I have heard this story of the Feeding of the Multitudes hundreds of times. One of the stories we know best in the Bible. I’ve preached on it multiple times from different angles, but until now, I had never put it in context with what happened before it. This is an event that ALL four gospels capture. Mark it in synoptic gospels and let’s look at what happens prior to the miracle Mt. 14, Lk 9, Mk 6, Jn 6.
Both Mark & Luke tell a story of the return of disciples from their first ministry tour when Jesus sent them 2 by 2. They are coming back – exhilarated & exhausted, with stories to tell of healings, exorcisms, perhaps stories of failure & rejection. Stories they need to process with their teacher Jesus.
We could understand that Jesus wants to take them on retreat, so to speak, so they could process all that they had experienced. They’re probably exhausted, in need of solitude.
“Come away with me to a quiet place and rest awhile,“
he says to his disciples as the crowds gather around them at the edge of the Sea of Galilee. I hear tenderness and longing in those words.
But if we look carefully – we also see in Mark & Luke as well as Matthew what also occurs before this story of the Feeding of the Multitudes. It’s a tragic story of a different kind of feast – one that includes, privilege, entitlement, power & violence. It’s the story of Salome dancing before King Herod, where she asks for the death of John the Baptist, because he had dared to call out some atrocities within the palace. After Herod’s feast, we see people taking John’s body to a tomb. Herod’s feast led to death.
Both Mark & Luke place the desire to go away to a deserted place in context with the Disciples return, but look at what Mt. 14:13 does. The NRSV reads:
“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there to a deserted place.”
NIV: “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.”
But listen to the subtle difference as the CEB explicitly states
“When Jesus heard about John, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
I had never considered the connection of this story to the one that comes right before it, the story about what happens to John the Baptist. This may well be the impetus that drives Jesus into the wilderness. To grieve, to pray, to figure out what to do next. He just lost his beloved cousin and prophet, the one who baptized him. A brutal reminder that God’s beloved are not immune to violent, senseless deaths. Jesus must be heartbroken. He wants to withdraw from the world for a moment.
The gospel of Matthew says:
“When the crowds learned of John the Baptist’s death, they followed him on foot from the cities.”
I imagine they follow Jesus because they have heard about his miraculous healings & profound teaching, perhaps curious, but now I wonder if it may have been more symbolic, because of the news of John the Baptist. They too were grief stricken, heartbroken, probably angry, AND looking for some direction from Jesus. Mark writes: As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. One more prophet gone/executed. God’s voice to the people had been silenced once more.
Thousands of people follow Jesus – at least 5000 men, not counting women & children. Depending on the leadership, it wouldn’t take much to turn the crowd into an angry mob. We’ve seen that kind of leadership exhibited throughout history whipping up a mob into frenzied chaos. Remember the crowd that yelled Crucify! Countless other times throughout history to the present day. Jesus had the possibility of an army. He could easily have sought revenge. But that’s not what happens.
UCC pastor, Rev. Leslie Moughty from MN writes this:
Instead of manipulating their anger and grief to perpetuate more violence, Jesus looks upon the crowds with compassion. Instead of reminding them of their pain, he heals them. Instead of marching the crowd into violent retribution, he invites them to sit. Instead of breaking bones, Jesus breaks bread. Instead of reminding them of the scarcity of their resources, he preaches abundance and everyone ate and were filled with food to spare. Instead of fear, there was comfort. Instead of hate, there was love.
While Jesus was aware of his need for rest and solitude, and for his disciples as well, he balanced the tension between self-protection/restoration and compassion. In this moment he didn’t allow his weariness and grief to overwhelm his compassion. He realized that he was the last stop for those aching, desperate crowds. Sheep die without their shepherds, or with the wrong kind of leader.
And so, Jesus and his disciples respond to the needs of the crowd: people who are sick want to be healed. People who are hungry want to be fed. People who are grieving want to be consoled. People who are angry want to learn how to funnel it into justice-making.
How do we respond to acts of violence, aggression, or injustice? Like Jesus and his disciples, we may need to go away to a deserted place, put our heads in the sand or on the sand for a while. But we also need to come back. How might we, like Jesus, be called together, to respond with love & compassion. And notice where the compassion is directed. While there is no retaliation or revenge against Herod, neither is the focus on showing love and compassion to Herod, but instead the focus is on how Jesus acts and leads and inspires those who are affected by Herod’s injustice. Jesus calls on us to love and pray for our enemies, but that is not the same as tolerating abuse and oppression.
It is a far easier task to allow our fear, anger, sense of powerlessness or grief control our actions. The more difficult spiritual practice is to respond to the question Jesus asks of his disciples: “What do you have? How many loaves and fishes do you have? How much compassion and generosity are in your wheelhouse? Go and see.”
And when the disciples take stock of their literal, material assets – 2 loaves of bread and 5 fish, it doesn’t seem like much to them. What Jesus actually sees is internal – God-endowed assets – an unending, abundant well of compassion, love, generosity, goodness & joy that includes the ability to heal and feed and restore more than 5000 people.
Do we trust that when we don’t feel like anything we do will EVER be enough, that God can take what we have and work with it to do amazing things? When we are in the midst of righteous anger or grief, we may want to retaliate or withdraw because we feel powerless or overwhelmed. Perhaps that is the time to look at who and what is in front of us. Here. Now. Jesus calls us to a path of healing, peace, abundance of grace.
The feast that the Heroes of the world offer to the world lead to death and oppression. The feast that God lays out through Jesus, and now through us, leads to life. God meets us in the hungry places of our lives, and satisfies us with abundant generosity. “They all ate and were satisfied”. There were even leftovers. Jesus said, “I have come to give you life, and life abundant.”
30The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 35When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” 37But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” 38And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. 42And all ate and were filled; 43and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.45Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.
47When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. 49But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 50for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 51Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
53When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.