Sunday, August 07, 2005

Understanding the Loaves and the Fish

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Homily on Matthew 14:13-21
by The Rev’d Timothy M. Matkin, SSC
Given at S. Alban’s Church, Arlington, TX on 31 July 2005

A man driving a van stopped to fill up the gas tank. He had a van full of restless rowdy kids. Someone at the next pump asked, "Are these all your kids or are you on a picnic?" He answered "Yes, these are my kids and NO, it’s no picnic!"

Summer is a time of picnics and outdoor fun for many people. In today’s gospel, even though the people gathered together outdoors in the spring, sitting on the grass, eating bread and fish, life was still no picnic. Just as it is with people today, they faced many difficulties. They had some burdens in common, and others burdens they carried alone. Some were sick and were looking to Jesus to heal them. Many of them lived in want and some in desperation.

Besides the crucifixion and resurrection, the story of Jesus feeding the multitude with loaves and fish is the only story one from Jesus’ ministry narrated in all four gospels. In Matthew’s account, there is an interesting contrast between Herod and Jesus. Of course, Herod is the Roman-approved King of the Jews, and Jesus would later be crucified for claiming to be King of the Jews.

In Mathew chapter 14, the eangelist gives us a sharp contrast is between the banquet of Herod’s birthday party and the banquet of the poor crowd gathered with Jesus. Herod fears the crowd and he fears what his guests might think of him if he goes back on his word to deliver the head of John the Baptist. Jesus, on the other hand, has compassion and cares for the crowd, even though they had interrupted his desire to be alone in prayer, perhaps to grieve over the death of John.
Herod is tricked into putting John to death. On the other hand, Jesus willingly provides life by curing the sick and feeding the hungry. Matthew shows us in Herod and Jesus the sharp contrast between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God.

In a lesson in unselfishness, Jesus and his disciples shared the little food they had, and in God’s provision, there was enough for all. This is one of many stories of God’s provision in the Scriptures. The Israelites were fed with manna in the wilderness. Elisha was supplied with food in abundance in 2 Kings to feed over 100 men with 20 loaves of barley. In Genesis, God supplied a ram for sacrifice in place of Abraham’s son Isaac. Abraham named the place Jehovah-jireh, or "the Lord will provide." Of course, the messianic kingdom is always pictured as a place of abundance--where no need goes unfulfilled.

Jesus sees the crowd and has compassion on them; they look helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. As messiah, he shows them God’s abundance by meeting their needs. The sick are healed instantly by Jesus alone. They present their needs and Jesus responds directly. The hungry are fed after a lot of work by the disciples. The disciples don't actually present to Jesus the need of the crowd, but their solution, which is: "Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves."

It seems like a reasonable request. The disciples assume (or hope) that the village markets will be able to cope with crowds of five thousand plus. Contrary to Jesus' teaching, they look first to the marketplace to supply the need, rather than to God. How often do we pray to God, asking him to bless our plans, rather than first putting ourselves at God’s disposal, by offering ourselves as servants of his plan? It may be that he has the better idea.

Jesus, seeing a teaching moment coming on, tells them, "They [the crowd] need not go away; you give them something to eat." The "you" is emphasizedgrammatically in the Greek text. Why does Jesus do this? What is the lesson? Perhaps "you" was just the word that the disciples needed to hear. When Jesus sees the sick, he heals. When he sees the ignorant, he teaches. When he sees the demon-possessed, he exorcises. When he sees the hungry, he provides food. When he sees disciples, he challenges them to follow his example: feed the hungry.

Have you ever thought about how much work it would be to distribute food to 5000 men, besides women and children--and then to clean up the mess? No wonder there were exactly 12 disciples and exactly 12 basketfuls picked up at the end? As apostles, it would be their labor to continue the banquet, to give others a taste of the messianic banquet, to give others a taste of the abundant provision that comes from God. It is no mistake that this passage has many parallels to the account of the eucharistic banquet at the last supper.

Matthew makes a strong connection between the two events in his language. The verbs "take, bless, broke, & give" are the same in Greek both times. Matthew also makes the strongest connect with the end time feast. When Jesus asks the crowd to sit down to eat, it is the same word he had used to say in chapter 8 that "many will come from east and west to sit at table to eat with Abraham and Isaac in the kingdom of heaven. One of the predominant themes of the Eucharist in the early Church was that this feast prefigures the heavenly banquet.

Even today, we continue the apostolic tradition of gathering as a crowd (even a small one) to "take, bless, break, and give." It is a reminder to us that even though we carry our own burdens, God can and will meet all of our needs. It is a reminder that we share in that work of God’s provision, the work of gathering up, handing out, and cleaning up after. It is also a reminder that we can have a foretaste of God’s complete provision even now, in the Eucharist.

St. Paul had more than his share of burdens. In today’s epistle, he notes that the passage that speaks to him best is, "For thy sake we are being killed all day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered." Nevertheless, he asserts that none of his hardships will come between him and the love of God. He understood the lesson of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude. As St. Paul would put it, the lesson is this, "In all things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."

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