The beginning of this story is oft ignored. I, myself, ignored it three times in my first readings. Listen again: 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 he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. The story begins in sadness, in grief. Jesus withdrew on the boat to be alone, to weep, to remember; he immediately before this had heard of his cousin, John the Baptist’s, death. Beheaded at the request of King Herod’s niece during a raucous birthday celebration for Herod, John died in a gruesome and meaningless manner. A death made possible by fear – fear of John’s prophecy, of the power he said was coming in the form of Jesus. Scripture tells us, His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus. And this is where our story picks up – Jesus, in a boat, trying to grieve alone.
But, word of his mighty deeds and power had spread and so the people followed him. The sick, ailing, untouchable people so great in number they formed a crowd. Can you imagine? Being so saddened, possibly frightened for your own life, only to be followed by people who need you, who long for you and your presence?
Exhausted, Jesus puts himself aside, as he always does. Moved with compassion for the crowd, he cured their sick. The disciples called the site of healing "a deserted place" – think desert, no vegetation, no flowing water. A desolate place in and of itself. What better scene for Jesus to show and teach generosity is there? This story begins in sadness, in grief.
Elizabeth decided to do something about the children suffering before her. An undergraduate student at Emory, Elizabeth returned to the deserted place she had been before. As a high school student, she spent two years in India, serving the street children that lived in the slums of Mumbai. During her time at Emory, she returned, doing her coursework online so she could be present to the more pressing issues at hand. Everywhere she looked, Elizabeth saw street children – orphans – who needed a safe place to grow up. It moved her – their story – the multitude that continuously grew – the palpable desperation. A college student with little means, Elizabeth took what she had and began the groundwork to open an orphanage, a place where these children would be nourished. By the time of her college graduation, Elizabeth opened Ashraya Initiative for Children in the slums of Pune. She – a college senior – had "legal custody of nine children who live full time in the home."1 Can you imagine?
"When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’" (v. 15) The crowd is too great, Jesus, there are too many for us to feed, too many for us to look after. Overwhelmed by the multitude, the disciples logically and rationally offer a solution to the mounting problem: evening is drawing near; the crowd is too big; we have too little to offer. Send the crowds away – let someone else take care of them. Let them be someone else’s problem.
We often think of this story as Jesus feeding the five thousand but the text clearly states that the crowd was five thousand men, the women and children not counted. Let’s guess that there are at least five thousand women and children and the miracle of that day was more like Jesus feeding the ten thousand. No wonder the disciples were a bit worried about their food supply. Ten thousand people, among them the previously-sick-now-cured-and-hungry, were nearing the time for dinner. Between the twelve disciples, all they had were five loaves and two fish. Little means, big demand.
Anxious, likely a bit short-sighted, the disciples are looking at each other with doubt. There is no solution! Jesus tells the disciples, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." (v. 16) You, person whom I’ve called. You, person whom I’ve blessed. You, person whom I’ve taught. Perhaps they were embarrassed with what little they had to offer. They walk towards Jesus, holding the five crusty loaves of bread, the two broiled fish, avoiding eye contact. The great multitude – the ten thousand people behind them – begin to get restless, their stomachs grumbling, their children crying. And Jesus looks at them – himself tired and grieved – and is moved with compassion for their self-doubt. He says, "Bring them here to me." Jesus told the crowds that pressed in to sit, to wait. The disciples sat, too, forming a small semi-circle around him. Slowly, so that they knew it meant something, he took "the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples." Sound familiar?
As Elizabeth neared graduation, her story of the orphanage spread. The number of children that needed help, the little means that existed. Elizabeth’s friend, Robbie, became particularly interested, particularly moved. Robbie’s interest was beyond a oh, neat, good for them kind of interest or beyond a sure, I’ll probably give $50 or so to that cause once I have enough money of my own kind of devotion. Robbie was not that kind of fair-weathered friend. At graduation, Robbie earned the highest prize among his class, the outstanding senior award for Emory. The award came with a $20,000 prize – a prize any graduating student could put to good use. But for Robbie, there seemed to be only one way to spend it. After their commencement ceremony, Robbie found Elizabeth, check in hand. He turned it over, signed it, and then signed it over to Elizabeth. Take, use it, nourish others. Can you imagine?
After the disciples took the bread and fish from Jesus’ hands, this blessed and bountiful gift, they turned around to see the crowd that sat behind them. With eyes wide open, they saw what Jesus saw: not numbers, not faceless folks, not needy take-everything-I-have people, not worthless individuals, not sickly desperation. The twelve disciples saw the need for compassion. The twelve disciples saw people that needed to be fed and needed to be fed with what they held in their hands.
In the commentary, Feasting on the Word, Dock Hollingsworth writes: "While it is clearly the miracle of Jesus that feeds the multitude, this does not reduce the call to discipleship to a call of passive piety. Our call is to active ministry that meets human need. Jesus feeds the Twelve; the Twelve feed the five thousand."
The twelve feed the multitude. Jesus feeds us, we feed each other. We turn to the crowds beyond us and give of what we have so others might live.
Today, elders and deacons will come to the table to receive bread and cup that has been blessed by God through Jesus Christ. They will, in turn, serve you the bread and cup. While communion takes place in the context of our church service, it is not a meal that ends here nor has it ever been. When Christ first taught the disciples how to serve – taking bread, blessing it, breaking it, and giving it away – his intention was that the disciples would follow the same pattern. Take, bless, break, give. You will be given the bread and cup today with the hope that you will leave this place ready to give of your own bread, your own cup.
The disciples thought that there was too little food to share. But upon the blessing and distribution, there was enough food to feed ten thousand people and have twelve baskets of leftovers. Jesus turned to the disciples and fed them; the disciples turned to the first row of the crowd and fed them; the first row turned around and fed the row behind them and so on and so on. Whatever you have to give – it is enough.
This miracle story comes after a series of parables that begin – the kingdom of heaven is like…a mustard seed, or someone who sows good seed. A cultural parable that has made its way around the world tells of the kingdom of heaven – and the dominion of hell – that makes the most sense to me. In the dominion of hell, starving people sit around a delicious, giant pot of stew. Each person holds a long wooden spoon but can’t figure out how to feed themselves, the spoon being too long to reach their mouth and hold at the same time. Writhing in hunger, they sit in a stupor, motionless. In the kingdom of heaven, well-fed people joyfully gather around the same pot of stew. Each are holding the same type of long wooden spoon. This group of nourished people, however, have realized all it takes to be fed is to feed the person across from you.
This story starts as a story of grief and desperation – Jesus is in a deserted place, mourning his cousin’s death. He is surrounded by hungry people – hungry of heart and of body. The disciples are doubtful of their own abundance and ability to assist. And then…and then Jesus takes bread, blesses it and breaks it, gives it to the disciples. They turn around and start feeding those who are waiting. And soon enough, ten thousand people are nourished. Can you imagine? All praise be to God. Amen.
1. "Emory’s outstanding senior passes on $20,000 prize." Accessed 07/29/2014. I first heard of this story from Rodger Nishioka at Montreat Youth Conference, 2007.