Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Divine Catering for Hungry Hoards!

In the reading from the gospel of Matthew chapter 14 we hear about one of Jesus best known miracles – the feeding of the five thousand: an act of divine catering beyond compare.

Or is it?

When I was in grade 8 at school, our religious education teacher set an assignment for us which was to come up with logical explanations for some of the miracles of Jesus.

If there were only five loaves and two small fish where did the rest of the food come from?

The answer we came up with was that everyone else had brought a packed lunch, after all, who wanders off into a deserted place without some food. As soon as the disciples started sharing, people in the crowd started going, ‘oh no that’s fine I’ve got some’, and ‘hey here’s some extra just in case someone else forgot’.

Now as I have matured in my faith and thought a bit more about the Bible and what it means, I think more often than not we get caught up in asking the wrong questions.

We get caught up in asking whether it really happened or how it happened but there are more important questions that lie beyond whether it happened or not.

One of those questions is: “What is Matthew, and presumably God, trying to teach us in this story about Jesus feeding the crowd?”

Now personally I don’t have a problem with the idea that Jesus actually performed the miracle, but why did Matthew write it down, what is Matthew really trying to teach us?

First off he is trying to emphasize that Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus is more than a magician who can do cool tricks with bread and fish; he is the messiah sent by God to save the world.

In the story we get an idea of this because Jesus has compassion for the crowd. Jesus had gone off to be alone because he had just heard that John the Baptist, who you might remember had baptised Jesus, had been killed.

Now I imagine Jesus may have been feeling like a bit of space, just to come to terms with John’s death. And, many of us when we feel down like a bit of peace and quiet as well.

So Jesus hops in a boat and heads off to a deserted place but by the time he gets there the crowd has already arrived. It’s not just a couple of mates intruding on his solitude we are told it is 5000 men, plus women and children.

Now Jesus doesn’t go, “Oh no, I just wanted to be alone, what are they doing here!” No, Jesus looks upon the crowd and has compassion.

Here Jesus expresses the depth of God’s love for people as he sees the needs that the people have and he cares.

What are this love and care of God like?

I saw on a T-shirt once that expresses something of what God’s love is like. Now it sounds a bit horrible when you first read it but I think there is something in it for us. It said:

“It’s lucky that God loves you because nobody else does!”

Yes it does sound a bit nasty.

But when I was thinking about it most of us in our life really want to be loved.

We want our parents to love us, we want them to understand us. We want them to treat us right.

We want our children to love us and know that we have their best interests at heart.

We want other people to accept us as we are; we want our friends to really care about us.

It is a basic part of being human. And whilst most of us hopefully do feel loved there can be times that we think that no one understands us, or we think that nobody loves us.

Sometimes the people who are supposed to love us the most are the ones who cause us the greatest hurt, which leaves us asking whether or not they really do love us after all.

What the T-shirt reminds us, admittedly in a pretty negative way, is that even if we feel like nobody loves us, just as we are, God does. This is the positive message the T-shirt has - regardless of what other people think God loves us! God loves you!

Jesus looked on the crowd and has compassion.

God looks on the crowd and loves us.

God even loves the people that we find difficult to love.

Ultimately this love of God is made real through Jesus in that while we were still sinners Christ died so that we might be made right with God. So, first off the story reminds us that Jesus compassion is an extension of God’s love and care for people because.

This leads me onto the second thing that we learn about from the story which is to do with the disciples. In many ways the disciples are pretty typical guys, they are just like the rest of us.

Jesus is healing and teaching and the disciples realise it is time for a snack. The crowd may have been getting a bit stroppy.

The disciples notice the rumbling tummies and come up with a plan – let’s tell Jesus to send the mob away so that they can go and get some food. What the disciples come up with appears to be quite sensible.

Yet in this plan we see the disciples doing what we do so often. We see the need people have and say it’s not my problem let’s send them off somewhere else.

Going back to the idea of whether people feel loved and cared for I think this can be a fairly negative experience. The disciples put up the sign “sorry capacity to care overload.” It is something we all do. ‘Sorry I’ve already given today, you go talk to someone else.’

But when we look again at the story and in particular the disciples what they hadn’t thought of was asking what Jesus thought could be done, instead of consulting their teacher and leader, they devise a plan all by themselves.

I think this reflects how we behave most of the time too. Using our logic and all the gifts and ideas that we have we come up with plans as to how to achieve things with what we’ve got. Then we go to God or maybe Jesus and say “OK, I’ve worked out what needs to happen can you give me the seal of approval? Can you help me make it happen?”

But is this putting the cart before the horse?

Jesus response to the disciples changes the plan, Jesus has got a better idea – the divine catering company will provide. Which leads me into the third point that I want to make about the miracle: God provides abundantly.

Jesus asks the disciples. “What have we got?”

“Just a couple of fish and these five loaves, Jesus.”

Now at this point I can see the disciples thinking, maybe a little cynically, “what’s he going to do now?”

The results as we know are amazing. God provides, in fact God provides abundantly, so that we see the left overs gathered up, and we presume kept for later consumption.

The story reminds us that God provides abundantly for us, despite the plans we come up with based on our limitations, God provides - even through the meagre offerings we make and this I believe is an important thing to remember.

Jesus said to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” It’s not that Jesus zaps a pile of fish’n’chips in front of all the punters. Jesus involves the disciples and what they have got to offer, as little as it may seem to them, for God it is more than enough.

How often do we limit the plans that we have by saying we don’t have the resources - time, money, energy or whatever else? The miracle of the feeding of the 5000 challenges this attitude, God can and does provide abundantly with the meagre offerings we make.

As a bit of a footnote to the whole event it is also helpful to remember that this story connects with lots of other bits of the Bible.

As modern Christians reading the story we might be reminded that after his death Jesus shared a meal of bread and fish with his disciples on a beach.

We might remember that at the last supper Jesus took bread and broke it and said this is my body. We might remember that Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.”

Did Jesus feed the 5000? I think so, but is the most important message in the story that Jesus can do divine magic tricks? I don’t think so.

At the heart of Matthew’s retelling of the event lie connections with the witness of the whole Bible.

Jesus embodies God’s love and compassion for even the unlovable – God loves us even though we are sinners.

Moreover, God cares for us and God provides for us in the moments of our greatest need. And as disciples the gifts that we bring can be multiplied far beyond our expectations.

As we consume God’s word to us this day, the divine bread and fish so to speak, let us take heart that in God’s compassion Jesus can and is providing the nourishment that we most need.

by Peter Lockhart

Cartoon courtesy of Reverendfun (Copyright Gospel Communications International, Inc - Photo Creative Commons

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