Pentecost 8A: The Real Miracles of the Story

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Do me a favor and resist the pedestrian temptation to call Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand a miracle. It’s not that I don’t understand the appeal of describing this event as a miracle – it’s in all four gospels and all that – or that it’s technically inaccurate – what Jesus does is rather wondrous. But I nevertheless worry that by drawing attention to Jesus’ act of feeding these crowds we actually may actually overlook the more significant miracles that take place in the story Matthew narrates.

Here’s the thing: while we may debate whether Jesus suspended the natural order to feed the five thousand or whether his example merely prompted the crowd to share what it already had, these just weren’t the concerns of the earliest Christians. Keep in mind that Matthew told us in the first chapter that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us,” and for the one who made the world out of nothing and created light from darkness, multiplying some food and loaves was no major feat. Moreover, Jesus wasn’t the only one living in the first century that people claimed was working wonders. Nor was he the only one people hailed as a messiah. He wasn’t even the only one to claim to be the son of God. (Goodness gracious, most of the Caesars did that!) Neither Jesus nor his early followers imagined that stories about wondrous acts would convince people of Jesus’ divine origins. Rather the wonders Jesus performed were, as John is most consistently adamant about, always signs of the character of the God whose presence Jesus bears.

Which is what brings us to the first of two miracles described in this story that are anything but pedestrian: the point isn’t what Jesus does, but why. Because the character of the God Jesus reveals and represents is captured in a single word, “compassion.” Matthew says that when Jesus saw the great crowd that had followed him he had compassion on them. And so he healed their sick, tended their needs, and shared with them his presence. And then, when evening came and they found themselves without food, he fed them.

Notice, before going further in the story, the context of this scene. It begins with the transitional line, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” The thing Jesus just heard about was John the Baptist’s murder by King Herod at a feast. The juxtaposition couldn’t be more ironic, or powerful. One moment Matthew invites us to focus on one more episode from the “lifestyles of the rich and shameless” and in the next he fastens our attention on a scene portraying poor, sick, and hungry crowds looking for relief. It’s like switching channels from the Kardashians to a news report on immigrant children stranded at the border. Matthew is indicating by these contrasting scenes just what kind of God Jesus represents.

In the first century, you see, gods aren’t normally supposed to care about people like the crowds. The gods of the ancient philosophers, for instance, were considered dispassionate and so were regularly referred to by cozy names like “the Unmoved Mover” or “First Cause.” At the other end of the spectrum, the gods of the Greek and Roman empires were notorious for using humans as playthings and for ordering the world to their whims. At best, gods were supposed to take the side of the rich and powerful, to stand with people like Herod and his well-fed party guests, sanctioning their exploitation of the poor and even the bloody murder of a truth-teller like John. They were definitely not known for siding with the oppressed, the ordinary, the downtrodden, or the hungry.

And yet that’s what happens here, as Jesus renews, embodies, and fulfills the consistent call of the God of Israel to feed the hungry. Make no mistake, that was no minor endeavor, as what we now call “food scarcity” wasn’t only known in the ancient world, it was rampant. And so the disciples’ suggestion that these hordes of people go buy food isn’t just unrealistic – they are, after all, out in a deserted place – it’s ridiculous…and even a little insulting, as the folks making up these desperate crowds probably didn’t have money to buy food in the first place. And so Jesus tells his disciples to get over their callous self-concern and feed them themselves.

Which brings us to the second miracle of the story: Jesus uses the disciples, even when they would rather look after themselves, to tend the needs of these thousands of men, women, and children. Using words and actions foreshadowing the Last Supper, Matthew depicts what happens when you move from a worldview of scarcity – “we have nothing here but five loaves and fishes” – to one of abundance – “thank you, God, for these five loaves and fishes.” Whatever their initial skepticism, or doubt, or self-preoccupation, the disciples are caught up in Jesus words of abundance and gratitude and distribute what they have and participate in the wonder and joy that “all ate and were filled.” God used even these reluctant disciples, that is, to care for the poor and hungry that God loves so much.

And that miracle continues. When a college-grad eschews a high-paying job in order to teach disadvantaged kids, God’s miracles continue. When a parent puts dreams of an academic career to the side to care for a special-needs child, God is working that same kind of miracle. When a church makes the wrenchingly difficult decision to celebrate its century of faithful service and close its doors after significant decline in order that another ministry might flourish, miracles abound. When one student stands up against bullies in defense of another student, the God of compassion is again miraculously revealed. When a fledgling community of faith makes a promise that no one that comes to its doors will be turned away hungry, God is still at work performing miracles through disciples eager, reluctant, and everything in between, miracles that easily rival those reported in today’s reading.

Because the real wonder of this story is that it continues: God still cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable – the poor, the immigrant, the hungry – and God continues to use us to care for them. And so perhaps, Dear Partner, we could pass out paper cut-outs of loaves and fishes and ask our people to take them with them, write down when they notice God working through them and others to care for the vulnerable, and bring back their miracles to put in the offering plates or plaster on the walls next week. Or maybe if you’re serving communion this week you can remind us of the similarity between these scenes and send those of us who have been fed by God’s heavenly food to go and do likewise, sharing God’s love with all we meet and especially with those in deepest need.

There are two miracles in this story, Dear Partner, which have little to do with simply multiplying loaves and fishes, and by pointing us to see them you also equip us to continue them. And that is no small thing at a time like this. Thank you, and thank God for you and for your faithful words.

Yours in Christ,

PS: If you are by chance preaching on the Semi-continuous Old Testament text, you can find my take on Jacob wrestling with the angel here.

Post image: “Jesus Multiplies the Loaves and Fish” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.