Who Does the Feeding?
Who Does the Feeding?
Scripture: Matthew 14: 13-21
This gospel story is so well known that at the beginning of the week I sat down and thought to myself ‘how do I say something new about this passage?’ It’s a piece of scripture that when we hear it, we can finish the story. Mention the feeding of the 5000 and people will say “Oh, the one about the bread and fish.” All four gospels share this passage, though they recount it in different ways.
How do we hear something new out of this passage?
Let’s start by slowing down our reading and asking questions about what Matthew is telling us. Our passage opens with the following statement:
“Now when Jesus heard this…”
What did Jesus hear? Matthew tells us, we just need to go back a few versus. We learn that John the Baptist, cousin to Jesus, has been executed. The disciples of John have just arrived and relayed this information. Jesus withdraws to be alone with his grief.
How often have you felt the grief of a situation that you sought solitude to help you process the events? Perhaps it’s the death of a loved one, being overwhelmed at work, or the challenges of family life. Sometimes, we need a break. We need to find an opportunity to withdraw and process what we are going through.
“But when the crowds heard it.”
There are a few things going on here and a couple of questions we can ask. First, what did the crowds hear? Did they hear that John the Baptist had died or that Jesus had gone by himself to a deserted place?
How we interpret that might say a lot about us. Did the crowd follow Jesus to console him in his grief or because they demanded more of his attention? Did the crowd know that John had been killed. Matthew isn’t explicit about these details in his gospel. He keeps it all rather vague. Chelsey Harmon describes it like this, “On my better days, I like to think that the crowd followed after Jesus in order to keep him company in his grief. That their presence was what they had to offer to a hurting heart and so that’s what they gave … To think that the Compassionate One might have received some compassion from us humans is a little spark of hope. Not because it proves anything about us, but that it proves something about the power of compassion to bring people together.” (Chelsey Harmon – https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2023-07-31/matthew-1413-21-3/)
I like what Harmon says here about compassion and how it brings us together. We see more of this as we progress through the passage.
This is made evident when we put the pieces of what Matthew is telling us together. Jesus withdrew, he went to a desert place, the crowd follows him to the deserted place.
“The Greek for “deserted” is er?mos, the same term that the Septuagint [the Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Old Testament] uses for the area to which God demands Pharaoh release the enslaved Israelites: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Send away my people that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness (er?mos)’” (Exodus 5:1, Septuagint).” (Nicholas Schaser – https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-18/commentary-on-matthew-1413-21-6)
The Greek word for deserted can also be translated as wilderness. Whenever the wilderness is referenced in scripture it is a message about the margins. All this feeds into the miracle aspect of the story, the bead and the fish multiplying.
We reading in Matthew, “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.”
“Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
Again a few things are going on here. We are in a deserted place, there are no resources. There is no food and so the disciples advise Jesus to send the crowd away. Jesus does the opposite and challenges the disciples to feed the crowd. A reminder that the disciples were also called to a ministry of helping others.
Now I will be the first to acknowledge that we can’t always help people in the way that we would like. Sometimes our efforts fall short and that can frustrate us as deeply as the need we see before us. That doesn’t mean we lack in compassion or that we give up. Perhaps it is a reminder to look at the resources around us and recognize we aren’t alone that there may be more than one way to solve the problem.
There is one other aspect to this passage that we don’t focus on. We get caught up in the miracle of the loaves and fishes that we don’t step back and look at the message that Matthew is trying to tell us. Yes, there is a message about caring and compassion, about the sharing of resources and serving our neighbour. However, Matthew is also completing a larger narrative here that spans his gospel.
Remember earlier when we talked about the wilderness? It’s more than just a message about scarcity. The link that was made to the Old Testament and the Exodus is very real for Matthew and his community. And Matthew links this message to what will come next.
Nicholas Schaser writes, “At the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus gives the bread to his disciples, and they give it to the crowds. By repeating this scene at the Last Supper, the Gospel implies that Jesus dies to release the crowds of his followers from their bondage to sin. Matthew’s rendition of the miraculous feeding both recapitulates the exodus and foreshadows the crucifixion to underscore Jesus’ role as the savior of his people.” (Nicholas Schaser – https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-18/commentary-on-matthew-1413-21-6)
Here is the really important piece. Jesus is the link between the Exodus, the Last Supper, and resurrection. Jesus takes us to the deserted place, but Jesus doesn’t feed the crowd. Jesus provides the blessing, the disciples feed the crowd.
Let me say that again. Jesus provides the blessing, the disciple feed the crowd. Amen.
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