I used to live in a Vicarage in a very public part of town. It wasn’t right next to the church, but even so everyone knew where it was. We’d get all sorts of callers – like Paddy the drunk Irish tramp who, between each mouthful of soup, blessed us with a rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ on his mouth organ. I don’t know how, but the callers always seemed to know when I was trying to rest – once when I’d settled down in front of the telly there was a tap on the window, two small boys stood on the pavement and asked ‘Is that Top Gear? My Dad likes to watch that’.
Sometimes I had to draw deep on my very limited reserves of patience to try and be the nice Vicar. It felt harder at the end of a long week, when you need a rest, or when you’ve set that time aside in your mind for yourself. So I’m always struck, whenever I read this gospel, by the contrast with just how willing and generous Jesus is. It begins in v.13 with ‘When Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.’ ‘This’ refers to some news he has received. He needs time out because he has just heard that John the Baptist has been murdered by Herod.
Jesus must have been overwhelmed by grief. John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin and he had been a huge influence on Jesus, his baptism had kickstarted Jesus’ ministry. But also, Jesus is aware that this is the fate which can await those who carry God’s message and challenge power. What has happened to John is a reminder to Jesus of his own destiny: the cross. Jesus needed space and time to grieve, and I can imagine him setting out in the boat, a sense of relief and need.
But what is this? As he steps ashore there is a shout ‘here he is!’ A great crowd rushes down to meet him, clamouring and pressing, bringing forward the sick, holding up babies, shouting questions. Yet how does Jesus respond? In v.14 ‘When he went ashore he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion on them and cured their sick’.
There must have been such love in his heart. And I wonder, perhaps paradoxically, how much the compassion was fuelled by his prayer? And whether the engagement with the needy crowd was sustained by his regular withdrawal? If we are to minister to one another, we need to be rooted in God’s ministry to us through prayer. We need to make time for that. Our work and service needs to be resourced by periods of refreshment – and it is part of our responsibility to ourselves and others to make sure it happens.
This passage is full of similar elements we might imagine are opposites but actually are not. For example the perceived tensions between healing people, feeding them and teaching them (which is mentioned in another gospel). Some strands of Christianity emphasise teaching, others social action, others the miraculous power of God. Yet in the ministry of Jesus all of these were fully expressed and it wouldn’t be right for the church to concentrate on any one at the exclusion of others.
Another example might be divine miracle and human action which turn out not to be opposites but working in harmony. For in verse 15 the disciples come to Jesus with a problem: ‘There’s no food, we’re in the middle of nowhere, send the crowds away so they can buy bread.’ But in v.16. Jesus has a better idea ‘You give them something to eat.’
That is completely bonkers. There’s 5000 men, plus women and children. All the disciples have is five loaves and two fishes – what can they do with that?
Have you ever felt that a task is too big for you? Parents, does the job of bringing up children seem overwhelming at times? Godparents, do you ever wonder what difference you can make? Whether at work or in ministry, do we ever feel tiny compared to the challenge ahead? That the resources are too small, that you yourself are totally out of your comfort zone? Do you know what it is like to feel inadequate compared to the task God is calling you to? Do you?
Brilliant! That is the point when God can really start to use you. When you move from praying ‘Lord, bless what I’m doing’ to ‘Help!’ – when you rely on God rather than seeing him as another tool in the armoury, that’s when things start to happen. Holy desperation is a great thing.
Of course, we have to be sure it is something to which God has called us. If he has called us though, we should not be intimidated by the scale of the task, but start with what we can and just get on with it.
I remember when Phil Daniels said ‘We need to start a youth group’. And as the responsible training incumbent, I replied ‘That’s a big task, a lot of work, on Sunday too, are you sure they’ll come? Think about this very carefully’. He did. And he did it anyway. He just got on with it and as you know TOAST has thrived.
Nor should we hold back from trying because we can’t fix it for everyone. The disciples had some food but they didn’t feel there was any point in sharing because they believed they couldn’t feed all the crowd. However even without a miracle that food would have helped a few. In the same way, we might hold back from, say, giving money to Syria because the need is so great and our pockets so small.
In those situations this story comes to mind. It was the day after a great storm. The clouds had gone, the sea was becoming calm. A small boy walked along the beach, across which were strewn thousands of sea creatures hurled up from the depths by the storm, flapping limply in the hot sun. As he went, the boy was picking them up and throwing them back in. A man exercising his dog laughed: ‘What’s the point’, he said ‘you’ll never rescue them all’. The boy paused, picked up a starfish, and slinging it back in, said ‘It makes a difference to this one’.
Just getting on with it is better than doing nothing. With the power of God, who knows what he can accomplish through us? As v.17-18 show, what we bring may be small but God can transform it.
There is a strong echo of the Eucharist in this – the pattern where we offer bread and wine and God use it wonderfully. In v.19 Jesus lifts the bread, gives thanks, breaks and shares it with the crowd. That parallel isn’t accidental – we know that in John’s gospel the theme is developed to point to Jesus the bread of heaven in whom all our spiritual needs are satisfied. Just as the physical bread nourishes us for physical life, so fellowship with Jesus feeds us spiritually and in the life to come.
Now of course it has been suggested that if the story contains various levels of spiritual meaning, perhaps the point of the story is itself symbolic? Some have gone a step further: they ask do we actually need to believe that a miracle happened. I have heard it said that what really happened was that quite a lot of people had their own picnic but they weren’t sharing until a certain small boy set an example and gave up his food, whereupon everyone else whipped out their hampers from underneath their groundsheets and shared with their neighbours!
A nice moral maybe, but not very convincing. Matthew is quite clear that they all ate from the food which had miraculously multiplied. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the miraculous – it seems to me that if God is God, then he can do these things – the real issue is why at particular times. But I know some people do find the miraculous difficult. In the 19th century and early 20th some scholars thought that you could remove the miracles from the New Testament and still be left with something meaningful – rather like putting a mug with a picture on it in the dishwasher too many times. You still end up with a cup, albeit less colourful.
But actually, the miracles in the New Testament carry meaning. Scholarly opinion, whether believing in miracles or not, now tends to say that the accounts of the miracles are key to understanding the message. They are less like the picture that was once on a cup in the dishwasher and more like the image in a knitted jumper, part of the structure that unravels if you attempt to remove it.
We can see that in verse 20, where the twelve basketfuls that are left over speak of the abundance with which God provides for us. In a world where there is much talk of limited resources, this might give us pause for thought. If it seems there isn’t enough for everyone, how much of that is due to waste or greed? Is an unequal distribution the problem – the world has more than enough but it is not shared out?
If you were hearing this as a first century Jew, then the twelve baskets would remind you of the twelve tribes of Israel. The miracle would speak to you of Moses in the desert commanding the people to collect the manna. Jesus comes over as one who is greater than Moses. In Luke’s gospel this conclusion is made clear when the feeding of the 5000 is followed by Peter’s confession of Christ at Caesarea Philippi. Only God could do something so amazing. Only God would be moved by such compassion and able to act.
This is an immensely rich and beautiful account. There are many layers of meaning within it, shown by the various ways the gospel writers approach it. At its heart though is a simple portrayal of Christ’s love – his immense compassion, despite his own needs. He responds to the hungry, he takes the little his disciples have, and multiplies it. In the Kingdom of God, in our own lives, he can do the same. Let us offer what we have so he can transform it beyond our wildest imaginings. Amen.