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Sunday Worship 6 August | Loaves and Fish

Updated: Jan 18

Matthew 14:13-21 | NIV
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.


It’s a classic Sunday School story, and perhaps you haven’t given it much thought since childhood, but as one of only a handful of events that is recorded in all four gospels, it was a foundational story for the early church. In fact it seems that in some early Christian traditions, it was this miraculous feeding rather than the last supper that was the primary narrative that inspired the common meal of the church. Its influence is certainly clear in the eucharistic liturgy found in the early church manual called the Didache, which we have drawn on before and will use again this morning.  Something about this story of abundance was recognised by all four writers as deeply significant, and so it calls for us to understand it as more than just a party trick.


This week I discovered a rather unexpected way to get deeper into the story, as someone pointed out to me the links between this miraculous picnic and the twenty third psalm. I’m sure it is a familiar text, but I will take any opportunity to read it again, so let’s hear it now:


The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.


The connection between the two texts may not be immediately clear, but bear with me because it starts to emerge as we look around the story. The passage we heard begins by telling us that “when Jesus heard what had happened he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place”, and if we look back a few verses we see that what has just happened is the beheading of John the Baptist. Jesus has just heard of the death of his cousin, which must also have felt like a threat to his own life, given the common nature of their ministries. He is grieving and he is fearful, and perhaps the crowds have followed him to comfort him or to protect him or mourn with him. It is possible that some of them had been baptised by John and introduced to Jesus by his teaching, and so his killing would surely have shaken them too. They are walking through the valley of the shadow of death together.


Jesus has compassion on the crowds, perhaps because he recognises their shared sorrow, and so when evening comes and it is clear that they need to eat, he does not want to send them away. Instead he tells them to sit on the grass, and he blesses the little food they have, so that everyone is able to eat their fill. It always seemed such an odd little detail, specifying that they sat down on the grass, but perhaps it is not just an arbitrary bit of scene setting. Jesus makes the crowd rest in green pastures and he lays a feast before them.


And once everyone has eaten, Jesus dismisses the crowd and sends the disciples ahead of him in a boat, while he goes up the mountainside to pray. He still needs the time apart that he had sought to begin with. It would be fascinating to know what he prayed that night, how he reckoned with his grief and fear, but like all of us Jesus deserves the dignity of some privacy, and there is still assurance in knowing that he faced the same kind of reckoning we all do. And then just before dawn, he walks across the lake to join the disciples, and he calms the winds that have rocked the boat so that they can land safely on the other shore. He leads his followers on still waters.


I don’t know if this sequence of events was deliberate, but it is remarkable. And to really bring the point home, in Mark’s account of the feeding of the five thousand, we are told that Jesus stays with the crowds because they are like sheep without a shepherd. This then is what it looks like to be led by the good shepherd. This is what goodness and mercy look like as they follow us all the days of our lives. This is what it means to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. A community centred on Christ and shaped by compassion in which all are cared for.


Let’s go a little further with those ideas of compassion and community. In the first place, I think it is significant that Jesus’ decision to feed the crowd is not motivated by a sense of duty because he is the reason they are there, or by a desire to control them because he knows they would follow him anywhere. An army marches on its stomach, and Jesus could have raised an army at this point. Just as I was always puzzled by the specific mention of grass, so I have always wondered why the writer describes the crowd as five thousand men plus women and children. Why not count everyone? It would give a more impressive number. Perhaps, given that women and children did not fight, what we are meant to understand is that there were five thousand potential soldiers there, which is about the size of a Roman legion.


This crowd could have been the beginning of a violent revolution. Jesus clearly has their affection, and he could have used the food to secure their loyalty, and then whipped them up into a frenzy at the injustice of the death of John the Baptist. Five thousand unarmed men may not have been able to do much, but they could have caused enough damage to shock the empire, and they could have inspired other insurrections. Jesus could have taken this opportunity to become the Messiah so many expected, but actually he does something far more radical. Instead of telling the crowd to march, he tells them to sit. Instead of drawing all the attention to himself, he quietly blesses some loaves and fish and then gives them to the disciples to share among the crowd. And instead of taking the crowd with him as his own militia, he sends them home so that he can pray. He shows us a different way of being at odds with the world.


Finally, I think we need to play closer attention to the roles played by the crowd and the disciples in this story. I wonder if the crowd even knew they were part of a miracle that day. Did they know that the feast they shared came from a handful of food, or did they assume that lots of people were finding food in their packs and pockets and sharing it out? And I wonder if the miracle could even have happened without the disciples distributing the food. Did they keep going back to Jesus for more, or did what they had in their hands just not keep going? When I imagine this story, I see the disciples handing food to groups who share it between themselves, and this being replicated over and over again, so that nobody really knows where the food is coming from, only that there is enough.


For me there is a sense in which this story is less about creating dependency on Christ as the source of blessing, and more about creating community with those who share Christ’s blessing. It is a reminder that the promises of the twenty third psalm are not for us as individual sheep, but for us as members of a flock. I do not wonder that it was such a foundational text for the early church, and I think it should probably be a more significant text for the church today. May we see in it a glimpse of what it means to be a community centred on Christ and shaped by compassion in which all are cared for.

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