Matthew 14:13-21 (CEB)
13 When Jesus heard about John, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. When the crowds learned this, they followed him on foot from the cities. 14 When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion for them and healed those who were sick. 15 That evening his disciples came and said to him, “This is an isolated place and it’s getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
16 But Jesus said to them, “There’s no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.”
17 They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves of bread and two fish.”
18 He said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves of bread and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them and broke the loaves apart and gave them to his disciples. Then the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 Everyone ate until they were full, and they filled twelve baskets with the leftovers.21 About five thousand men plus women and children had eaten.
In almost 30 years of ministry, I’ve been to a lot of potluck dinners! In bigger churches and smaller churches, in cities and small towns, in three states, I have never seen a potluck dinner run out of food. Well, there was this one time, but I was late because it was at Belinda’s church; I had to finish up at mine. I did get a piece of ham and two spoons of English peas – so, technically, it didn’t run out of food. Might as well have, though . . .
Then, there is the story of Stone Soup. It’s an old story, that appears in many forms in many countries. Two travelers approach a village with nothing but an iron pot. They build a fire, fill the pot with water and put a stone in the pot. Curious and suspicious villagers approach, asking about it.
“This is Stone Soup,” the strangers say. “It’s going to be delicious! It just needs a little extra something for flavor.” Each villager is willing to add that “extra something” – a few carrots, some spices, various vegetables – until the water becomes soup. Then, the strangers take out the stone and its ready! Everybody shares and is filled.
A lot of people think something like that happened in this gospel passage. Once people saw that others were pitching in, they contributed what little they had until all shared of the bounty and were filled. There was a miracle; the miracle was that stingy, suspicious people turned generous and trusting. Even if that was what happened, there is still a lesson to be learned. Just like in Stone Soup.
This miracle is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels. That’s remarkable. Of all the things that Jesus did, all the healing, all the teaching, this is the only miracle story that is reported by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (other than the resurrection, of course). Why? What makes this story so important? What does it teach us about God? About Jesus? About who we are as disciples?
First of all, the world ruled by the Roman Empire was different than ours. There were significant differences between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Perhaps our history books picture sumptuous feasts in marble palaces, rulers reclining while they are fanned with palm fronds and fed grapes by servants. It might have been that way for some, but not for the majority of people.
The people who followed Jesus “on foot from the towns” suffered from food insecurity – their supply of food was unreliable, insecure. They didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. Most people lived below the subsistence level of nutrition and caloric intake. No wonder they had so many sick people for Jesus to cure.
But, when you think about it, maybe the Roman world was not a lot different from ours. The USDA defines “Food Insecurity” as “a situation of limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire adequate foods in socially acceptable ways.” It’s not just lack of food, but lack of adequate and nutritious food.
One of the cruelest ironies of our world is that eating healthily is harder and more expensive than eating badly. It is much easier and cheaper to eat a bag of chips washed down by a “big ol’ Coke” than to fix a healthy and nutritious meal. Many times, with poverty comes obesity and other illnesses. Cruel and inhumane.
In 2016, 18.8% of Alabamians were “food insecure.” In 2017, according to an organization called Alabama Possible, 19.8% of people in Marion County live in poverty. The “Food Insecurity” rate for our county is 15% for adults and 25.8% for children. So, if we had a gathering of around 5000 people to feed, upwards of 1000 of them would be hungry.
Our own community’s “Backpacks and Beyond” program bears that out. It serves children in need by providing food for them to take home on the weekend. They send home food packages in four areas schools, as confidentially indicated by the teachers. Last year they averaged about 150 meals per week. 6000 packages in a 10-month school year. That’s a lot of food!
Many of us are like my wife’s great-aunts Laura, Ruth, and Dorothy. Once, they visited us in Huntsville. I was late coming home because I had to help a homeless man who came by the church. Laura, Ruth, and Dorothy could not understand how anyone would not have something to eat. They had grown up, like many of us, surrounded by land and people who knew how to cultivate the land. If you were hungry, you just went out to the garden and picked something, or you ate what you had canned for the winter, or you enjoyed a “Stone Soup” kind of moment where the community pitched in to help.
The six of us – Belinda, her aunts, her grandfather, and I – left dinner that night realizing that the world had changed; and that was 25 years ago! I would venture a guess that things might have gotten worse since then.
This is why Jesus prayed for God to give his people their “daily bread.” It’s why we still pray such today. First-century Palestine and 21st-Century Alabama aren’t that much different. The powerful still control the resources. The powerful (and make no mistake – most of us would be considered “powerful”) still enjoy health and wealth.
The “Feeding of the 5000,” as we have come to call it, reminds us of some truths about God, and being God’s people:
It is God’s will that all hungry people be fed.
- Countless Old Testament stories depict God providing for the poor. He feeds the Israelites on manna while they wander in the wilderness. Prophets condemn leaders for failing to feed the people (Ezekiel 34:1-10), and encourage God’s people to share (Isaiah 58:7, 10).
- Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, blesses the poor, the meek, and hungry (Matthew 5:1-10). He reminds his hearers to “give alms” to help those in need (6:2-4). He defends his own act of picking grain on the Sabbath (12:1-8). What determines one’s place in the final judgement? When you saw the hungry, did you give them something to eat (Matthew 25:35-45).
When God’s Kingdom comes, there will be abundance of food and feasting for all.
- Once again, Ezekiel and Isaiah speak of the day when God establishes his rule, trees shall bear fruit, the earth will yield it increase and all will be fed.
- In this passage, Jesus acts out the words of the prophets. In God’s kingdom, all are fed, with 12 baskets left over!
How does it happen? (I bet you know what I am going to say)
That evening his disciples came and said to him, “This is an isolated place and it’s getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus said to them, “There’s no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.”
The disciples mean well. They are only thinking of the well-being of all those people. They all need to eat. Maybe, though, they aren’t able to eat, or don’t have anything to eat. Sending them into town wouldn’t do them any good!
“You give them something to eat,” Jesus says. Today, you are going to be the miracle!