Besides the Resurrection, the Feeding of the Five Thousand is the only miracle that appears in all four gospels; it’s a super important story for the early church and clearly meant to give us a glimpse of who Jesus is and what God is up to. And as bible stories go, it’s fairly tame and unassuming, so we love to tell it to children. It’s not scandalous or disturbing, and it has a happy ending too! What's not to like?
But like most things in life there is more going on than we see on the surface. The context matters. When we tell this story on its own, we don’t realize that in Matthew’s telling in a single 24-hour day, a bunch of big things happen that maybe have something to do with each other. And maybe it’s not as meek and mild as we think.
Our story begins early in the morning with the words, “Now when Jesus heard this...” Heard what? When Jesus heard that John the Baptist, who had been in prison, had just been beheaded, and his head delivered to Herod on a platter in the middle of an extravagant and vulgar dinner party. John’s disciples had picked up his body from the palace and buried it, and gone immediately to tell Jesus what had happened.
When Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place.
And who wouldn’t? What else in the world is there to do?
John is gone, his cousin, his friend, the one who knew who Jesus was better than anyone - from before he was born, even – leaping in recognition in his mother Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of pregnant Mary’s voice, the one who proclaimed in the wilderness that the Messiah is coming, and plunged God incarnate under the waters of baptism, the one whose whole life was telling that God’s kingdom is coming and announcing that Jesus had arrived, this John has just died a pointless, disgusting, inexplicable death, as a pawn in a gluttonous game of revenge and power.
When Jesus hears this he withdraws in a boat to a deserted place.
But the crowds seek him out.
On foot they go around, ahead, and I have always imagined them like clingy toddlers flooding his alone place and his apart time with their need and their clamoring, their sheer mass, the overwhelming sound, smell, the hungry obligation of them. And I’ve felt defensive of him, as perhaps, his disciples were too. He has every right to absolutely lose it. To tell them all to go away. To tell the disciples to make them leave him alone. To practice self-care and turn the boat around and float alone in the waves for hours until he regains his composure, until he finds some peace and quiet.
But when Jesus sees the crowd, it says, he has compassion on them, and cures their sick. He brings the boat ashore and goes to them and stays there with them.
Vulnerable, grieving, reckoning with the horror and consequences of evil, mourning the death of his beloved friend, Jesus embraces the vulnerable, the grieving, the sick and despairing.
And I don’t think it was a “nevertheless” kind of thing, being with them. I don’t think it was “even though” he was sad he embraced them “anyway” sort of deal. I think it was an “alongside,” “with and for” kind of thing. I think it was sorrow meeting sorrow, a pretense stripped away, no games being played, hearts connecting scenario.
I guess until now I have always seen the crowds as almost predatory, like relentless zombies following him around, grabby and demanding and needy. Why can’t they just leave him alone?
But this time I saw something different. I had to read it three times: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.” When confronted with the news of his friend’s death Jesus went to hide in his sorrow. But when the crowds heard the news that they knew would devastate Jesus, they went to find him. And not to give every person there a noble and altruistic motive, but perhaps, without overthinking it, the drive to be together in suffering is a way human beings return to our humanity, which is also to say, a way we seek and share in the presence of God. Perhaps that’s the way God designed us. When someone we care about suffers a great loss, the reflex is to be with them, to share the pain.
A few weeks ago a friend texted me from a meeting of exhausted teachers, education assistants and therapists in a program for children with extreme trauma, to tell me that a therapist had just said, (and I paraphrase to remove the swear word), “Self-care is hogwash. When something happens we don’t take care of ourselves, we take care of each other.” This is not to say we should not have good boundaries, or cultivate healthy habits, or that we should give and give when we are tapped out. This is to say: in crisis we do not take care of ourselves; we take care of each other. We belong to each other.
So perhaps, as much as all those people needed Jesus, Jesus needed them too. Maybe he needed to feel his belonging to each other and God, and that was not something he could have done on his own in the moment.
Being with them connected him to the bigger context, the deeper story, the wider belonging. In his own need and dependence on God, Jesus was moved with compassion for the people, and he welcomed them, listened, touched, and healed their sick. In his own vulnerability Jesus reached out to theirs. And I wonder how God-with-us being with us with them on that day–the Great I Am coming in weakness alongside weakness with healing and hope—how this may have fed Jesus himself in that moment.
As the day stretches toward evening the disciples, who, let’s face it, must have been freaking out all day at this impromptu gigantic event they were apparently hosting in the wilderness without a port-o-potty or vendor stand for miles around tell Jesus that maybe he should send the crowds away so they can find food for themselves in the villages. But Jesus answers, They need not go away - you feed them. An impossible and ridiculous instruction.
But impossibility is God’s favorite canvas. And now a meal is about to take place that will upend the meal that preceded it.
The first meal happened among sycophants in the seat of power. Full of insecurity and hungry for esteem, a cruel leader fed his own ego in a vicious power play of political manipulation and demonstrable control, killing a person in a mighty flex of fear and dominance.
The second meal is happening here among ordinary people in the middle of nowhere. Full of sorrow and hungry for gentleness, a brokenhearted healer is feeding thousands with a single child’s handful of bread and fish, in a compassionate outpouring of inconceivable abundance and demonstrable unity, nourishing all these people in a colossal expression of love and solidarity.
And the people, out there in the deserted place, far from the center of commerce and empire, are sitting down on the ground like one enormous picnicking family, dining on manna, until all, every single one of them, to the last man, woman, and child is full, and there are leftovers galore. And the power that brought the world into being, is here, among them, healing the sick, providing their daily bread and receiving their love and gratitude, and together, all of them are connected and held in a power greater than death, a force greater than evil, that is moving the world toward love. This power is not encountered by the strong but the vulnerable, and it comes not through coercion or control but through compassion and companionship.
In a few minutes we will share a meal that seems almost silly, really. Without the context it could feel tame and unassuming, a nice tradition, a lesson to remember. But real violence rages in our world, rampant corruption and evil, power is wielded to selfish ends and lives are lost for pointless reasons, and own lives from time to time threaten to brim over with despair.
In this context we will eat bread and drink grape juice and claim that God is with us right here and now and it means something important and powerful. Because God is, and does; Jesus himself was broken for us, taking into God’s own heart the heartbrokenness of us all.
We are gathered today in our shared need and vulnerability, with whatever we bring and however we’re struggling, and Jesus meets us here, joining us with all those gone before, including those that one evening in that deserted place who ended that sad day side by side with a sister who was just healed, and a neighbor who just found hope, and thousands of siblings in this world God is creating anew.
In receiving the bread, taking it and pass it to one another as they did, we are connected held in a power greater than death, a force greater than evil, that is moving the world toward love.
And, just to wrap up the day, because, believe it or not, there are still a few hours remaining: after the feast Jesus releases the disciples and disperses the crowd and finally gets away to a quiet place. He rests. And stops. And makes space for his grief to breathe. But he does so now not as one thrown into isolation by his pain, but as one who has been held in solidarity in the love and care of others, as having experienced the power of God moving through him to them and through them to him and the love of God holding them all as they all shared that day together, that meal together. Now, grounded in his belonging to God and each other, Jesus finds the solitude, solace, and silence he needs.
But just in case we don’t yet get how big it all is, just before dawn breaks on this long, full day, we meet back up with the disciples, who left that epic experience to find themselves all night long battling raging winds and torrential rains in their precariously rocking boat. And just as he did for the crowds, Jesus meets them right where they are, which means that as the vulnerable and terrified disciples squint through the storm, they see Jesus calmly walking to them on the water.