“And all ate and were filled.”
A sermon for Trinity 7, Sunday 3rd August 2014 given by Roberta Berke
We’ve just heard how Jesus fed a huge crowd with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Yet earlier when Jesus was tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread, Jesus refused. Is this a contradiction? What’s going on here?
This story begins when Jesus heard the shocking news that John the Baptist had been beheaded on the orders of King Herod. So for his own safety, Jesus left the territory ruled by Herod and he withdrew to a deserted area. Yet even in this remote place, the crowds pursued Jesus. People were hungry, and not just for bread. The crowds seeking Jesus were conglomerations of diverse people, each wanting something different from him. Jesus’ disciples themselves were a mixed bunch, with different expectations. Some of John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus, looking for a new teacher. The sick, with their assorted ailments, sought out Jesus, begging to be healed. Lured by wild rumours and gossip, sensation seekers were attracted to Jesus, expecting conjuring tricks from this wonder rabbi. Some of the Pharisees must have been listening, doing “due diligence”, checking for heresy in the words of this maverick preacher. Herod’s spies probably infiltrated the crowd, alert for evidence that Jesus was another troublemaker like John the Baptist. And political radicals came, zealots eager to conscript Jesus as a revolutionary leader. Also among the crowd were devout Jews, hoping against hope that at last Jesus could be the promised Messiah. This crowd was a mixed multitude, with mixed hopes, needs and expectations. Yet all their expectations were exclusive: their hopes were limited to each individual, or to particular sects, or to separate nationalities. Jesus did not accept any rigid categories that excluded certain people. Jesus gave bread to everyone in the crowd. The bread he gave was not just for his disciples, not just for Jews but also for Gentiles, not just for his friends but also for his enemies.
Was Jesus’ feeding of the multitude a miracle that defied the laws of nature? From this distance in time, there’s no way to prove it was or it wasn’t a miracle. However, it’s possible that nothing supernatural occurred. The disciples didn’t ask Jesus to miraculously conjure up bread. Instead they offered a simple, common sense solution to the problem. “Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves” No one asked Jesus to perform a miracle, as did many sick people, hopeless cases, who nevertheless begged to be healed. The six accounts in the gospels of feeding multitudes don’t describe one amazing moment when the bread and fish were seen to increase instantly. There’s no sudden result, as often happened in healing miracles. When Jesus healed the paralytic man, instantly the man took up his bed and walked. “When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe.” Other miracle stories also end with expressions of wonder. At the wedding at Cana, when the wine miraculously increased, the steward exclaimed in amazement at its quality.
One simple explanation for the increase in food might be that those who had brought food were moved by Jesus’ example to share their food. If people had expected to be out all day and to make a journey, it’s logical that they’d bring a snack, or even a packed lunch. When sending his disciples out on their mission Jesus ordered them not to follow their usual custom: instead they were not to take bread for their journey. In John’s gospel, the five loaves of bread are described as barley bread. Barley bread and dried fish were the ordinary staple diet for poor people. These simple foods, wrapped in a cloth, carried in a bag, would be handy on a journey. When it was time to eat, Jesus simply ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. There was no top table, no seating by rank or status. As he did so often, now Jesus broke down the barriers between people. When his disciples began to hand out small pieces of the bread broken by Jesus, people may have unwrapped their own parcels of food, and offered some to those nearby. Food that had been private now became communal. There was enough food for everyone, because it was shared. There was enough food because everyone was content with a reasonable amount. This was not a Roman banquet where diners gorged themselves on so much rich food that they had to vomit between courses. In this simple feast on the grass, everyone felt pleasantly full with ordinary food. There were even twelve full baskets left over, perhaps for distribution to the poor. Sharing and contentment were the true miracles in this event.
The crowd whom Jesus fed would have known other examples of multitudes being fed. When the Israelites complained that they had no bread in the wilderness, they were given manna from heaven. The prophet Elisha fed a hundred people with only a few barley loaves and had some left over. As well as these stories of miraculous feedings in the past, people would have known descriptions of the heavenly banquet that will be prepared for the righteous in God’s kingdom. Then the blessed will enjoy luxurious food and fine wines. Jewish legends say that Leviathan the sea monster will be slain, pickled, and served up as a delicacy to the righteous. (So if you enjoy pickled herring, you have a treat in store.)
Jesus realised that the crowds were hungry, but he also knew that they needed more than just physical bread. That’s why earlier he had rejected the devil’s temptation to conjure stones into bread. Jesus rebuked the devil: “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Jesus also rejected the temptation to seize political power, to be used as a figurehead by the Zealots who wanted revolution against Rome. In John’s gospel, after Jesus had fed the multitudes, some wanted to force him to become their king, but Jesus withdrew from them. After Jesus had fed the multitude, the next day the crowds followed him again, hoping for another free lunch. Jesus rebuked them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me…because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes… I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”
What did Jesus mean when he said, ” I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” When Jesus fed the multitude, he did four things with the bread: he took the bread, he blessed it, he broke it, he gave it to be shared. At the Last Supper, Jesus “took a loaf of bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘this is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'” This morning, in a few moments, these same actions will be done in remembrance of Jesus. The priest will take the bread, bless it, break it and give it to us. The bread and the wine are given to everyone who comes to his table, not just to the righteous but also to sinners. Like the multitude of people whom Jesus fed, we’ve come here this morning with various expectations, hopes and fears. Yet Jesus invites all of us to come to his table. He asks us to share with others the many good things God has given us. Jesus gives us himself: bread from heaven, the living bread. AMEN.
Copyright (c) by Roberta Berke 2014. All rights reserved.
Davies, W.D., Allison, D.C., The Gospel according to St. Matthew (Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1991) vol.II , p. 489
Pervo, Richard, “Panta Koina: the feeding stories in the light of Economic data and social practice” in Bormann, et al. eds., Religious Propaganda and Missionary Competition in the New Testament World (Leiden: Brill 1994) p190.
2 Kings 4.42-44
Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter 1971) vol. 11, p.90; Ginsberg, Louis, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America 1909)
vol. I., pp. 27-28.
John 6.2-27, 51