Mysteries and crime-solving shows have been popular for some time, and still are. From Dragnet and Adam-12, to The Rockford Files and Murder She Wrote, to Law and Order, CSI, NCIS, and so many more now than before because we have so many networks, we like crime shows. Even some of the medical shows, like House, solve mysteries surrounding diseases. We like to watch these shows that solve the mystery and resolve the issue, with the bad guy (or gal) getting caught, and justice prevailing for the victims.
Delving into Scripture passages can be a bit like solving a mystery. We want to know who, when, where and why the crime occurred. And we want to know who, when, where and why the Scripture passage was written.
There would seem to be little mystery around today’s Gospel passage, though. This story of the Feeding of the 5000 is widely known, even among those who do not read the Bible. But there are actually some rather interesting things to learn about this passage. It is the only miracle, besides, of course, the resurrection, to appear in all four Gospels. In two of the Gospels, Matthew and Mark, there is a parallel story soon after this story, the Feeding of the 4000, which involves 7 loaves and a few fish. And there are differences in the stories in the different Gospels. In both Matthew and Mark, the Feeding follows Jesus learning about the death of John the Baptist. In Matthew, Jesus went to be by himself; in Mark, he wanted the disciples to go away to a deserted place to rest and recuperate. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the disciples wanted Jesus to send the crowds away because it was dark and they needed food. In John, Jesus asked the disciples about finding food for the people, as a way to test them. Only in John did the little boy appear with the 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. In Mark, the disciples went and found that all the food there was 5 loaves and 2 fish. In Mark and Luke, Jesus told the disciples to make the people sit in groups of 50’s and 100’s. In Mark, 5000 men were fed, but Matthew adds an unspecified number of women and children to that number.
So details differ, but with a story that must have been so popular with the early church because it was told over and over, there are also some striking similarities in these four Gospel versions. There is always either the mention of or the sense of Jesus having compassion for the people, even though his intent had been to have some time away to reflect and rest with the disciples. Mark even explains the compassion Jesus had for the people “because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). In all of the Gospels, Jesus initiates the meal with the words the church uses to institute Holy Communion. Jesus took the bread (and fish), blessed it, broke it, and gave it. Only in the Gospel of John did Jesus distribute the food directly to the people, though. In the other three Gospels, Jesus gave the food to the disciples to distribute to the people. In all versions, the people ate and were “filled” or “satisfied,” and there were many leftovers, twelve baskets full. Clearly, a miracle occurred.
In our scientific and logical world, many try to explain the miracle away. Some say other people had food, and brought it out when they saw the disciples trying to distribute such meager provisions. Or perhaps, others say, the people treated the meal like we do communion, only taking a little bite, and thus the meager amount was able to be spread among so many. Such explanations might help our need to solve mysteries, but they diminish the story of the miracle that Jesus performed.
To a people who know better than we in this community what it means to be hungry, such a miracle story about food would be welcomed and celebrated. Feedings and food occur often in the Bible. The people of God were hungry as they crossed the wilderness towards the Promised Land, and God provided manna for them, enough for each day. There is a very similar story to this Feeding of the 5000 in II Kings. In a time of famine, a man brought 20 loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain to the prophet Elisha. Elisha said very similar words to those of Jesus. “Give it to the people and let them eat.” The servant, like the disciples, could not conceive of how so little food would help so many people. Elisha said again, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” And indeed the people ate and there was some left. (II Kings 4:42-44) Our passage, then, also fulfills this Old Testament passage.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the first temptation for Jesus, after having been in the dessert alone for 40 days and nights, was to turn the stones into bread, so that he might eat. But Jesus refused, saying, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matt. 4:4) And so we know that these stories that involve food are also about so much more. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus said in the Gospel of John, in the words we often use on communion Sundays, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35). With the liturgical language, the story also points us forward in the Gospels, to the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples before his crucifixion. And again we know that the story is about much more than just feeding our bodies.
Feeding our bodies is important, although most of us in this country are over-privileged when it comes to food. “Give us this day our daily bread,” Jesus taught us to pray. Our bodies need to be cared for, nurtured and fed on a daily basis. God does not neglect the most basic human needs.
The international relief organization, Food for the Hungry, which strives to feed the hungry and to provide emergency relief to people in times of famine, drought, flood, other natural disasters or even wars, reports on its website that the world actually produces enough grain to provide every human being on our planet with 3600 calories a day. 3600 calories is much more than most of us adults even need on a daily basis, although it may not be more than we consume. And yet statistics show that over 1 billion people worldwide are chronically undernourished, and about 24,000 die of hunger-related issues every day. It makes no sense that we have enough food, and yet so many are starving. That seems to be mystery we cannot solve or fix!
Jesus gave the food to the disciples to distribute in our story. As followers of Christ, we also have a responsibility to share food with the hungry. And we do so when we give to the Food Bank and to the other helping agencies we support. We do so when we prepare and serve the Shelter Meal once a month, and when we serve and sit down to eat with the IHN families. We do so when we hand out our Helping Hand bags to the folks begging on the street corners. It is obviously important that we continue to find ways to help those who do not have enough food or shelter or income, for over and over again, the Bible calls us to care for the “least” among us.
In Jesus’ time, food was much more scarce. The people who followed Jesus out into the wilderness could not walk to the nearest fast food joint, or even to a restaurant. They would have to go home and prepare whatever food they might have there. And it would not be a quick fix. Much of their hunger would be for this basic need, to feed their bodies before their souls could be fed as well. They also came to Jesus to be fed with teaching and healing. So feeding the people of God can also mean more than giving food. For “One does not live by bread alone…”
We who are mostly well fed hunger as well. We just hunger for different things. Perhaps we are here week after week because we hunger for something that cannot really be offered to us anywhere else. Here we worship and study the Bible and fellowship and serve through helping organizations like Habitat and STOP Hunger now; and we do it in community with other people who are seeking the same kind of nourishment. “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you,” Jesus said (Matt. 7:7).
Just after this also familiar passage, Jesus asked, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” Jesus answers his own questions: “If you then, who are evil (i.e.,sinful, broken), know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask!” (Matthew 7:9-11).
Perhaps part of our struggle, then, as modern, intelligent, well-informed people is to ask and to rely upon God. With food, we are used to buying large amounts, storing it in fridges or freezers, or to just going out to a restaurant or fast food place when we want to eat. Often we want to feed our spiritual needs the same way, to find a quick fix. Yet in our hearts we know that spiritual food does not come as if in the fast food line. In order to truly live as the people of God, we need to be fed spiritually every day just as much as we need food for our bodies every day.
In our story, the people followed him as Jesus sought time away for himself and his disciples. Yet Jesus graciously met their needs. the Gospels tell us numerous times that Jesus withdrew from the crowds. Jesus retreated to pray and to nurture his spiritual life. Most times, his disciples, his community, his church, were with him, at least physically. We know that they did not always understand or help, though. In our story today they wanted to send the crowds away. In the Garden of Gethsemane, they could not even stay awake with Jesus. We followers of Christ sometimes fall short, but we keep trying. Being a part of a faithful community helps to keep us on track. But we all need Sabbath time to restore our souls.
Though we like to solve problems and mysteries, one thing we learn as children of God is that we cannot know everything, and we cannot solve everything. Yet when we gather as we do here on Sunday mornings and other days of the week, when we “retreat” from the worries of the world and call upon God, we are perhaps a bit miraculously renewed and fed so that we can go out into the world again and meet the issues of each day with a greater sense of peace and well-being.
I found a cartoon as I prepared for this sermon. It shows a market street in biblical times, with people gathering around booths labeled “Loaves” and “Fishes.” The seller has added a sign to the booth, so familiar to us as we shop and get bargains like the book table that says, “Buy 2, get one free.” But this sign says, “Buy 2, get 5000.” We enjoy the joke! And we could use such a miracle to help us feed the hungry among us. We also can appreciate that Jesus feeds our needs in miraculous ways.
Our Isaiah reading occurred in what is called “The Book of Consolation,” chapters 40-55 of the book of Isaiah. The people of God were in exile at that time, living under oppression, treated as slaves. So they were not well fed. And they were far away from their holy city and temple. Their needs were not being met, either physically or spiritually. The prophet called them to come “buy” food and drink, yet without money, and at no price. He offers something greater than food and drink. He offers the “everlasting covenant.” Even as an oppressed people, he tells, them, they are blessed and will be a witness to other people and nations. Even in exile, God glorifies them.
So we know that God can spread a table, even in the wilderness! God cares for our needs, and meets them. And God miraculously gives us even more than we ever asked for. God gives us Himself – Christ risen in triumph over sin and evil and death. In Christ, we are fed. In him, we are nourished. Let us seek the Bread of Life every day of our lives, and seek to share it with others, that all might be fed and satisfied.
Praise be to God! Amen.