The feeding of the 5,000 men plus women and children is one of the greatest stories about Jesus but it is not a story that can be taken apart. For instance, did the baskets magically keep being refilled? Why were exactly twelve baskets of food left over? How did it happen that baskets were available for the disciples to distribute the food? Who counted the people?
I once had a teacher who said we should cut the dogs tail off in little pieces so it wouldn’t hurt so much. The point of the story will be missed if we try to explain it. Something far greater than the world’s first cafeteria was at work. This is God’s story and that’s where we begin.
Imagine God sitting up in heaven shortly after the earth was completed and populated. The first thing that kept people busy was their lusting after the things that belong to God alone. I doubt that God was pleased. Things had gone wrong from the very beginning with Adam and Eve. Then Cain killed Abel because he was jealous of God’s pleasure in Abel’s sacrifices.
After a long while, it appears that God thought it was time for him to really take over. He planted a new family tree beginning with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — and it wasn’t long before their descendants began to talk about how lucky they were that God had picked them. When the family had grown for a thousand years, they began to ask why God had elected them, of all people, and they arrived at two main messages that help us understand why the miracle of the bread and fish is important.
First, the ancient Jews believed that God had elected them for special privilege, but their pride was deflated when the prophets pointed out that they had been delivered from slavery in Egypt by God’s grace, and that they had been humiliated by the Babylonians. If they thought they were called to special privilege, their tragic history relieved them of that error.
The second idea the people got from the prophets was that they were supposed to suffer and die for the world. They were not anxious for that to happen, either. Finally, that responsibility of suffering and dying for the rest of the world fell on the shoulders of just one carpenter-rabbi who wore his best clothes to Jerusalem to preach about the real meaning of God’s kingdom.
A few years later after Paul played tourist around the Mediterranean, Matthew was moved by the spirit of God to write down the story of Jesus in such a way that the descendants of Abraham would catch another glimpse of God at work in their history. Matthew heard numerous stories about Jesus, his teaching and sermons, the sometimes dark stories he told and the parables.
He was too skillful just to paste them down like pictures in a family scrapbook. Matthew was led by the spirit to tell his story about Jesus so that the Jews would see Jesus as one of the family in the truest sense of the word and that Jesus had taken upon himself their responsibility for suffering and dying for the world. In dying without asking how long he’d be in the tomb, seemingly deserted by God, Jesus demonstrated his total reliance upon God. In his last breath he still called out in faith, “My God, my God…” not wanting to believe that God had forsaken him.
Matthew then looked through his catalog of family stories and the new stories about Jesus, and he began to see the connections that make the miracle of feeding the multitude important to us. Everybody knew the family legends, of how God had delivered their ancestors from the Egyptians, especially how he had given them the nourishing manna in the wilderness.
Matthew saw a connection between the story about food in the wilderness and that symbolic long march from Egypt. He set the stage for the story. It was a lonely place at the end of the day. The disciples and followers had five loaves and two fish. Not enough. But when Jesus got his hands on what would have been less than a hungry customer could eat at Red Lobster, it fed all who were there.
The leftovers were ten or twenty times greater than what they had started with. People who knew the story of manna in the wilderness would see this episode in a special way. This story would open up a new way of thinking about God’s activity in the life of the world. Just as the Israelites were fed from heaven on their way to the Promised Land, so Jesus came to feed people caught in the wilderness at a lonely place, when daylight was fading to dark.
Do we know anyone — do we have to look far to find someone — who is caught in a wilderness, in a lonely place, when the hour is getting late? I don’t believe we should call for a show of hands. Jesus Christ has taken upon himself all the awesome mission of God’s elected people, elected to suffer and die, and we realize that we are there, lonely, in wilderness, in fading light. We are cast solely upon the mercy of God.
We don’t need to explain our predicament to the Almighty. He sees that we are hungry, that our supplies have run low, that without a miracle, many of us would go home in the dark, hungry and weary. Is there anyone who has an unsatisfied hunger that has nothing to do with the next meal? Is there anyone who has an inner darkness not related to the time of day?
Is anyone lonely in spite of being surrounded by people? Is anyone lost in a wilderness not the kind marked by briars and desolation? Isaiah knew what God had to offer, hundreds of years before Christ, when he painted God as kind and generous to the point of offering wine and milk and bread without price, freely available to all.
He put words in God’s mouth: “Come and buy wine and milk without money and without price. I will make with you an everlasting covenant. The holy one of Israel has glorified you.”
Matthew leaves part of his story to our imagination, expecting us to fill in the missing words– with the result that we can claim the story for ourselves according to our own circumstances. We do that especially in our hymns. For instance, the well-known Abide With Me starts with asking God’s presence for the approaching nighttime, as daylight fades and darkness deepens, as upon the crowd so long ago.
But then we sing not of fading daylight but of the coming of death.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away.
Hold thou thy cross before my dying eyes,
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies;
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
We call it the feeding of the five thousand, but the story is so not about bread and cold fish. It is about how God in Jesus Christ comes into the loneliness of our wilderness and feeds us with the comfort of his goodness and the promise of an eternal feast.
We are the great throng of people around Jesus, and in his compassion for us, he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities. He gives us himself now, and only now are we satisfied.
In gratitude, we can only ask, “Lord, can we be transformed to do your work on earth below? Can we deliver you to others?”
Jesus, dying and rising, has overcome in his resurrection the final foe of the human race. He is the bread of eternity.
Can we receive him as our bread of life? Can we live looking toward that great feast which is to come?