How many times have you heard the feeding of the five thousand? It’s one of those very familiar passages, one that many of us would have learned in Sunday School, or from a picture book about a boy with loaves and fish.
Yet, for all it’s familiarity, I’m willing to bet that there’s one crucial aspect that has been glossed over – at least, that’s a bet I’m willing to make because, out of the dozens of sermon’s I’ve heard on this passage, there’s something here that totally escaped my notice until Friday afternoon.
Matthew chapter 14, starting at verse 15: When it was evening, the disciples said to Jesus, “this is a deserted place, and it’s now late in the evening; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.
Ok – that’s all familiar enough. This crowd had trekked along the sea shore to find Jesus, and had been listening to him and experiencing his healing all afternoon, and now it was getting late.
But then comes Jesus’ response, in verse 16. Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat”.
Huh. I don’t know about you, but I’ve missed that crucial detail every time I’ve read or heard this miracle. It’s late, they’ve wandered far from home, they weren’t at all prepared for the journey ahead, and the disciples – on first glance – appear to be doing the caring and compassionate thing: ‘Lord, today’s been great, but it’s time to wrap this up… these people need to get home and have some supper.”
But Jesus looks at them, looks at these average, everyday, hard-working, not especially trained followers and says “feed them”. You do it. Don’t send them away – they came looking for healing, they came wanting to hear the truth; don’t just give them what they were looking for… give them what they need.
Isn’t that just incredible? Jesus doesn’t say, “hold on, I’ve got a plan.” He doesn’t say, “I’ll take care of it, you’ll see”.
No, he looks at his followers and says “ok, they’re hungry; so feed them!”.
Called forth in His Name
It truly is remarkable, but this highlights one of the great challenges for anyone who would be a follower of Jesus.
While the world tells us to step up and be the master of our own destiny, the great mystery and majesty of the Cross is that true freedom comes in laying down our burdens and instead willingly putting on that blessed yoke of the Lord’s service; the truth of the Gospel is that we find freedom in giving up our own attempts at control and humbly offering ourselves as servants of the kind, loving, and merciful Master who knows our fears and failings, and offered Himself for us.
On the one hand, all of us are called to give up trusting in ourselves and hand ourselves over to Christ’s service.
But – and here’s the challenge – the Lord calls us to follow him and be his servants; yes, to have a whole-hearted, child-like faith and to be innocent as doves, but not to be timid or to laze about like cattle fattening in a pasture; no, as servants, we’re to be good and faithful in the work we’re given to do.
In other words, once we give up trying to be the masters of our own life, once we call Jesus our Lord and Master and agree to be his servants, a great turnaround takes place: we who were powerless, we who were slaves to sin, become empowered; we become empowered to be our Master’s hands and feet and voice in the world. We’re not to sing “I Surrender All” and then lie down in pastures green wistfully humming hymns while life passes us by. No, we’re to go forth into the world in the power of the Spirit, and when we go forth, we find people who are broken, who are lost, who have been weighed down; we find people who are hungry – hungry for purpose, hungry for relationship, hungry for somewhere to belong, hungry to know that there is something more, that there is a feast prepared and a seat waiting with their name on it.
…And we bow our heads and pray, “Lord, have mercy on my sister, and my cousin, and my neighbour, and my friends; Lord, these people are confused and lonely; Lord, they’re carrying heavy burdens; Lord, they’re feeling empty… they’re hungry”.
And Jesus looks us in the eye and says to us, in that clear, still, small voice: don’t send them away. You give them something to eat.
And we look back, and very sincerely, we say, “Lord… I can’t… I don’t know how. I don’t know the Bible, I don’t have any answers, most days I’m just barely hanging on myself… all I have is five loaves and a couple of fish, but these people need healing and forgiveness and so much that I don’t have to offer.”
And Jesus says, “I know what you have. Offer it to me, let me use it.” And once we hand over even the impossibly small bit that we have, once we offer it in obedience, Jesus turns our little bit into an overflowing abundance, more than enough, more than we can ever ask or imagine.
But, then, did you notice what happens? Verse 19: Jesus took and blessed the little bit that was offered, but did Jesus then take over and give everyone their supper? No. Jesus was quite clear – “you feed them”.
Jesus gave what had been offered back to his disciples; He didn’t take it and do it all himself; he didn’t take what was offered and call in some professionals or someone with more experience or someone with greater gifts. No, his words are unchanging; they endure forever. He blessed it, gave it back to them, and said “you feed them”.
And, sure enough, everyone ate and was filled.
Hungry to Feed Others
In Romans, St. Paul speaks of the great longing – the great hunger – in his heart for his friends and neighbours, for his own family and community, to lay down their burdens and know the forgiveness and love of God.
If we’ve actually known Christ’s love and mercy, if we’ve had our hunger satisfied at the Lord’s table, and not just as a token memorial meal, but to actually come to the Lamb’s high feast and, although we are unworthy even to gather the crumbs, to take our seat as a son or daughter and be filled with the Lord’s goodness, then we too will share St. Paul’s hunger, that longing for our friends and neighbours to know the glory of God, to know the blessings of the law, to know the wonder and refreshment of worship, and the promises of forgiveness and everlasting love.
But, even today, as we are invited to eat at the Lord’s Table, as we are invited to pray for the concerns of the world around us, the word of the Lord endures forever. As we pray, as we offer the little bit we have, as we offer what sometimes feels so small that we can’t imagine God could use it at all, we hear the Lord’s voice: “feed them”. Offer what you have to me, let me bless it, and then feed a hungry world.
Isaiah said that, after the Messiah came, everyone who thirsts would be satisfied, that even those without money could come and feast on bread and wine. But, even then, the prophet says, you shall call the world around you to come and feast – the Lord God has glorified you, Isaiah said. The Lord God has taken the little you had and blessed it, and now you’ve been empowered to work in Jesus’ name: now, go. O Church, you’ve knelt in prayer, now arise, suit up, and get to work. Feed them.
Nobody said it would be easy. Being willing to speak of the hope that is in us is hard. Being willing to do what is necessary to invite others in, being ready to bend to make room for others as God, by his grace, fills his house once more is hard. Being willing to reach out to meet those needs is hard. But anything less is to ignore that call of Christ, our Captain.
Today, as we receive that bread and wine freely, without price, take a moment, silently, and as you remember those deepest concerns laid on your heart, offer what little you have – even if it feels like crumbs – to God. And, do you know what He’ll say? “Feed them”. And may each of us have the grace to respond, “ok… I don’t know how, but I’ll go where you send me”.
To God be the Glory now and forevermore. Amen.