Feeding the Five Thousand—Another View (8/4/02)
University Congregational Church – Wichita, Kansas
Rev. Gary Cox
We’ll begin the sermon with a story that didn’t quite make it into the Bible. Zebediah’s wife was none too happy when he left that morning. She had heard all about that Jesus of Nazareth character, and the last thing she needed was for her husband to go off to some hillside in Galilee to find out if all the rumors about that strange guy were true. To make matters worse, because he knew he might be gone for a couple of days, he took half the food in the house with him. That was common practice in those days—in first century Israel. They didn’t have convenience stores every couple of blocks, and the only way to be sure you wouldn’t go hungry was to stash as much food as possible in your pockets, your sleeves, and your purse.
To make matters worse, news was spreading that John the Baptist had just been killed. Zebediah and his wife didn’t know exactly what the relationship was between Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist, but the rumor was that Jesus had once been one of John’s followers. John had even baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. And now it turns out that John has been beheaded by Herod. No, this was not a good time for Zebediah to run off to find out all about Jesus—not a good time at all.
Still, Zebediah was determined to find out for himself if all the talk about Jesus was true, and off he went. By the time he finally caught up with Jesus it was getting late in the day, but the trip was worth the effort. He found Jesus surrounded by thousands of people, many of whom claimed they were being healed by his touch. And then Zebediah saw Jesus talking—almost arguing—with his closest friends. As he pushed his way through the crowd, Zebediah heard Jesus’ friends telling him to send everybody away—that it was getting late, everybody was hungry, and all they had to eat was five loaves of bread and two fish. That certainly wasn’t enough to feed the five thousand men, not to mention all the women and children, who had gathered around Jesus.
And this is where things got a little weird. Jesus told everybody to sit down and prepare to eat. Then he held up those few morsels of food, blessed them, and handed them to his friends, telling them to take what they needed and pass on what was left. Zebediah was close by, and by the time the bread made it to him, there was little more than enough to feed a small child, let alone a grown man. And then he remembered. He had filled his pockets with food before he left his house that morning! So he reached in his pockets and emptied his sleeves, and not only fed himself, but passed on several fish and a new loaf of bread to the person sitting next to him.
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Well, first century Jews were not stupid people. They didn’t leave home without anything to eat. But they weren’t selfish people either. When the crowd saw what was happening, a spirit of sharing and compassion came upon them. Each emptied his pockets and purse of all the food that he had brought, and such a feast has seldom been seen since that day. In fact, after the impromptu banquet, the women, children and five thousand men had eaten their fill, and the leftovers filled twelve baskets.
Okay, that’s not exactly the way the story is presented in the Bible. But it is one way of interpreting the story of the multiplication of the loaves, also known as the feeding of the five thousand. This was a popular interpretation a little over one hundred years ago, when serious theologians first tried to make sense of the biblical narratives involving miracles in the light of modern science.
And I don’t mind that interpretation. It probably makes more sense than the way I have seen it portrayed in movies, with Jesus holding up a bowl with a couple of fish in it, and suddenly hundreds of fish come pouring out of the top of the bowl. I honestly have no idea what happened that day in Galilee. I really don’t. I think something must have happened, because this is one of the very rare stories that appears in all four gospels. But I have no clue exactly what it was that did happen. I suppose that is why, to this day, we call it a miracle.
When I study this story—at least when I study the way it is placed in the Gospel of Matthew—it occurs to me that there is one aspect of the story that is often overlooked, and it may be the most important element in the whole story. People get so consumed by the weight of this miracle that they don’t notice it is a critical turning point in the life of Jesus.
Before this story of the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus teaches large crowds; after this story he concentrates on his disciples. Before this story, Jesus is a teacher walking across the Galilean countryside; after this story, he starts moving toward Jerusalem. Before this story, he still could have said “no” to his ministry and settled into life as a carpenter; after this story Jesus is a public figure on a slow but sure walk to the cross.
Let’s consider how this change comes about. Jesus’ ministry is going pretty well. He’s getting a big following. Word is spreading that he is a healer of remarkable power. His teachings, presented in the form of parables, are gaining popularity as they challenge the power structures and the status quo. All in all things are going pretty well for Jesus, and then he receives word that John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod.
This had to be one of those red-flag moments for Jesus. Clearly, Jesus knew John the Baptist. It is debatable whether he was a follower of John’s for a time, but they two men had a lot in common. They were both preaching about the coming of the Kingdom of God. They were both considered to be a little odd—John because of the way he dressed and the fiery way he preached, and Jesus because of his bizarre message. Jesus kept telling everybody who would listen that God loved the poor as much as the rich and the outcasts as much as the people who spent every day at the Temple. No doubt about it, Jesus, like John, was stirring up a lot of people and making plenty of enemies along the way.
When you look at the life of Jesus, it seems like there were three or four turning points—times when he could have said, “Hey, things are getting a little crazy; I think I’ll head on back to Nazareth and open up a little carpentry business.” The last time this happened was in the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus prayed for God to take the cup from him, metaphorically speaking. Jesus knew the guards were soon to come, and that once they grabbed him he was sure to wind up on the cross.
Why didn’t he run? He was in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, and he could have easily escaped. Why did he just kneel there in prayer until the guards came?
There was another of those opportunities to turn away from his fate a week earlier, on Palm Sunday. As he approaches Jerusalem, he has every opportunity to say, “Hey guys, let’s head back up to Galilee and pray about this before we do anything rash!” But instead, he rides into town, proceeds to the Temple, and starts knocking over the tables of the moneychangers. Most people agree that it was at that moment that his fate was sealed. Pilate, who was charged with keeping order during the Passover celebration, seemed to have a motto: Crucify now, ask questions later.
But moving back in time, this multiplication of the loaves—the feeding of the five thousand—was the first chance Jesus had, after realizing just how dangerous his ministry was, to turn away from his ministry and live a safe and quiet life. Let’s follow the story line.
Jesus has been gaining a wide following as he travels across Galilee preaching about the Kingdom of God, teaching in parables as he walks from town to town. And then he arrives back in his hometown of Nazareth, where the people reject him. Now, as we look back we tend to think that those people in Nazareth were just stupid. They didn’t understand the real thing when they saw it.
But let’s put ourselves in their shoes for a moment. If we look over all four gospels, each of which contains this story about the rejection of Jesus in his hometown, we discover that Jesus makes some pretty outlandish claims. Picture some young person from this church—it doesn’t matter who. Now imagine that they reach adulthood and disappear for a year or so, and then they come back here on some Sunday morning and ask to address the congregation.
Now imagine this young church member standing before you and saying, “I heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, and make the lame walk. All of religious history, and all of human history, has been fulfilled in me. I am the anointed one of God. You will likely reject me, for that is God’s will. All of the great prophets were rejected by their own people.”
Now let’s get serious. How many of us would say, “Well how about that! Little Bobby Smith turned out to be the Son of God! Who knew?!” No, we would do just what those people in Nazareth did. They said, to paraphrase, “Wait a second! Who do you think you are? We know you. You’re Robert and Janet Smith’s kid. We know your brothers and sisters. I remember the time you stuck a piece of bubble gum in my little girl’s hair. When was it, exactly, that you became the Holy Son of God?”
And then, to really make matters worse, Jesus was unable to perform great miracles there in Nazareth. Their unbelief was so powerful, it took away his power. (And that is one of the most intriguing passages in the Bible—the idea that Jesus lost his power when surrounded by people who didn’t believe in him. But that’s a subject for another day.)
So, to follow the story, after this undoubtedly deflating experience in his hometown, the next thing that happens is he hears the news that his old friend John the Baptist has been beheaded. As I read the gospels, it seems to me that this was the first time most of us, if we were in Jesus’ shoes, would say, “Well, it’s been a nice ride, but it’s time to hop off this horse.”
And maybe he was thinking that very thing. Immediately after Jesus hears about the fate of John the Baptist, we find this line in Matthew’s gospel: Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. I imagine Jesus was in the mood to be by himself and to think things over long and hard. But the very next line in the story tells us that the crowds find him, bringing their sick to be healed.
What an amazing moment in his life! We all know that feeling of coming to a fork in the road, and knowing that the direction we choose will have implications for the rest of our lives. Jesus felt compassion for the crowd, and healed their sick. He then performed his most famous miracle, however it was that the miracle took place. Clearly, something amazing happened because the feeding of the five thousand became the signature miracle for Jesus. One of my favorite lines from the play Jesus Christ superstar is when Herod hands Jesus a loaf of bread and says, “Go ahead—feed my household with this bread.” I think that probably reflects the attitude of most people toward Jesus. “I don’t believe…but you never know. So prove it!”
When those five thousand men and the accompanying women and children went home that evening, it was inevitable that Jesus’ fame would spread. And it really was a turning point. Jesus looked at that fork in the road, and he took the one that led to the cross.
Nobody ever talks about that aspect of the story. People get so hung up on whether or not Jesus was able to defy the laws of physics, they miss what may be the main point—that Jesus took the path, however painful, that led toward God.
And ever since that time, people of faith have been asked to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. It may seem at first that the idea of following Jesus is a little crazy. I mean, look where that path took Jesus. Still, it is said we all have our crosses to bear, and the fact is our crosses are considerably lighter than the one Jesus took upon himself.
Life can be pretty confusing, because we all happen upon forks in the road every day. And let’s not kid ourselves. None of us are completely good, and none of us are completely bad. Sometimes we take the path toward God, and sometimes we take the path toward selfishness.
But it’s a great journey. And the choices we make can become habits. One of the great insights of Aristotle was that if we start acting in a particular way, it eventually changes who we are. It’s really true. For example, we can say to ourselves, “Even though I am not a person who keeps quiet when he gets angry, I’m going to pretend I am. Every time I get angry today, I’m going to keep my mouth shut and say to myself help me Jesus. Guess what. If we do that for several weeks, we actually become the type of person who keeps his mouth shut when angry, and thinks of Jesus whenever we are about to speak out in anger.
We can say, “I’m not the type of person who says a prayer when I wake up in the morning.” But if we pretend we are that type of person for a few weeks, we discover that we are indeed that type of person, and we wouldn’t think of starting our day without a prayer. It’s a great insight that Aristotle had. How we act changes who we are.
With that in mind, the ideal situation would be to be a person who decides to always take the path that leads toward God. Every time we come to a divide in the road, we weigh out a situation and ask ourselves something like, “What path would bring the greatest amount of love into the world?”
What happens when we do the opposite? We know people, or at least know of people, who always choose the path that leads to selfishness. Now, I recognize there is some comfort in not worrying about which path to take when you get to one of those forks in the road. Life can seem pretty simple when the criteria for our decisions are, What is best for me? What will get me the most wealth? What will give me the most power? But when a person always chooses that path, they start going in circles. They wrap themselves inside themselves, and they spin through life in some sort of self-centered daze.
I have to think Jesus asked himself what path would bring the greatest amount of love into the world when all those hungry and sick people approached him. And even though the people who had known him longest had just rejected him, and even though he had just heard the news about John the Baptist, he chose the path that led out of himself, and opened into the world. And because of that, 2000 years later, you and I sit here this morning. That, dear friends, is a much greater miracle than the multiplication of the loaves.