Now when Jesus heard [about John the beheading of John the Baptist], he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘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; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Let’s say if we were investigators on the location of some important event, looking for clues about what actually happened and what it all meant, we would do some digging. That’s what I’d like to do: to dig a little under these words we’ve just heard from Matthew’s Gospel to better understand their meaning. Where to look? We can look at the other three Gospels; Mark, Luke, and John. This is the only miracle story about Jesus that is remembered in all four Gospels which, at the very least, suggests this is an important story.i Pay attention here! When I say the only miracle story of Jesus remembered in all four Gospels, I really do mean “remembered,” because this miracle account was not written down until 40 to 60 years after the event.ii This was and is an important miracle to remember.
Luke gives a clue that the location of the miracle was near a town called Bethsaida, which was near the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee on a fertile plain. (I’ll come back to that.) And where did the original small amount of food (which Jesus multiplied) actually come from? In John’s Gospel, it’s from the generosity of one boy who shares his lunch. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we don’t know for sure. The most popular guess is that people were so moved by Jesus’ generosity that they brought out the food they were carrying in their own satchels or hidden in their clothing. By sharing their food there was more than enough for everyone. Which begs the question, are these four Gospel accounts “literal”? Are they like verbatims of what actually happened? No, I don’t think so. But they are true. Stories do not have to be literal to be true. And these Gospel stories are truly significant. How many people were actually fed? We can’t be sure. Each Gospel account has a different numbering system – not unlike what happens in our media today estimating crowd size. It depends who’s counting. If we use Matthew’s account, we come up with “5,000 men, and then the women and children,” so we may be talking about, say, 20,000 people. At any rate, it’s a lot of people, a multitude. And then, lastly, what does this Gospel story mean? I suspect for many of us here, this Gospel story (these Gospel stories!) is quite familiar.
A lot of people. It sounds like rather desperate people. Looking hope and healing. Very moved by Jesus compassion and power. And at the end of the day, they’re hungry. They’re starved. And then there’s this provision of food, as much as they needed.iii
What does this story mean to you?
I draw meaning from my own experience just a month ago when I had opportunity to spend 10 days in northern Israel at the location where this miracle happened, on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee at a little town called Tabgha. Since Jesus’ lifetime there was a large community of his followers living in this area, and in the late fourth century a Christian pilgrim named Egeria wrote about the exact spot where this miracle of feeding was remembered to have happened.iv That’s where I stayed for 10 days. On the one hand, it is a lovely setting just alongside the Sea of Galilee, where a beautiful memorial chapel is situated. It is a place made holy by the thousands of thousands of pilgrims over the centuries who have come there to pray and remember. And having said that, the setting is otherwise unremarkable. It looks like the rest of the Galilean countryside. There’s something very “normal” about the setting. So what does this important, remembered story about Jesus’ feeding of the multitude mean for us?
I go back to the original context in which the story is remembered in the four Gospels. It is symbolic. As I said, whether it literally happened the way we read it is open for scholars’ debate. But we can be certain it is truly symbolic and has importance for us in normal and ordinary ways. Even if this miracle isn’t literal, it is true. Three things come to mind.
First, God uses what we bring, even if all we have to offer consists of five small loaves of bread and two dried fish. This is not fancy food; this is peasant food. Bread and dried fish constituted the basic ingredients of a peasant’s meal in Galilee. This is not a sumptuous feast – nothing cooked; no fruit or vegetables; no wine. It is very unimpressive, normal fare for normal folks. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel there is the story of Jesus’ being tempted to turn stones into bread, a temptation which he resists.v This is not bread from stones. This is simple fare brought by simple folks like you and me. And the principle here is that God uses what we have and what we bring. Don’t ever apologize for what little you have and what little you are. Don’t ever apologize for that. God is well apprised of who we are and what we bring to the table of life. That is our offering.
Secondly, concerning this story’s symbol of bread – the bread which is broken and in the breaking is multiplied – that is a story about your life. There’s something about your own brokenness that informs what you have to give. I’d even go so far as to say that the more you are broken, the more you have to give. Remember that this Gospel story begins with a remembrance of Jesus, that he was compassionate. This is how he is most often remembered: as compassionate. There is a connection between brokenness, your brokenness – and compassion, your compassion. And on some days where your life may feel like a very meager offering, your own poverty, which informs your compassion, may be the most profound gift you can give to another person. Your compassion, your most Christ-like gift, which will have a profound effect on those whom come into your presence. The bread is broken, and in the breaking is multiplied. That is somehow your own story.
I’ll return for a moment to the northwestern shore of Galilee, to this small town called Tabgha. This is the place I described where the feeding the multitude of people is remembered to have taken place. I find it fascinating that there are actually three significant stories in the Gospels which are located side-by-side along this shore on Galilee. This is where Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes took place. Just adjacent, on bluff, is where Jesus is remembered speaking the beatitudes: Blessed are you who are poor in spirit.vi Blessed are you. Blessed are you. Blessed are you. You.
Alongside these two neighboring settings – where the feeding took place and the beatitudes were spoken – there is a third memorial shrine right along the water called “The Primacy of Peter.” You may recall that after Jesus’ crucifixion his disciples first hid for fear of their own lives, and then they went back to their previous life and livelihoods. Among them was Peter – perhaps feeling terribly broken, feeling the most guilty of all because of his duplicity in denying three times that he even knew this Jesus. Peter seems to have suppressed all this and gone back to his fishing. And right there on the shore of Galilee on this spot, a stone’s throw from these two other memorial shrines, is the setting where the resurrected Jesus appears and calls Peter to shore. Jesus asks Peter, three times, “Do you love me?” “Do you love me?” “Do you love me?” And now Peter says, three times, “Yes.” Jesus accepts Peter at his word and says to him, “Feed my sheep.”vii And once more Peter becomes a leader of Jesus’ disciples. There is something about brokenness and blessing that go hand in hand, and I would say that is true for you.
It takes broken soil to produce a crop,
broken clouds to give rain,
broken grain to give bread,
broken bread to give strength.
It is the broken alabaster box
that gives forth perfume –
It is Peter, weeping bitterly,
who returns to greater power
And then finally, in this feeding of the multitude remembered in Matthew’s Gospel, we read that “all ate and were filled; and [the disciples] took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” What does that symbolize to you? This is not a story about the superabundance of God’s provision.ix If we are talking here about the feeding of 20,000 people, twelve baskets of bread and fish left over is not much. In the feeding of the multitude in John’s Gospel, when everyone is satisfied, Jesus tells his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”x The lesson we can draw from this Gospel story is that God will provide what is needed, and not much more. How does that speak to you? We live in a society which is called a “consumer culture.” These days we are hearing from so many perspectives that we as a culture are taking too much, more than we need, more than our share. Whether you listen to an oilman like T. Boone Pickens, or a politician/environmentalist such as Al Gore, or a poet such as Mary Oliver, or the endless drama being splayed daily in the world’s media, we hear that we are taking too much. Where does all of this line up? Where does poverty – your poverty and the world’s poverty – and Jesus’ intention of blessing – the blessing due you and the blessing through you – line up? There must be no greed or waste, or some will go hungry.xi That is what this much-remembered Gospel story is all about.
You do not have to go to the northwestern shore of Galilee to make sense of this Gospel story. The story has been remembered down through the centuries because it is true. It is our story. It is your story. What does it mean for you and the world your life touches?
- What about brokenness and multiplication?
- What about poverty and blessing?
- What about sufficiency and stewardship?
Jesus says, “blessed are you.”xii In the Greek this is you-plural: “Blessed are you all.” All are to be blessed.
i Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:32-44, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-13.
ii Mark, written around c.e. 70; Matthew and Luke written some 10-20 years later; John typically dated around c.e. 90 to 100.
iii Insight drawn from J. Davies in The Abingdon Bible Commentary (Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1929) p. 979.
iv The pilgrim, “Lady Egeria,” wrote of the location and her findings in c.e. 383.
v Matthew 4:3-4.
vi Matthew 4:23 – 5:8.
vii John 21.
viii “Brokenness,” by Vance Havner in By The Still Waters (Fleming H. Revell, 1934).
ix Insight drawn from Douglas R. A. Hare in Interpretation; Matthew (John Knox Press, 1993), pp. 165-167.
x John 6:7-17.
xi Hare, p. 167.
xii Matthew 5:6-16.
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