This week the revised common lectionary has Matthew 14:13-21 as the Gospel text for the day. Matthew 14 recounts the feeding of the five thousand - the only miracle of Jesus recorded in all four Gospels. Jesus, withdrawing after the death of John the Baptist, is met by a hungry crowd in the wilderness. Jesus feeds the crowd with five loaves and two fish. There is an abundance left over. That’s the story in a nut-shell. But where does it intersect us today?
Below is my rough translation of the story. I have tried to bring current images into the story and contextualize it to fit my understanding of what is going on in our midst.
So here it is...
A re-imagining of Matthew 14:13-21.
After Jesus heard about the violence being done in the world - the death of children on Chicago’s south side, the warring madness in Gaza, the spread of Ebola in Africa, the unrest among nations, the selfishness of politicians - he withdrew by boat (down the Rio Grande) by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the villages.
When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them and healed their sick.
When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “We are in the border lands, and the hour is late, send the crowds away so they may into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
(For the disciples were afraid of helping the hungry poor. The words of politicians rang in their ears. The roar of helicopters could be heard in the distance. The threat of forces with guns hung heavy in their minds.)
Jesus said to them, “They need not go away, you give them something to eat.”
They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves of bread and two fish.”
He said, “Bring them here to me.” He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves of bread and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them and broke the loaves apart and gave them to his disciples. Then the disciples gave them to the crowds. Everyone ate until they were full, and they filled twelve baskets with the leftovers. About five thousand men, plus women and children had eaten.
A New Perspective
The word at the heart of this story is compassion. Jesus responds to the crowd with compassion. The Greek word that we translate as compassion has a deeper meaning not clearly evident in the English translation. It literally means “to be moved as to one’s bowels, hence, to be moved with compassion, have compassion.”
In the time of Jesus the bowels were thought to be the seat of love and pity.
Another way to think of this word is gut-wrenching. When Jesus saw the crowds - the sick, the poor, the hungry, the ones who longed to be healed and whole - he had a gut-wrenching moment.
I think we all have those. The last few weeks have been one long gut-wrenching moment for me.
The news is filled with gut-wrenching moments. Violence and death in the middle east. Tension between nations. Uproar over an Ebola victim being transported to the untied states. Fighting and stalemate among our elected leader. The continued death and violence, all but unreported, on Chicago’s south side. These moments break my heart. I feel them in my gut. I am moved with anger and pity.
There are a great number of ways to react and respond to what is going on, but in my understanding there is a difference between reacting and responding.
Reacting is a quick action. It is often moved by fear and anger. Reacting can be lashing out with harsh words or violent actions. Reacting often doesn't think - it just does. And it often leads to hurt and further damage.
The disciples react. They may react out of fear. Or anger. Or a perceived scarcity of resources. As I heard in a sermon this morning - these are reasonable human reactions. It reasonable to be afraid - for lack of food, in a life threatening moment. We are all caught up in them at one moment or another in out lives.
But the kingdom of heaven, to use Matthew’s term, is not reasonable by human standards. God demonstrates a different path - a different “way of life.”
Jesus calls us to another way of action. Jesus gives us another perspective. Jesus teaches us how to respond.
Responding comes from a place of compassion. Responding comes from a place of care for the other. Responding is an attempt to meet people where they are - neighbors and strangers alike.
Jesus responds to the crowd with compassion.
The command from Jesus in this story is to feed the crowd. No rules. No regulations. No stipulations on who can be feed based on nationality or proper documentation. The response of Jesus is straight forward - “You give them something to eat.”
Jesus knows there is enough. The power of the kingdom of heaven is that it helps us to see there is enough and respond with compassion.
There is a great deal of reacting going on in the world at the moment. People are reacting out of anger and fear and a perceived sense of scarcity. These emotions drive us to react in less than helpful ways. These reacts lead us to turning away from one another - or turning on one another.
So let us be reminded today that Jesus teaches us how to respond. Jesus teaches us how recognize the gut-wrenching moments and respond with mercy to those in need. To recognize that the kingdom of heaven has a different perspective than the ways of the world.
We are the children of God, a kingdom people, called to a way of life that responds with compassion to those in need.
I pray that we can find a way forward that is responding rather than reacting. That we learn compassion and not anger. That we can engage the world the perspective of Jesus and learn that there is enough for all. Enough resources. Enough peace. Enough love.
May God bless us on the journey.