“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself….”
There are times that we really don’t pay enough attention to context and motivation. I think that’s particularly true in scripture reading where we are too often just “plopped” into a story to consider it in isolation.
That is true of this Gospel story, the miracle of the feeding of the 5000.
We are used to considering this story on its own as a “stand alone” piece.
We hear about the details of five loaves, two fish, the desire of the disciples to do the practical thing of dispersing the crowds what the meaning of 12 baskets full gathered up afterward might be, and the details of how many were fed.
In short, we try to figure out the “miracle” here.
But today I want you to forget about the loaves, forget about the fishes and forget about sitting in the grass or the lateness of the hour. None of that is really as important as noticing something else.
If you want to understand the real miracle of this story, you have back up a bit, start with the introduction of the event and what prompts Jesus’ actions. Go back to what motivates Jesus to come out to this deserted place to begin with.
“Now when Jesus heard this…. “ Matthew says.
What is it that Jesus had just heard about?
If you look at what immediately precedes the feeding of the 5000, you’ll find out that chapter 14 begins with the story of the death of John the Baptist.
As that story plays itself out, we learn that Herod wanted to have John put to death all along. John had denounced Herod’s actions and specifically criticized Herod’s marriage of political convenience to Herodias, his own brother’s first wife, in a bid to consolidate his power.
Herod wanted to put John to death, but he “feared the crowd” it says. The crowd considered John to be a prophet.
It is a terrible story really. A story of political intrigue, the abuse of power, heartless seeking of revenge and even the manipulation of children.
This is what Jesus had just heard about, how Herod had been manipulated to put John to death.
This is the reason why he is seeking some time away from the crowd.
“Now when Jesus heard this…” also changes the motivation of the crowd, does it not? We often assume that the crowd “heard” that Jesus was going off to a deserted place, that’s their motivation, find Jesus and listen to him teach, or be healed — but when Matthew says, “when the crowds heard it”—what they “heard” was also the news of John’s death at the hands of Herod.
So then, the crowds come to the deserted place looking for Jesus to find out what he will make of all of this. They come to hear what Jesus will have to say, what Jesus will do now that Herod has killed someone they considered to be a prophet.
So, before we get too caught up in the details of the miraculous feeding, pay attention to what one does when one is confronted by a crowd.
Herod looks upon the crowd and fears them. He responds to the needs of the crowd by dismissing them, diverting his attention with parties and dancing, and surrounding himself with “important” guests who have no consideration for the crowds. Herod ultimately deals with the wishes of the crowd with violence.
Jesus (on the other hand) looks upon the crowd and is moved to compassion. He responds to the crowd with healing and with feeding, and most importantly with engagement.
He does not withdraw
He does not get back into the boat or dismiss their needs.
He does not isolate himself from them, but rather points out their needs, and then invites those closest to him to engage the crowd with him.
“They need not go away;” Jesus says to those gathered around him, “you give them something to eat.”
Compassion – Compassion is the real miracle in this story.
The bread, the fish, the orderly sitting down on the grass, and the rest of the events all stem from the decision Jesus makes about how one deals with a crowd that is shocked and afraid.
Do you dismiss and ignore them, or do you have compassion on them and sit with them and find ways to move them to compassionate action with you?
I think seeing the feeding of the 5000 through this lens is critically important right now, because we’re all feeling like a shocked crowd.
Covid has us disoriented.
The action or inaction of our political leaders on both sides of the aisle make them seem far removed, as if they are all at some kind of party of their own and completely out of touch with the wishes, needs or beliefs of the crowd to whom they should be accountable.
Some are seeking out Jesus to see what he might have to say about all of these things happening in the world right now, and some religious leaders seem all too ready to supply their own interpretation of what Jesus, or God is doing – and so even that has become politically charged and divisive now.
So, before we get too far into the events and details of miraculous feedings, it is good to step back and be reminded of Jesus’ context and motivation.
Jesus too, (it appears) sometimes needed a little time and space to sort through the cruelty of this world. If he didn’t need that, he wouldn’t so often have struck out to find those lonely or deserted places and would not have invited his disciples, (invited us) to accompany him there.
If you’re feeling like the world just does not make sense right now?
If’ you’re looking at events and thinking, “how could people even think that, let alone DO something like that?
If you are wounded by the level of cruelty, or the lack of care, or the insensitivity of people that just makes you shake your head in disbelief, then a part of the really good news from the Gospel is that you’re in good company.
Jesus shook his head from time to time too.
Even God can be shocked, disappointed and disoriented at what the events of this world can dish out. At what people, God’s own creation, can do to one another.
And so it is that we are invited by Jesus to step away from the madness from time to time, to seek out a place where the noise level can be turned down and where we have some time to think through it all.
This is the advice given by Jesus to his disciples and modeled here, “come away to a lonely place.”
This is in fact the consistent message from God in the psalms and in the stories, from Moses being driven into the wilderness to Elijah sitting in a cave. We all need to step back from the madness of the world from time to time to sort things out and to listen to the “still small voice of God.”
And how will we know if is God speaking to us?
Compassion will be heard.
Compassion is the real miracle. To be able to look at the madness of this world and not be moved to lash out, or to dismiss people, or to resort to violence or be motivated by only your own self-interest, your own desires or needs.
Everything flows from having compassion on the crowds, the scared, lonely and disoriented crowds.
I look at this story and think to myself, “how different this could have been if Jesus had responded with something else besides compassion.”
Jesus could have looked at the crowds and seen the potential for power. Grab your torches and pitchforks, folks— it’s time to throw Herod out! Death to the tyrant!”
And you know what, the crowd would have followed him!
But having compassion won’t let you do that. It won’t let you manipulate the masses for your own narrow views or personal gain.
Compassion demands you see the world in all of its complexity.
Compassion demands that you understand the terrible situation that Herod finds himself in, even if it is of his own doing.
Getting rid of Herod would not change the systems that existed long before he married his brother’s wife to get hold of the handles of power.
Compassion demands that you engage and seek to understand the sources and deep roots of injustice and of sin – what got us to this point that ended with heads on platters!
Jesus could have taken one look at the crowd and thought, “it’s just too much!” and gotten back in the boat and rowed on, and not a single person would have blamed him!
After all, who among us hasn’t looked at the enormity of what needs to be done, the problems facing this world and said, “I’m not even going to start!”
Solving world hunger, or cleaning up the environment, or addressing global warming.. stopping a pandemic.. it’s too big for me to do anything about!
But having compassion won’t let you do that. It won’t let you opt yourself out. It demands that you look at even the impossible and say, “well, where could we start?”
“They need not go away, you give them something to eat.” Jesus says.
That is an invitation to have compassion.
Break it down, examine the resources at hand, and even if they look wholly inadequate commit them to God, bless, break them and pass them out and see how far they go!
Compassion will not let you consider hoarding or hiding away your stuff, withholding what your neighbor needs.
Compassion bids you give it freely and trust that God will multiply the effort.
Compassion is the real miracle here. It is the beginning point from which Jesus will bring in the Kingdom.
So, if you are feeling like it’s all just too much right now, know that you’re in good company, but see the way through it. It is compassion that is the real miracle that we all need right now. God grant it to us in abundance this day.