Is there any Gospel reading more familiar to us than Jesus feeding the multitudes (Matthew 14:13-21)? Let’s put aside the inclination to call Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand a miracle. Why? Primarily because it misses the point and distracts us from the true miracles that take place in the story.
Matthew told us in the first chapter that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us.” So for the one who made the world out of nothing and created light from darkness, multiplying some food and loaves was no major feat. John reminds us that the wonders Jesus performed throughout his ministry were always indications of the character of the God of love whose divine presence Jesus bears. Make no mistake, what Jesus did is anything but pedestrian but the point isn’t what Jesus did, but why he did it. Jesus reveals the God in him by his compassion, the hallmark of Jesus ministry. This single word summarizes God’s unconditional love for us and is at the core of his incarnation in Christ.
Before going further in the story, the scene begins with the transitional line, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Jesus had just heard about John the Baptist’s murder by King Herod at a feast. The metaphorical juxtaposition of images couldn’t be more powerful. After hearing the news, Jesus needed to retreat and be alone. John was his baptizer, teacher and mentor. Jesus, in the fullness of his humanity, was hurting and yearned for solace. And yet manages to fulfill the consistent call of the Father to feed the hungry and heal the sick and fill the “empty.”
Ok, let’s get back to our miracle… that was no minor endeavor. What we now call “food scarcity” was rampant in the ancient world. And so the disciples’ suggestion that the hordes of people go away and buy food isn’t just unrealistic it’s ridiculous. First, they were in a deserted place in the middle of nowhere, and second, they would likely not have any money to buy food anyway. And so Jesus tells his disciples to get over their self-concern and desire to be left alone, and feed them… themselves!
Which brings us to the real miracle of the story: Jesus uses the disciples, even when they would rather look after themselves, to tend to the needs of these thousands of men, women, and children. They go from “we have nothing here but five loaves and fishes” to one of abundance to “thank you, God, for these five loaves and fishes.” Whatever their initial skepticism, or doubt, or self-indulgence, the disciples are caught up in Jesus’ words of abundance and “they all ate and were filled” as God worked through these reluctant disciples to care for the poor and hungry that he loves so much.
And that miracle continues when a parent puts his/her own dreams aside to care for the needs of their children or aging parent. God is working that same miracle when a community of faith makes a promise that no one that comes to its doors will be turned away hungry, or when a Muslim family hides a Christian refugee from the wrath of murderous radicals. God is still at work performing miracles through us, his disciples eager, yet reluctant, and everything in between.
The real wonder of this story is that it continues. God cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable: the poor, the homeless, the hungry. And God continues to use us to care for them.
Just maybe if we are serving our “needy,” however poor or rich, we are reminded of the similarity that exists between the scenes in Matthew. Let those of us who have been fed by God’s heavenly food go and do likewise by sharing God’s love with all we meet and especially with those in deepest need.
There are two miracles in this story. They have little to do with simply multiplying loaves and fishes, and by remembering them, we are hopefully prepared to continue to follow Jesus and care for those in need. And that is no small thing at a time like this. Thank you God, and thank God for you.