Updated: Jul 18, 2022
Many of us have heard the gospel lesson of the feeding of the five thousand before. With five loaves of bread and two small fishes, Jesus feeds the masses. The story is intended to be understood as a miracle, but there is so much more to the story than a miraculous bread basket and multiplying fish. Like every one of the accounts of Jesus’ miracles in the gospels, this one points beyond the physical world and into our souls.
Just before the passage that I read, John the Baptist is brutally and publicly murdered. You may remember that John the Baptist is Jesus’ cousin and the first person besides Mary to respond to Jesus as the Messiah. In Matthew’s account, John fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy by baptizing Jesus in the river Jordan. It is this John who is beheaded, and his head is paraded through the King Herod’s gallery on a platter because he spoke out against the King marrying his brother’s wife.
When Jesus hears of John’s horrifying death, he withdraws to a deserted place. That is where our lesson today begins. We don’t know what Jesus is feeling or thinking, but we might imagine that he is full of emotion: grief, sadness, even anger. Perhaps he wants some time alone to pray. But John’s public death would not have gone unnoticed in Israel. John had thousands of devoted followers who believed that he was a prophet of God. Allow me to draw a tentative comparison to the recent and tragic death of George Floyd, who was publicly and brutally murdered in a way that tore off the scab of a festering wound. In the same way that George Floyd’s death cut to the root of American racism, we might imagine that John the Baptist’s death cut to the root of Roman cruelty and despotism. Not only were the deaths of George Floyd and John the Baptist awful and public; they also represented something deeper, something evil in the world.
This context might explain why tens of thousands of people sought after Jesus when he went away to a deserted place. Confused, angry, and desperate for some direction, the gathered crowd would have been hungry to express their grief, to demand justice, to seek answers, and to discover something to believe in from the very person who John the Baptist said would lead the nation of Israel: Jesus the Messiah.
“This is a deserted place,” the disciples warn Jesus, “send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves” (Mtt. 14:15). Do you see how tone deaf the disciple’s response to the crowd is? These people have come for something to believe in, something to hope for, and the disciples want to send them away to buy food.
When I was in seminary, I was assigned to serve as a hospital chaplain in the New Haven Emergency Room. I was trained up by a British woman named Angela, who walked me through the ER and talked me through different scenarios I might face when I would be on call. Angela was a no-nonsense woman. I knew that I would like her immediately. As we walked through one of the critical care rooms, she stopped and said to me, “Imagine that a man has just died in this room. All of the nurses and doctors suddenly stop their work and a nurse technician calls out the time of death. What do you do?” I was flustered by her sudden question, and I stared at her blankly. “Think like a priest!” she exclaimed, “A man has just died. What is your role?” “Well,” I muttered, thinking just like the disciples from our lesson, “should I help clear the room?” I offered tentatively. “No!,” Angela almost screamed at me, “Don’t think for a moment that those nurses and doctors, not to mention the eternal soul of the departed, don’t need to be reminded that we are not alone in this world when we witness death. You pray, that is what people of faith do. You commend the man’s soul to God.”
Angela was trying to get me to realize the same thing that Jesus is trying to get the disciples to realize when they tell him to send the despairing crowds away. They weren’t thinking like people of faith; they were thinking like event coordinators. “They need not go away,” Jesus tells them; you give them something to eat” (Mtt. 14:16). Of course, Jesus is NOT talking about material food when he tells them to provide something to eat. He is talking about spiritual food: hope, faith, and love…connection to God. But the disciples don’t get it. They are stuck in the flesh, the material, the mundane, so they look at their material resources and respond, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish” (Mtt. 14:16).
This tendency to focus on the material at the exclusion of the spiritual is a universal human tendency. When we hear about racial injustice, we are tempted to talk about politics and reparations. When we hear about covid-19 we are tempted to talk about transmission rates and micro-biology. When we hear about abortion we are tempted to talk about Roe v. Wade and constitutional rights. All of these responses are material; they are worldly. Please don’t misinterpret me here: I am not saying that we should ignore the material. I am saying that our material response to tragedy and despair is always a very narrow portion of what our souls are hungry to receive.
Jesus shows us the way in our lesson today, saying, “Bring them here to me. Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled” (Mtt. 14:18-19). Note that there is no mention of what the crowd ate or how they ate it. Sure, they ate bread and fish, but the story intentionally holds open the reality that their hunger, and the food they ate, were not only material. The word blessed here means that Jesus blessed God; in other words, Jesus praised God and thanked God for the food; he wasn’t blessing the bread itself as if to make it magic. Jesus is drawing the crowd’s eyes away from the material food and towards the spiritual food that they need.
The remarkable nature of spiritual food is how simple it is. The smallest words of kindness. The plainest words of prayer. The simplest of elements: water and bread. Jesus offers up a tiny portion of food, but it is enough. Imagine the scene for a moment: Tens of thousands of despairing people have wandered into the wildness, and the moment they have been waiting for has arrived. Jesus, the rumored Messiah, finds an elevated place and raises his hands. Everyone quiets in anticipation of what he might say. Will he a lead a rebellion against Herod? Will he usher in a new system of legal and civic reforms? As everyone waits, anticipation building, someone hands Jesus some bread, and he holds it up to the sky, and he praises God for the gift of bread, and for all the gifts that we take for granted. He thanks God for leading Israel out of slavery in Egypt and through the desert and for never abandoned the people of Israel to despair, for giving us a reason to trust that we are not alone in the darkness of the world. He then might have given God thanks for the life of John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, a man whom he loved. He breaks the bread; he hands it to his disciples, and they begin to disperse it through the crowd. Finally, Jesus sits down. Can you imagine how unexpected this would have been, and how that kind of praise and thanksgiving in the midst of despair would have changed the energy of the crowd?
It is so easy to look at our material resources and despair the way that the disciples do in our lesson today. How can we fight a global virus, combat systemic racism and inequality, find a solution to global warming, oppose the Roman empire? Materially, there is often little hope, but spiritually, Jesus shifts our perspective to the kingdom of heaven. This spiritual food often seems like nothing to our eyes because it is invisible to the flesh, but it is the only kind of food that can feed our souls.
Just one week after Angela trained me, I responded to three Emergency Room calls which resulted in death. In each instance, I stepped forward and said a prayer as she had reminded me to do, and in each instance the effect was powerful and palpable, not unlike what I imagine might have happened to the crowd surrounding Jesus. After the first death, one of the nurses came up to me in tears to thank me for what I had done. I remember feeling bashful because I had done almost nothing to help this nurse other than to lift her eyes towards God in a moment of need, but that is where the true bread lies in this story, the same bread that filled the crowd after John the Baptist’s death. God provides us with all the spiritual food we need if we take a moment to look away from the material world of despair and into the spiritual world of grace.
Many of us come to this place because it helps us, in the words of psalm 121 in our stained-glass window here to my right, “to lift our eyes to the hill from whence our help will come.” Something about these lakes and mountains and this little log cabin Church helps us to connect to the spiritual bread of life. I cannot begin to understand this miracle of spiritual bread, but I have witnessed it over and over again. As we go out into the world today, a world that is as full of fear and despair as it was when John the Baptist was beheaded, let us rest assured that there is enough food to feed everyone’s soul, and let us hear again Jesus’s words to his disciples. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (Mtt. 14:16).