We’ve been hearing a lot these last few years about the growing inequities in our society, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the struggles of those who live in poverty to achieve a decent standard of living. We’ve also been hearing about “food insecurity” a new term that’s emerged recently to describe those large numbers of people in our society and across the world who aren’t sure where their next meal is going to come from or whether they’ll have enough food to make it through the end of the month.
We see evidence of food insecurity here at Grace. The constant stream of visitors to our food pantry is evidence of the difficulties people have to acquire adequate food. Typically, the number of visitors spikes in the last days of the month as people who subsist on disability, or social security, or SNAP—food stamps—find their resources inadequate for the month. It’s especially heartbreaking and ironic to see a line of people waiting for the pantry doors to open on Saturday morning while a few steps away thousands of people are gawking at the bounty of the Dane County Farmer’s Market. But that’s life in 21st century America.
Palestine in Jesus’ day also knew food insecurity. The inequality in the Roman Empire was greater than in our society and the overwhelming majority of the population subsisted on a limited diet, with the danger of hunger and starvation never far away. In such a world, the plea in the Lord’s Prayer “Give us this day our daily bread” is not empty words, it is the heart-felt prayer of people who don’t know if there will be bread on the table the next day.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand is notable among Jesus’ miracles because it is the only one mentioned in all four gospels. While a surface reading may focus our attention on the miraculous, the wonderful power of Jesus to make from a few loaves and fishes enough food for a crowd of thousands, with plenty left over. But in the gospel writer’s telling of this simple story, there are resonances and deeper significations that invite us to explore the meaning of this miracle, not only for our understanding of Jesus, but for our lives as well, as disciples of the one who feeds the hungry and has compassion on those in need.
In fact, Matthew alludes to the stark inequities in Palestinian society in the way he tells the story. While all of the gospels place the feeding of the five thousand immediately after Herod has John the Baptist killed, in Matthew, as in Mark, John’s execution occurs during a banquet for the celebration of Herod’s birthday. The contrast between rich and poor, between the powerful representatives of the empire and the prophet of God are all heightened, and in Matthew, Jesus’ departure for a “deserted place” comes in response to the news that John has been executed.
The deserted place, or wilderness, to which Jesus retreats, is itself of great symbolic significance. Perhaps an allusion to John the Baptist’s prophetic ministry in the wilderness, it is also the place where Jesus went after his baptism, to be tempted by Satan. More importantly, the wilderness, and Jesus’ miraculous provision of food to thousands calls to mind the experience of the Israelites during the Exodus, when they wandered for forty years and where God provided them with manna to eat.
Jesus’ wanted to be alone at this time, to grieve the death of the prophet who had baptized him, and probably also to consider the implications for his own ministry and safety of Herod’s execution of the apocalyptic prophet. But the crowds wouldn’t let him. They followed him out into the desert. Seeing them, he had compassion on them, and healed them. By the end of the day, the disciples become worried that the physical needs of the crowd can’t be met in this barren place, so they urge Jesus to send them away to seek food and refuge in the villages nearby. Instead, Jesus commands the disciples, “You give them something to eat.”
The disciples express the impossibility of the task Jesus has given them by pointing out that they don’t have enough food to go around—just five loaves and two fishes; probably not enough to feed Jesus and his closest companions, let alone a crowd of thousands.
Jesus asks for the loaves and fishes. Then, in language that Matthew will also use to describe his actions at the Last Supper, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, gives to the disciples the bread and the fish. All eat and are satisfied and there were twelve baskets of leftovers. Matthew, as do the other gospel writers, makes a connection between this miraculous feeding and that other miraculous meal, the Last Supper, the Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Jesus shared bread and wine with his closest friends and companions; he shared his body and blood. When he fed the five thousand, his gift of sustenance in the wilderness was a sign of God’s reign, a symbol of the abundance that is promised in the age to come; a symbol, too, of the bread of life he offers us.
We don’t often make the connection between our worship, our participation in the Eucharistic feast and our participation in bringing about the future reign of God. We rarely make the connection between our sharing in the bread and wine of the Eucharist with our sharing of food with hungry people. From time to time, we may see hints of such a connection, such as on those rare occasions when the ushers bring forward to the altar the basket of gifts to the food pantry along with our financial offerings.
In general, our worship, our participation in the Eucharist is about us and God, about our receiving spiritual nourishment in the body and blood of Christ. But it is more than that. It must be more than that. There’s a line in Eucharistic Prayer C (the one we’re using this summer) that should bring home to us the challenge: “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.”
And in the post-communion prayer, we say each week: “Send us out to do the work you have given us to do”
For all the spiritual and emotional needs that we bring to the altar each week, for all our suffering and brokenness, Jesus’ outstretched arms and his body and blood, offer us healing and strength. But as we eat and drink from God’s abundance, we are challenged to share that abundance with the world, to offer food and drink, and spiritual sustenance to a hungry world. We are also challenged to ask ourselves, what small gifts we have, that like the disciples’ five loaves and two fish, Jesus can use to feed the world.
Sometimes, perhaps too often, the needs and problems of the world seem so immense and intractable to us that we fall into despair and lose hope. Perhaps no more so than in these weeks of summer 2014, with the ongoing and unimaginable suffering in Gaza, the crisis on our border, war, violence, suffering throughout the world and here at home. Like the disciples in the story of the feeding of the five thousand, we’re inclined to ask Jesus to make the problems go away.
Instead, he tells us, as he told them then, “Give them something to eat.” Our efforts may be little more than offering a few loaves and fishes to a vast multitude, but in our actions, whether it be the pantry, or First Monday, or whatever form of outreach in which we participate, in the sharing of our abundance, we are also sharing God’s abundance and giving the world a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.