracles we see additional signs of the kingdom. There is healing, there is feeding, there is power. How do these stories release our imagination? How do they dislodge the hidden resources so that they can be brought forth and used for the good of the kingdom?
The way in which Jesus goes about feeding the 5000 should evoke in our hearts and minds the image of the Eucharist. In the story of the Last Supper, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, and gives it to the disciples. They are told to continue the practice, eating and drinking, in memory of Jesus. As we share bread with our neighbors, are we not remembering Jesus? Does not the act of giving serve as an act of thanksgiving? Should we not begin to see the sacramental table of the Lord being an open one that takes many forms – including the soup kitchen or welcoming the children knocking at our borders?