HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
August 6, 2017
Matthew 14: 13-21 (CEB)
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. 14When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion for them and healed those who were sick. 15That 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.”
16But Jesus said to them, “There’s no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.”
17They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves of bread and two fish.”
18He said, “Bring them here to me.” 19He 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. 20Everyone ate until they were full, and they filled twelve baskets with the leftovers. 21About five thousand men plus women and children had eaten.
Where we pick up in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has just learned that his cousin and good friend, John the Baptist, has been beheaded by Herod. Matthew tells us that “When Jesus heard about John, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” It’s the obvious reaction. This is the kind of thing any of us would do if someone we loved died, or worse, was murdered. In those first moments of grief and shock, we want time to cry. We don’t want to have to converse with people. Maybe we want a quiet place where we can let our memories come flooding back and remember with joy and sorrow the person who is no longer with us. It seems that this is exactly the kind of thing Jesus has in mind as he boards a boat by himself and heads out to what Matthew describes as a deserted place. Jesus doesn’t even take any of his disciples with him this time. He is all alone and headed to a place where he can have some peace and quiet to grieve John the Baptist.
The problem, though, is that word of Jesus’ plans got out at lightning speed. Crowds from all the cities and towns in the area begin flocking to meet Jesus. So before he can even pull the boat ashore in this supposedly deserted place, the crowds are thronging around him. They are desperate to see him; to hear him; to touch him. I can’t imagine what that must have felt like for Jesus. I think if I had been in his shoes, I would’ve totally lost it. When I need quiet time, or alone time, I don’t typically handle it well if I get interrupted. And here Jesus is; grieving a cousin who has died unexpectedly; brutally beheaded by Herod. Aside from his grief, Jesus was likely feeling some anger toward Herod, but also some fear about what fate awaited him, another rogue prophet threatening Roman rule. Then, he gets interrupted, but not by one or two people; he is met by a throng of thousands.
It’s interesting to think of all the different ways Christ could’ve responded to this unexpected mass of people filling his isolated spot and interrupting his quiet time. He could’ve turned his boat around and paddled off to some other isolated place; the Sea of Galilee is no small pond. Christ very easily could’ve found another quiet spot, or even just drifted in the middle of the water. Or, he could’ve pulled the boat ashore, climbed out, and told the crowds to “scram!” Jesus is the Messiah, but that didn’t keep him from expressing anger from time to time. Or, I suppose Jesus could’ve moved forward with his plans, seeking to ignore the crowds that were gathered around him; though I think that would’ve been nearly impossible. But the really amazing thing is that Christ didn’t do any of those things. When Christ rowed his boat ashore hoping for a few moments of solitude, peace, and quiet to deal with his own grief, he didn’t blow off the crowds that had gathered in interruption of his solitude. Instead, Matthew tells us, “He had compassion for them.”
At this moment when Christ himself needs someone to have compassion on him, to comfort him and console him in his grief, he instead comes face-to-face with this massive crowd dealing with their own hardships, and “he has compassion on them.” So Jesus started healing the sick. For the rest of the day he moved among these thousands, healing people one by one until evening came. The only reason Jesus stopped when he did was because the disciples came to him and suggested that he send the people away so that they could go into the villages and get something to eat. It’s almost kind of humorous. I can imagine the disciples looking on, perhaps a bit bored, as Jesus healed the people for hours on end. Then their stomachs begin to growl, but Jesus wasn’t showing any signs of stopping, and nobody in the crowd seemed too concerned about it either. It’s almost like the people didn’t even notice the time. They were hungry for something different, and Christ knows this. So he tells his disciples, “There’s no need to send them away, you give them something to eat.” And this, of course, is where things get really interesting.
The Rolling Stones had a hit song back in the late 60s, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” If you are familiar with the song, then you know the chorus, “You can’t always get what you want/ You can’t always get what you want/ You can’t always get what you want/ But if you try sometimes well you might find/ You get what you need.” There’s a lot of need in this story of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus needs some time apart. Throngs of sick people need healing. The disciples feel that everyone needs to be fed. Some of those things happen, some don’t, but in the end, we see that everyone got just what they needed.
Of course, the main event here was getting the entire crowd fed. That would be a feat in and of itself, but the really amazing thing was that Jesus and the disciples managed to make it happen with the few meager provisions they could pull together from here and there; five loaves of bread and two fish. The disciples thought the people needed to go into the villages to get food. If they had, they probably would’ve eaten a lot more; maybe adding some fruits or vegetables to their bread and fish. But that wasn’t what they needed. These folks were being fed in a different way on this day, so when the disciples carried around the bread and fish that had been blessed by Jesus, everyone found that they had more than enough to fill them.
There’s a great deal to learn from this amazing, miraculous story; where people don’t necessarily get what they want, but they get exactly what they need. It begins with Christ and the fact that in the face of immense grief Christ doesn’t turn the crowds away, but instead has compassion on them. I wonder how life’s difficulties would take on a different “air” if in the face of sorrow or struggles, we turned our energies toward compassion and service. We think that we need that time, but what if Jesus is showing us a different way to face the difficulties of this life? What if we don’t need time alone, but instead we need time with others, and in particular time serving others? Indeed, God desires for each of us an abundant good life. And I think Christ is showing us right here that one of the ways we experience that as God’s people is to have compassion and serve others no matter what’s going on in our own lives.
Owen’s favorite show, really the only one he watches, is “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” And every episode has its own little jingle that captures the theme or message of that show. In one of the first episodes Owen ever watched, the jingle went, “If something’s bad, you turn it around, and find something good!” Jesus turned his grief around. He saw an opportunity to do good; to help hurting people and in some way make their lives a little better. The real miracle of this story is the generous heart of Christ, which in turn unites believers with the generous heart of God, bringing good on all it touches.
That generosity, of course, is shown not only through Christ’s compassionate healings, but also in the feeding of the crowds. And it’s important to note that, really, the feeding of the 5,000 was more the work of the disciples than Christ. By Jesus’ instruction, the disciples brought the meager provisions of bread and fish to him, and then after he had blessed the food, they carried it back out among the people to feed them. When Jesus instructed the disciples to feed the crowds and engaged them in this work, part of what Christ was doing was letting the disciples know that they need to “dream bigger;’ they need to see the greater vision of God’s work in the world. Then, they need to engage themselves in that same work. And the reason the disciples’ work matters is because it is a great sign that when Christ’s disciples work together and follow Jesus, not only will God give us the power to work for good in the world, but we will have more than enough to accomplish God’s purposes. People in the world are hungry. As Christ’s disciples, as the church, we are called to feed them. If we are willing to do the work, then God will most certainly work the miracle.
Max Lucado tells the story of sitting at the red light of a busy intersection one day when he noticed a man walking toward his car. The man stepped off the curb, bypassed several vehicles, and started waving at Mr. Lucado. He carried a cardboard sign under his arm, a jammed pack on his back. His jeans were baggy, his beard scraggly, and he was calling a name, “Max! Max! Remember me?”
Max lowered the car window. The man smiled a toothless grin. [He said], “I still remember that burger you bought me.” Then Mr. Lucado says, he remembered. Months, maybe a year earlier, at this very intersection, Max had taken this man to a corner hamburger stand where the two enjoyed a meal together. He was California-bound on that day. “I’m passing through Texas again,” he told Max. The light changed, and cars began to honk. Mr. Lucado pulled away, leaving the man waving and shouting, “Thanks for the burger, Max.”
Max reflected, “I had long since forgotten that meal. Not him. We never know what one meal will do….When we provide food stamps, we stave off hunger. But when we invite the hungry to our tables, we address the deeper issues of value and self-worth.”
We never know what one meal will do. The feeding of the 5,000 showed that Christ is ready to feed this hungry world. And if we will avail ourselves to Christ, we will find that by God’s blessing, folks will receive just what they need and there will be more than enough for everyone.