(Other Lectionary readings for the day: Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 17:1-7, 15, or Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21; Romans 9:1-5)
This is a remarkable passage, and you might want to start out by admitting that to your parishioners. It’s found in all four of the Gospels, and twice in Matthew and Mark. No other story is like it in that regard. (Two of the Gospels have birth stories, only one has the story of Lazarus being raised from the grave, only one has the story of the Prodigal Son, etc., but this is in all four and repeated in two.)
Why is that? There are (at least) two options. One is that Jesus only fed people once, but that the communities of the evangelists were so overwhelmed and taken by the experience that they reproduced the story six times in the four Gospels. Another is simply that Jesus spent far more time feeding people than we have historically given him credit. Either one of these presents a challenge to the reader, interpreter and our churches. (There are, of course, more explanations, and some more nuanced than these, but both are at least credible.)
Start your sermon with some background that leads up to the story: John was just executed as a terrorist by the authorities because they thought that he was inciting people to riot against the empire (which was not an outrageous assumption, by the way). After Jesus hears of this, he goes off on a boat trying to get to a “lonely place by himself.” This was possibly to pray (though Matthew tends not to talk about prayer), or possibly for fear of Herod who had just assassinated his cousin for doing things not unlike what he was doing. However, the hills soon filled up with people who had heard stories about him, and they all came out looking for him. Was their arrival a testament to his charisma? Reputation? Who knows.
The numbers are interesting. They could be as high as fifteen to twenty thousand if you note the fact that the number crunchers in those days would not have counted the women or children, which could possibly have doubled or tripled the attendance. Matthew in fact hinted at that when at the end of the story he added, “And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children (14:21)[a]
Of course, by the end of the day, everyone winds up hungry. The disciples had only packed a basic peasant’s lunch of a few loaves and fishes, so what should they do about the others? When Jesus asks about it, they defaulted to a plain market-based answer. They said, send the people into the towns, and let them buy their own food. That, of course, was impossible. For one thing, most were poor and sick (and homeless) or else they wouldn’t have been out there following Jesus in the first place.
As it happens, homelessness and extreme poverty were at crisis levels in Jesus’ day. The transfers of wealth out of the poor regions and into the wealthy ones had decimated the rural areas where Jesus did most of his ministry. For them, this wandering prophet was a rare possibility for hope. Today, our structures for aiding those in need have been constantly weakened for decades. But even with that, they are still far better than the near zero government aid of the First Century.
The “free market” was (and is) simply not a mechanism to handle poverty and hunger. One of the findings of Thomas Pickety’s recent book, Capital,[b] is that left to its own devices, economies based on markets alone will always create greater and greater inequality and more and more poor people. The only countries that have contradicted this trend are countries that have instituted policies to circumvent it, that is, countries that put higher taxes on the wealthy and higher supports for the poor. One country that illustrates this is Brazil that in the early days after it became a democracy, increased taxes on its wealthy and benefits for its poor. And, in spite of a truckload of other problems that need to be addressed, inequality went down and the income of the poor went up.[c] Conversely, in the US, for the last thirty years, we have been cutting taxes for the wealthy and cutting benefits for the poor, and the result has been an increase in poverty and an increase in wealth inequality. Studies in the US have also found that increases in food stamps have the greatest impact on stimulating economic growth, while cuts in taxes have the least. In other words, our present generations-long model of economic development has in fact increased inequality, not decreased it.[d] The two are related.
So, what did Jesus do?
Jesus responded to their “market-based” response to his question by saying that the hungry people around them don’t have to go away. You (the disciples) will just feed them. They complained (slightly) about that, saying, but, all we got is these three loaves and two fishes. What we have is not enough.
You might stop here and say that it’s interesting to preach about these stories in the Bible of feeding the hungry because here in the US we have an epidemic of obesity. Back during the Obama administration, when Michelle Obama began her “Healthy Eating” program, and several school systems started instituting healthier foods, some Republican parents got angry (not that there’s anything wrong with being a Republican, but it was only Republicans who got angry). They were quoted as saying something along the lines of, “this is a free country and the government has no right to tell our kids not to gorge on sugar and fat if they want to.” I might have paraphrased that a little loosely with a bias in the wording, but that is still pretty much their argument. Meanwhile while American kids get wider and wider, we can watch TV every night with videos of Darfur, Sudan, Niger, and others in Africa starve.
You might also want to note here that the logo for the Christian world hunger organization, Bread for the World, is the loaves and fishes, and that this story is where it came from.
So, the disciples worried about how little they had to offer. “There are so many of those people down there,” they might have said, “and our resources are so tiny.” Jesus responded simply: Bring me what little you have and let’s see what happens. So, he took the bread and broke it and blessed it and gave it to his disciples and they distributed it all to the crowds.
And at the end of the distribution, all were fed, all were filled, and they had twelve baskets of leftovers.
One way to look at this brief exchange is to say that the disciples were thinking out of a theology of scarcity: we don’t have enough to go around. We can’t feed all of those people with our meager provisions. Somewhat similar to the comments we hear so frequently today, that America (the richest country in the world) is so poor that we cannot afford to care for the poorest people among us. We should quit all of those social programs for poor people because we can no longer afford them. We’ve had so many tax cuts and so many wars that we are deeply in debt. We just don’t have the Federal resources any longer to keep so many people on Food Stamps (SNAP) or WIC, or School Lunch programs, or the Earned Income Tax Credit (though that last one was instituted by a republican President and seems to maintain modest but fairly non-partisan support). We can’t feed those people the disciples said, because as a community we don’t have the resources to do it.
Jesus on the other hand, had a theology of abundance: that is, share what you’ve got because ultimately God provides everything anyway.
It is, of course, true that you can’t feed everyone. It’s true that there will always be suffering. It’s true that you’ll always have children going to bed hungry every night. (Here might be an appropriate place to share statistics from the Children’s Defense Fund on the rise of childhood hunger and poverty in America.) You can’t make it go away. You can’t end it for everyone, everywhere, forever. Jesus certainly did not feed all of the people in the world, nor did he try. But that is no reason to do nothing and let those whom you can save die.
Possibly tell the old, old, story of the starfishes on the beach. The guy was on the beach after a storm rescuing them one by one. A friend came up to him and said “you can’t save them all. Why are you out here? You can’t make a big difference.” The man said back, “Yes, that’s true, but it makes a pretty big difference to this one,” and he threw another back out into the water.
When I was a kid in church camp at age 15, one of our camp sponsors led a Bible Study in the morning on one of these six feeding stories. At the end of it he asked, which is actually the greater miracle: for Jesus to radically change those few loaves into an abundance of loaves, or for Jesus to change the hearts of the people who were there to teach them how to share? What’s the greater miracle for us? For Jesus to do all of the work for us, or for Jesus to change us to enable us to do it.
I was changed by that question. And I’ve never gotten over it. And I never looked at the Bible or my role as a Christian the same way ever again.
Do we have enough money to change the community? Do we have enough people to spread the word about the gospel? Maybe not. But we do have a theology of abundance that says that we do what we can do and in the end we will see a miracle.
Text and Exegetical notes:
Feeding the Five Thousand[e]
13Now when Jesus heard this,[f] he withdrew[g] from there in a boat[h] to a deserted place[i] by himself.[j] But when the crowds[k] heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore,[l] he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them[m] and cured their sick.[n] 15When it was evening,[o] the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place,[p] and the hour is now late;[q] send the crowds away[r] so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
18And he said, “Bring them here to me.”[w]
19Then he ordered[x] the crowds to sit[y] down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven,[z] and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples,[aa] and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled;[bb] and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces,[cc] twelve baskets[dd] full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
[a] It might be nice to note here that “The United Nations, in a famous report on the status of women some years ago, estimated that women worldwide do two-thirds of the work, received only one-tenth of the wages and own only 1 percent of the property.” (Reuther)
[b] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge Massachusetts (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: 2014).
[c] "Addressing Inequality Will Be a Long Struggle in Brazil." Nytimes.com. 23 Oct. 2014.
Retrieved, 1 Aug. 2017. Madeleine Bunting. "Brazil's cash
transfer scheme is improving the lives of the poorest | Madeleine
Guardian. 19 Nov. 2010. . Retrieved, 1 Aug. 2017.
[d] Mark Zandi, Moody's Analytics. "An Analysis of the Obama Jobs Plan | Moody's Analytics Economy.com." Economy.com.
[e] The event occurs when Jesus, having withdrawn to a deserted place, re-enacts the miracle of God’s supply of food for his people during the Exodus of Israel, when the people were fed in the desert through Moses. A second miraculous feeding is described in Mt 15:32-39; Mk 8:1-10. In both sets of stories, the action words -- took, blessed, broke, gave -- in the distribution of the bread mirror the language of the Christian Eucharist (Mt 26:26; Acts 2:46). Even women and children participate. Cf. Mk 6:30-44; Lk 9:10-17. (Kee, Cambridge Study Bible)
[f] “Heard this,” that is, John’s death, not Herod’s misunderstanding of whom Jesus is. See Mark’s parallel, which is more clear. “In both earlier places where ‘heard’ is followed by ‘withdrew’ (2:22; 4:12), a potential danger is met by withdrawal. This makes it likely that the same is true here.” John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: The New International Greek Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2005), p. 588.
[g] “Withdrew” (anechōrēsen, vb. aor., act., ind. 3rd per., sing.). “The same verb occurs three times in eleven verses in chapter 2. Each time the ‘withdrawal’ was a response to a dangerous situation,” Roger E. Van Harn, “Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 82. “Matthew has manipulated the chronological connections so that Jesus' withdrawal (ἀναχωρέω anachoreo) comes as direct response to the announcement of John's death. The geography here is not entirely clear; Matthew apparently wants the reader to understand that Jesus withdraws to the other side of the lake, where Herod Antipas has no authority. Once again, the sovereign representative of the kingdom of God, when faced with the hostile power of the kingdom of this world, does not respond with violence, but demonstrates the nature of his kingship by withdrawing,” Eugene Boring, New Interpreters’ Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995).
[h] “In a boat” (en ploiōi). Contrast this with the crowds who follow him “on foot” (pezēi, some mss. have pezōi). The difficulty of him hiding out in a lonely place by boat, but thousands of people following him on foot may have led some copyists to omit “boat” allowing him to also walk.
[i] “A deserted place” (erēmon topon). Better, “remote place.” The dominant thought is remoteness from supplies of food, not a desert. It is, after all, along the populated coast of the Sea of Galilee. More “deserted” than “desert.” Probably intended to evoke Exodus symbolism. Vincent says, “The first meaning of the word is solitary; from which develops the idea of void, bereft, barren” (Word Studies in the New Testament). Thayer’s adds: “Used of places (a desert, wilderness; deserted places; lonely regions; an uncultivated region fit for pasturage) and persons (deserted by others; deprived of the aid and protection of others, especially of friends, acquaintances, kindred)” (Thayer’s Greek Definitions).
[j] “By himself” (kat’ idian). “Privately.” The Greek may mean that Jesus went alone into the wilderness, but then what about the disciples? He probably went with the disciples with the intention of getting some quiet-time; “to go to some place where he could be alone,” CEV, or “where they could be by themselves,” JB. Possibly further describing the “desolate place,” namely, “he went by boat to an uninhabited and secluded district,” Weymouth, but the meaning “privately [with the disciples]” is more likely. (Bryan Findlayson, www.lectionarystudies.com)
[k] “The Crowds.” “In line with a frequent preference, Matthew chooses ‘the crowds’ to introduce those who will intrude on Jesus’ solitude,” Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 589.
[l] “When he went ashore” (exerchomai, v. aor. part.). “To go forth” (so kjv), or “to come out.” Presumably out of the boat in which he was seeking retreat. The niv has, “as he got out” (of the boat). “But the general sense of the verb may well support ‘when Jesus emerged from his retreat,’ Phillips,” Bryan Findlayson, www.lectionarystudies.com.
[m] “He had compassion for them” (esplanchnisthē ep’ autois, vb. aor. Pas). “Was filled with tenderness / pity toward...” “He felt sorry for them,” CEV, fails to bring out the strength of the word, so, “he was moved with compassion for them to the depths of his being,” Barclay (Findlayson, www.lectionarystudies.com). Note that Matt. is following Mark here, but abbreviating. He has already used Mark’s “he had compassion because they were like sheep who do not have a shepherd” (Mk 6:34; Mt 9:36) and can’t easily use it twice. Cf. Nolland, Gospel of Matthew, p. 589.
[n] “Their sick” (tous arrōstous autōn). “Without strength” (rhōnnumi and a privative). Esplagchnisthē is a deponent passive. The verb gives the oriental idea of the bowels (splagchna) as the seat of compassion. (Robertson, Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament) See Matt 9:36, “When he saw the crowds he had compassion for them” Note that in Mark’s version, Jesus’ compassion leads to teaching, not healing. Luke’s version has both.
[o] “Evening” (opsios, adj., gen., sing, fem.). From opsé, after the close of the day. Late in the day. Thayer’s places the time as, “a. either from three to six o’clock p.m.” or “b. from six o’clock p.m. to the beginning of night.”
[p] “This is a deserted place” same verb as v. 13 above.
[q] “The hour is now late” (hē hōra ēdē parēlthen). The meaning is not that it’s dark, but that it’s past meal time. Perhaps, “The hour has passed when they should have been eating.”
[r] “Send the Crowds away” (apolyson tous ochlous, vb., 2nd per., sing., aor., act., imp.). “Release,” “dismiss,” “depart,” “let go.” Although worded as a command, the sense was probably softer, even an enquiry, as in, “shouldn’t you send the people away?” (Findlayson, www.lectionarystudies.com)
[s] “They need not go away” (Ou chreian echousin apelthein). “Matthew adds this brief comment by Jesus as a way of shortening and clarifying the exchange in Mark 6:37-38. Jesus makes the disciples understand right from the start that he is not thinking about having the crowds go away and get food in the surrounding villages. Instead the disciples are to give them food” (Daniel Harrington, S.J., The Gospel of Matthew (The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN, 1991), p. 219.
[u] “They replied” (hoi de legousin autōi ) “but they said to him” Unfortunately, de (but) has not been translated. It would have given an adversative tone, to express the disciples’ reaction, “but, but, but.” It’s a word of contrast and contradiction.
[v] “We have nothing here but…” (Ouk echomen hōde ei) Literally, “not have except...” The negation is emphatic expressing the disciples’ negative reaction; “we have nothing here, but ..,” Weymouth. (Findlayson, www.lectionarystudies.com)
What the disciples have is a plowman’s lunch, a meal for a poor person, cf. Jn.6:9.
[w] “Bring them here to me.” Matthew adds this verse to Mark’s version, which he is following closely, for clarity. Jesus has to have the loaves in his hands before he can break and distribute them.
[x] “He ordered the crowds” (keleusas tous ochlous) aor. part. “He directed,” “commanded.” “His master ordered him to be sold as a slave” Mt 18:25.
[y] “Sit” (anaklino, vb., aor., pass., inf.). Translated here and in most other translations (but see the English Majority Text Version) as “sit.” However “since it literally means ‘lie,’ it is possible that the reclining position for celebrating meals is being invoked” Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 592.
[z] “Looked up to heaven” (anablepsas eis ton ouranon, aor. part.). “Looking up [to heaven]” Also could be translated “having received his sight,” as it has elsewhere in Matthew, but the word obviously has the sense here of looking upward to the sky above.
[aa] “blessed ... broke ... gave.” See Mt. 26:20-27. “All the individual elements are of course also part of a normal Jewish meal pattern, but in any Jewish text reporting a meal they will be largely assumed and never formally reported as a set. They are reported here as a set because of the parallel with Eucharistic practice.” Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 592.
[bb] “Were filled” (echortasthēsan). Effective aorist passive indicative of chortazō. “Were satisfied,” i.e., “filled up,” “to eat one’s fill.” The word is used of fattening animals, therefore of a satisfying meal. Here, completely satisfied, “they had eaten more than enough.” (Findlayson, www.lectionarystudies.com). “Cattle were filled with grass and people usually with other food. They all were satisfied” (Robertson’s Word Pictures of the Greek New Testament).
[cc] “Broken pieces” (tōn klasmatōn). “Fragment,” “piece,” “crumb.” “Here, it may not mean crusts and half eaten food left over, but rather untouched bread and fish. ‘The broken portions that remained over,’ Weymouth translation” (Findlayson, www.lectionarystudies.com).
[dd] “Baskets” (kophinos, κόφινος n. acc. pl. masq.). A basket for carrying things, Also a measure of volume of about ten liters.