Loaves and Fishes

Sermon 6 August 2017 – Matthew 14:13-21

It’s easy for us to get caught up in the ‘wow’ factor of today’s Gospel – the miracle performed. But I think it’s much deeper than that. There are three aspects of the story that deserve attention, and they can be summed up as follows:

  • compassion,
  • hunger,
  • and, of course, the multiplying of the loaves and fishes.

All three of these feed into each other.

Firstly, compassion.

The news had come that John the Baptist had been beheaded in prison, all because of some stupid drunken promise Herod had made to his wife. It hit Jesus especially hard, because John was his cousin, barely nine months older than himself. It was he who baptised Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, and both of them shared this passion for telling people about God, although they both had very different styles of preaching. John had been all fire and brimstone, while Jesus favoured the more gentle approach.

Understandably, Jesus was grief stricken, as much for his loss as for the possible consequences of such brutality catching up with to him. So he did what he always did – went off very early in the morning (this time in a boat) to be by himself and watch and pray to his Father. But when he came ashore he was met by a crowd of people who had heard he was in the district, and came out to meet him.

This was about the last thing he needed.

He needed time to grieve and think. However, as the Gospel reading says, he had compassion for these people.

Now compassion (which translates as: ‘suffering with’) is much stronger than pity. It comes out of our own suffering, which means that we can then understand the suffering of others. So Jesus, having soaked up the love of his Father did what love dictated – he reached out to the people to heal them.

The first multiplication – the poor offering of his suffering became the compassion through which many were healed.

And then we come to hunger.

What did the crowds come out to see? What were they hungry for? Clearly many needed the healing touch which could not be found anywhere else but in Jesus. Some may have come out to gawk, hoping they might see some spectacular miracle. How many would follow him, even if they were healed? Would they simply take their newfound wholeness and skip off home without a backward glance?

The point is that Jesus didn’t ask or distinguish between their motives. His compassion was simply poured out on the crowd willy-nilly. Perhaps the cold avarice or forgetfulness of some would have wounded him, but again he would turn that suffering into and opportunity to exercise compassion.

The feeding went out there regardless of the consequences, and love was multiplied.

The third element is, of course, what seems to be the focus of the story. The disciples know that the crowds needed feeding, and the only option was to send them away to buy food. Jesus, however, puts the ball back in their court. “Don’t send them away. You feed them.” They had brought enough food for themselves, but that clearly wasn’t going to stretch to 5,000. Nevertheless, they gave it to Jesus when he asked. He then offered up a thanksgiving, blessed the food, and began to break it – again and again and again.

Then – and this is important – he gave the food back to them to distribute. So their little five loaves and two fishes they offered in faith (not really knowing what the outcome would be, I might add) became a feast for a multitude, given back to them so they could feed them.

Another overflowing blessing – giving crumbs in faith, receiving abundantly in order to reach out to the hunger of many others.

I preached on this Gospel story twice in the last week to nursing home residents. You would think that if anybody had little to give, it’s those people. Yet what they can offer is a thank you, a kind word of encouragement, a smile. These may seem paltry compared to the work younger, fitter people can offer, but if you’ve ever been down and have someone touch you on the shoulder and say something like, “You’re doing a really good job. I appreciate it.” you’ll know what I mean. The resulting feeling you get is much larger than the words spoken. It gives you wings.

So the loaves and fishes story is about having faith enough to offer even our crumbs to Jesus for him to work with, and handing the abundance we receive back with compassion. It’s about taking our suffering and making it work for us and the world, and joining in the resulting feast for our own healing as well. Because, let’s face it, the disciples weren’t left out of the feast that day. They also were fed royally.