Text: Matthew 14:13-21
The story of the feeding of the five thousand (which is probably better named, “the feeding of the ten thousand” since “those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children”) carries the distinction of being the only miracle from Jesus’ ministry that is recounted by all four gospels. That feels significant, like coming across a passage highlighted in yellow in a used textbook. Someone before us wanted to be sure to point out that this scene is essential to understanding the meaning of the greater story.
The scene opens by referencing a tragedy that’s just taken place somewhere else: “Now when Jesus heard about the beheading of John the Baptist, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” (Matt. 14:13) John died at a feast, a birthday party for Herod the ruler, who’d wanted to get rid of John but was afraid of how the crowds with whom he was popular would react. But when he made a promise to his wife’s daughter that he would give her whatever she might ask for, and she asked for John’s head on a platter, Herod was forced to choose between his fear of the people and his public image, and he chooses to save face by having John killed.
This is all background information, but it’s important as we try to make sense of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the crowd to understand that feasts were happening all the time — it’s just that they were typically held by the wealthy as a way of demonstrating their power in order to cement their relationships with the class of people just below them in a system of cascading patronage that started much higher than Herod, who was himself a vassal of the Roman Empire.
Wealth and food and power were all tied together in ancient Rome. The connection was made explicit in the currency of the time, which featured an image of Emperor Nero on one side of the coin and the goddess of agriculture — Ceres (from whose names we get the word “cereal”) — on the other paired with the words, “the annual harvest of the emperor.” Money was intended to represent the wealth that comes from having access to food, all of which was understood as trickling down from the wealth of the empire.
In reality, empire was (and still is) a violent way of ordering the world. It takes the good gifts of the earth and commodifies them, pretends that the things God provides for all people belong to only a few people who can then leverage our need for them into other forms of wealth and power. The underlying economic violence of this system erupts into moments of public violence, like John’s beheading or the president’s public celebration of police brutality, that function to keep people in their place.
This is what Jesus needs to get away from when he hears of John’s death, and the crowds as well. So they leave the so-called “civilized” places and head to the deserted wilderness, a political blank canvas, a fresh start, and there Jesus demonstrates a different kind of political economy by providing a feast that is the exact opposite of the one Herod had hosted.
The crowd that frightened Herod follows Jesus, and out of compassion for their plight Jesus heals their sick. The Greek word used here to describe the sick (ἄρρωστος) carries the connotation of weakness or feebleness, just the sort of people who lose out in competitions for “survival of the fittest.” Rather than bestowing the gifts of life and health only on those who have something to offer him in return, Jesus models a vision for community where the sick and the weak have access to health and healing on the basis of God’s compassion for all that is living.
But as the day goes on and the needs grow, the disciples worry that this shadow economy of lovingkindness will not be enough to meet the real needs of this massive crowd. “Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves,” they say. Send them back to that other economy where everything is for sale. These problems are too big for us to address on our own.
Of course, Jesus had recently been preaching about this very dynamic. He’d told them the story of a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree that shelters the birds of the air. He’d reminded them how just a little yeast is enough to leaven an entire loaf of bread. When he asked if they’d understood what he was saying, they replied “yes”; though, now he has to wonder. So, once again, Jesus shows those who would follow him how just a little — five loaves and two fish — can become more than enough, enough for ten thousand with a dozen baskets left over.
Of all the things the scripture wants us to remember, this is the miracle that shows up in all four gospels, highlighted in yellow by whoever owned this book before us: God uses small things to make big changes! God uses an oppressed and colonized people to break the power of Pharaoh. God uses a child conceived by an unwed young woman to call to account the power of Rome. God uses what is weak to shame the mighty. God uses small things to make big changes!
Of all the things I will remember as I begin now to leave St. Luke’s, I will never forget what this community has taught me over and over and over again: God uses small things to make big changes.
I don’t have to tell you the whole story of how small we were. Let’s just say we had one person for each of those baskets of leftovers. But God used this small group of people who’d been defined by their deficits to build something powerful: a home for all manner of people like the mustard tree; a loaf that expanded in proportion to the needs and hungers of the people who came to this table.
I want you to be powerful. I want the church to be powerful. Not the kind of power that shows itself off with feasts that reinforce the violent status quo, but power that meets the weak and the feeble — you know, people like us — with love and compassion and offers a glimpse of a world in which the daily bread we’re always praying for is provided for all.
Can you envision what it would look like for St. Luke’s to step more fully into this story? We, who have gathered in deserted places to demand housing for our neighbors, who have launched pantries and dinners to feed our neighbors, who have marched to Springfield to protect our neighbors. What miracle of abundance is God calling out of St. Luke’s in the years to come?
Those are the questions you’ll be considering this fall, after I’m gone. All year long the Council and the Generosity Network has been laying the groundwork for a process of planning for the future that will engage our entire community in asking these sorts of questions:
- What is the story we are telling about St. Luke’s?
- What is the story we’d like to be able to tell about St. Luke’s?
- What is the impact we make as St. Luke’s?
- How are we being transformed as members of St. Luke’s?
- How is the world being changed because we gather as St. Luke’s?
Do those questions seem too big for a church our size? Do you worry that we won’t have enough people, enough money, enough time, enough “pastoral leadership” to dream so big?
Haven’t you heard? Haven’t you understood all this? God uses small things to make big changes.
God uses small things to make big changes!
The miracle highlighted in yellow since the story’s beginning is you.