There is a skill to storytelling. A way of drawing on what people know or suspect to build suspense, working with the element of surprise, saving the exciting part for the end, not telling the same story less impressively just a few minutes later...
So maybe it’s not a surprise that after having been ordained for 17 years, and a Christian my whole life, I was this week old when I realized that there are two separate feeding a multitude stories. I guess I wasn’t really paying attention, and assumed one gospel told it with 5000 people, one with 4000, they had their reasons, but it was the same basic event.
But no. The feeding of the 5000 appears in all four gospels. But in both Matthew and Mark a few chapters after that story, there is a whole second feeding-a-hungry-multitude-with-a-few-loaves-of-bread-and-a-couple-fish story.
Why in the world would you tell it all over again, with less impressive stats? Even if it actually happened twice, why say, oh, and then he did that whole thing again.
Perhaps that is how Luke and John, the lectionary folks, and every Sunday school teacher I ever had felt, because nobody ever retells the 5000 story with 4000 people.
Except the bible does.
We are going slowly through stories of Jesus this summer, so we can linger here a bit. Several weeks ago, when we talked about the feeding of the 5000, we saw how it came fast on the heels of the news of cousin John’s (the Baptist’s) murder, and Jesus was devastated, and tried to go be alone but the crowds sought him out and in a day of connection and healing, abundance and hope, they were all reminded that far beyond the power of a petty and murderous king is a kingdom of love without end unfolding even now among us.
Then Jesus went off by himself- and found his solitude and space to grieve, as one deeply grounded in his belonging to God and all others. He met up early the next morning with the disciples, who went directly from an exhausting day of impromptu, large-scale event-hosting to an exhausting night fighting to stay alive in a raging storm until dawn when Jesus walked out to them atop the choppy waves. After the failed water-walking attempt by Precocious Peter, Jesus quieted the storm, and they complete their journey, pulling up their boat onto gentile shores, where the preaching and healing begin again.
Then we met the Canaanite woman, who, with whopping courage and a witty comeback, refused to take Jesus’ rude no for an answer, and after praising her persistent faith Jesus heals her daughter.
That catches us up to this moment. We are three days into another mass healing event, when Jesus—who must have an impish twinkle in his eye when he says it—tells the disciples he wants to feed all these people out here in the middle of nowhere because he doesn’t want them “fainting from hunger on their way home.” And the dear disciples, who are nothing if not predictable, respond, But Jesus, where are we to find food for so many when we are so far away from everything?
Gospel means “good news.” And every part of scripture is oozing with it. Good news is leaking through the details, rising up between people and reaching out to you and me even thousands of years later.
And the gospels apparently want us to know that, no, this feeding 4000 right after feeding 5000 no memory slip, or sloppy second-telling, this is its own event, and Mark and Matthew both see it worth telling. But to be honest, I almost skipped it. We just heard a story just like this.
I had planned to jump to the next chapter, where Jesus gets into it with his disciples for not getting a clever bread-related analogy he is making about the Pharisees, except in that chapter, he says, basically, What is up with you guys? How can you think I am speaking about actual bread right now when you’ve just witnessed me feed 5000 people with a couple fish and five loaves of actual bread, and then shortly after that, 4000 more people with some fish and seven loaves of literal bread?
What IS up with those guys? And what is up with Jesus doing an encore show? Is it because it went so well the first time? Were the people clamoring for a greatest hits moment? Did Matthew and Mark lose their storytelling chops?
So I circled back.
And I found the good news. First, I want to tell you what some scholars like to say. Then I want to tell you what I needed to hear.
Scholars like to point out that the first miracle uses the number 5 – five loaves of bread, 5,000 people – and Matthew’s uber Jewish audience would have immediately thought of the five books of the law of Moses, the Pentateuch, (Genesis, Exodus, and so on) – giving this story some grounding and gravitas. Add to that then, that there were 12 baskets of food left over and they’d connect that to the 12 tribes of Israel, and think to themselves, yeah, this is our kind of story. There’s a solid continuity, a through-line with the God of Israel and the people of this God. Jesus must be the Messiah, right?
But now, just a few days later, Jesus is no longer in Jewish territory, no longer preaching to Jewish people. He’s in Gentile lands, coloring way outside the lines, and not only did Jesus just give faith props to a cheeky Gentile woman who talked back to the Messiah, but, what?! Jesus is repeating the special, abundant-feast miracle that he had just done for God’s chosen people, here, with these strangers, these others. They have not grown up on the promises; they were not waiting for Messiah; they have not faithfully worshipped Yahweh through the centuries, and now they are praising the God of Israel too. Do they even have any idea what they are really receiving? Maybe it’s like knowing you were mom’s favorite and then overhearing her tell the dopey neighbor kid that they’re her favorite too.
Not only that, but (the apparently better-than-I-first-thought storyteller) Matthew decides to throw in some number nods here at the gentile multitude feeding too, with the seven loaves of bread and the seven baskets of leftovers. Not only is it a recollection of the seven days of creation, the origin of all humanity, but for both Jews and Gentiles, seven was the number of completeness. Matthew is telling the story of Jesus to the Jews – Jesus comes from us, is one of us, is here for us – but the story doesn’t stop there, Jesus comes to us all, comes for us all, is here to redeem us all. Nobody gets to claim him as their own personal savior – Jesus is here for the whole world, and through him, all people belong to God. All people belong to God.
So, yeah, there’s definitely some gospel busting through there. But here’s what’s cool about the gospel, and the bible: the good news we hear is usually the good news we need to hear. And we don’t all need to hear the same thing at the same time.
And what really grabbed me this week is the dummy disciples.
What is up with you guys? He asks them later on, in chapter 16. Did you not just see me feed thousands of people? Twice? And he might as well add, Did you not watch me walk to you on top of crazy huge waves, and tell a wild storm to pipe down? As person after person for days and days on end has come in desperate need and found healing and hope, have you not been right here by my side watching it all happen?
Oh my goodness, but I can relate. I believe God loves me unconditionally and some people do too, and yet I constantly try to make myself worthy of love and act like my value depends on my competence. I know there is nothing I can do to avoid suffering or prevent pain for those I love, or keep them always safe, and yet I strive for control, and make an idols out of security and the good opinions of others.
I love God, and I want to follow Jesus and share in what God is doing in the world. But I get persuaded by the power of the storm and immediately start to sink. I get frustrated with the annoying stranger and ask Jesus to send them away. I get overwhelmed by the daunting task and the vast need, and wonder how we will feed all these people, with resources, way out here in the middle of nowhere. Even when I have just experienced God’s love, or seen God provide, I get scared and worried all over again like it never even happened. I stop trusting.
When faced with our brokenness, our need and our fragile, dependent humanity, we default to self-protection and fear, instead of leaning into our belonging to God and others. The shorthand word for that tendency and the behavior that it produces is sin. It’s the deep internal forgetting of God’s goodness and our humanness and the love that holds and calls us toward God and one another. Sin is inside me, but here I see it in the disciples too.
And when we recognize sin in us, we to like to think it must disqualify us from participating, or the shame might crush us, or we will lose our belonging, or our place, or God’s love. But all it gets the disciples here is some tender teasing, and an invitation back to trust.
Because all people belong to God. And Jesus has come to break us free from the grip of sin and the power of death. And where the world is most broken, where I am most broken and in need of healing, where the need feels impossibly huge, that’s where Jesus brings forgiveness and healing.
Forgetting, being reminded. Doubting, trusting. Fearing, flailing, then trusting again. That’s how faith lives in us. The disciples were excited and impatient, terrified and skeptical, wobbly and unsure, and that’s how we participate.
Beyond all the forces outside us and within, is a kingdom of love without end, unfolding even now among us. It floods the scene with abundance and hope, and is received alongside stranger and friend in connection and healing. This reality is not created or sustained by you and me, and nothing we do or don’t do can stop it, not even death. And there is no limit to the reach of God’s love and so no end to how often this story can be told:
Jesus looks on us all with compassion, and will not send us away hungry, but instead becomes for us all the very bread of life.