Isaiah 55, 1-3 + Psalm 135 + Romans 8, 35, 37-39 + Matthew 14, 13-21
Saint France of Assisi Parish, Castle Rock, Colorado
This story is so important to followers of Jesus that it is found in every one of the four Gospels. It is a miracle story, and the experience and consequence of a miracle is lost by efforts to explain it away. The idea that this is really just a “spiritual” feeding or that everyone had hidden some food for themselves and suddenly decided to put all together to have enough trivializes the miracle. In the Bible, a miracle is something unusual, inexplicable, incomprehensible, disturbing, unexpected, and shocking. It is something that amazes and explodes the ordinary into something by which God lifts people out of their indifference and causes them to turn to God. Miracles are always signs. They happen where there is faith. They strengthen and affirm that faith, and they attract others to believe. We proclaim a miracle story in this assembly that ought to disturb us and lift us out of indifference.
As the story begins, the disciples want to dismiss the crowds, but Jesus will have none of that. The disciples have food, the crowd has nothing; and they know that these people are hungry. “Go home.” is the message the disciples have for these people who are away from home in a distant place and hungry. Those apostles think they have just enough for themselves, and trying to share it with that crowd is going to leave everyone hungry. The situation has a very strong parallel for us today with thousands of children far from home in a strange place. Telling them to “Go home” because we barely have enough for ourselves makes me think we need to take this Gospel more seriously and study it more deeply. Jesus says, “Sit down.” Asking the disciples what they have makes them grow a little uncomfortable about the way things are going. Then Jesus says, “Bring it here to me.”
What they have is the food poor people eat there. While there is a suggestion that a banquet might be coming with the request that the men recline, it is not the menu of a banquet. Serving fish and bread would be like serving peanut butter without jelly on stale bread. It’s not much of a feast. There is no wine! Then a miracle happens. It is a sign of God at work. It is a sign that explodes the ordinary, awakens us to how God works, what God expects of us lifting us out of indifference and turning us toward God. That is what happened to those people and the disciples.
The miracle happens when they obey Jesus, and bring to him all that they have in spite of their fears and self-centered concerns. The miracle happens when they obey Jesus and serve the crowd with what they have in spite of their anxiety that it isn’t enough. In Matthew’s Greek, the command “You, give” is extremely strong and emphatic. There is no stronger verb form. Suddenly out there in that deserted place, God is present and provides as God always does. God provides through Jesus and through the apostles, and God still does.
Jesus, the human presence of God’s compassion acts and shows us what compassion can do. Compassion you know, is not a fleeting emotion. It is an enduring attitude. It is not just a quick response to a bad situation. It is a consistent way of looking at and responding to distress all the time.
We will never be sent away to fend for ourselves says this Gospel. No one will. God continues even today to say to us, “Bring me everything you have.” When we do and then follow the next command: “Feed them yourselves.” No one will be sent away hungry. God never intervenes in the world by overriding human freedom and human independence. God made us free always preserving and respecting that freedom. So God does not override what humans ought to do. Miracles do not destroy the natural order of things, but bring them to fulfillment. A shocking and marvelous miracle happened out there in that deserted place because humans did what they ought to do in spite of their fears to the contrary. The compassion of God was revealed in the compassion of human beings to others.
The consequence was a little left over and a warning not to waste it. Don’t think that twelve full baskets was a lot. Given the report that five thousand not counting the women and children were fed, it suggests that there was just enough. The story suggests that God will provide with a little to spare, but there must be no greed or waste, because if there is, some will go hungry.