Loaves and Fishes

Scripture: Isaiah 55:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21

The story of the loaves and fishes, as we have usually told it in the Christian church, is a little bit…odd.

I don’t think the fact that it involves food is strange. Food was clearly pretty important to Jesus- lots of his debates and encounters with people involved food.  One of the charges against Jesus from the religious authorities with that he dines with sinners and tax collectors.

Nor do the miraculous parts of Jesus’s food ministry bother me. He broke the bread and blessed the bread in the same way at this story of the loaves and fishes as he did at the Last Supper, and which we recall and reenact at Communion every month.

And even if I didn’t believe in the miracle of the last supper, it certainly follows something like the potluck principle, where everyone brings a little and all of a sudden there’s enough for everyone.

No, what I always found most odd was the context of the story.  Or rather, the lack of context to the story. All of a sudden, Jesus tries to get away and a crowd just starts to…follow him?  Makes no sense to me.

After all, in Matthew Chapter 13, he just got run out of his home town of Nazareth.  When did he all of a sudden get popular again? So that’s why we’re going to have our Bible quiz now.  I said the question at the beginning of church, and the page number to find it on in the pew bible.  But I will say it again.

The question is, “According to the Gospel of Matthew, immediately before the loaves and fishes story, why does Jesus want to go away to be alone, and why did the crowd follow him?” I’m going to give folks about thirty seconds to figure it out.  After that, there will be a small prize for whoever can tell me the answer first.


So yes, our gospel story begins with Jesus having heard some earth shattering bad news; John the Baptist has just been executed on the orders of King Herod. We know this is the cause for why Jesus feels the need to go away, but as far as what Jesus was feeling, well, we will never know.

We can speculate, however: Maybe Jesus was struck by complicated grief.  Perhaps he was saddened by the death of the man who had baptized him, someone who recognized his gifts and recognized his authority when that was not popular.

Or maybe, as one Bible commenter put it, Jesus was struck by the cruelty of King Herod’s government, a regime that on the whim of a member of the royal family would execute a faithfully religious man who challenged religious authorities to do better.

This might have driven Jesus into a state of moral crisis, another sign of the terrible capacity of humanity toward cruelty. Perhaps this is what drove him, this great man of the people, to go and try to be alone for a while.

Maybe he needed to prepare himself for the moral struggle that was about to happen between the evil in this world that seeks to enact violence on others, and the forces of Good and Love that seeks to bind people together.

Could also be that maybe Jesus knew that John the Baptist’s followers were going to need comfort.  They were going to need a place and way to publicly grieve, and a leader to see them through it. And he knew that he needed his own opportunity to grieve and heal, at least partly, before he could assist others in doing so.

Because Jesus knew that his isolation wouldn’t last.  Other than his time in the wilderness, before his ministry began, although Jesus tried to spend periods of time alone in prayer and fasting, it often didn’t work out for long. And that’s because humans are not meant to live in isolation. We are the social animal, and we are meant to be together.

We should also note that we don’t know who exactly this crowd is who came to follow Jesus was- we can guess that it probably included a mixture of John the Baptist’s followers, and others from the community who admired John and possibly Jesus. 

For how else, when they heard about John the Baptist’s death, would they have found the one whom John the Baptist had praised so highly and gone to him.

We’ve talked in previous sermons about how Bible Stories are like cakes or onions or parfaits, with different layers of meaning and context that stack one on top of the other. The idea is that it’s a very modern thing for Bible stories to only have one meaning, one correct way of interpreting them.

Learning about the full context adds another layer of meaning to this story.  Normally, we’re taught that this story is about God’s abundance, or maybe we emphasize its parallels to communion that I mentioned before.

But in thinking about the story of the loaves and fishes in a different way, perhaps as a response to a moral crisis and to as an outpouring of communal grief, forces me to approach this story in a new way.

The extra layer is that this story is not about a random gathering of people already committed to Jesus’ ministry, but outreach to a grieving community and a moral stance against a violent and cruel government.

This story is not about insiders being rewarded, but about what the church is called to do in our communities with people who might not know Jesus. This story forces me to think about what the gospel looks like, in times of community trouble, and indeed, how we approach our mission as a church to our communities.

To really understand why the execution of John the Baptist was such a crisis- both in terms of grief for his community and as a moral crisis, we need to fully understand John the Baptist’s ministry.

John the Baptist was a prophet.

In our everyday language, prophets are most often associated with telling the future. The technical term for these predictions is an oracle, and although the prophets in the Bible do them, it’s not how they spend most of their time.

Prophets in the Jewish and Christian tradition are much more than fortune tellers.  Rather, prophets are the moral and spiritual centers of their communities calling people to return to God, while also pleading to God on behalf of the people.

They almost always (with some exceptions) operate outside of religious power structures, and often have a testy relationship with them, as their connections to God bypass the normal routes of established religion.

Prophets like Amos, Hosea, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah call on the people to stop oppressing the poor, to turn away from evil, and to reengage with God with their hearts, not their gold and sacrifices. These are the same things that John the Baptist did.

And his execution raised painful and tough questions. If the government could kill this man of God, what else could the government do?  What was the power of God next to this government that could execute a prophet?Which leads us back to this story of the loaves and fishes. Jesus, after realizing that these folks needed something that he could give them.  Hope.

He could give them hope in God, and maybe even renew or spark faith in God through healing them. He knew that they needed signs of the power of God.  And this he did.

He healed and engaged with the crowd on their own terms.  He didn’t prepare a barn burner sermon. To be healed did not require a declaration of faith or a baptism. Nor did the people need to show their insurance cards.

But then the people needed something that the disciples weren’t used to. Let’s note hear that Jesus had been doing healing miracles for a while at this point. The disciples are pretty used to them.  They know how to form people into lines, handle ques, that sort of thing. 

But when the imminent need of feeding probably somewhere around 7-10,000 people (remember, the 5,000 people who are counted were the men), comes up… they panic.Not the panic of running around as though one’s hair is on fire, but the bureaucratic panic that all sensible adults who have been made responsible for things know about.

The offloading of responsibility and ensuring that whatever is wrong is someone else’s problem. We can’t blame them too much. After all, feeding that many people would prove difficult under most circumstances.

But not Jesus.  Jesus knows that the mission of the church is not to offload responsibility for people’s care onto someone else. The mission of the church is to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, as Jesus said in his very first sermon.

It’s easy for us as a church- and I definitely fall into this trap- to think of mission as doing the things we like to do and are good at. It’s easy to fall into that trap when we think about our individual spiritual gifts, like we did at Epiphany, or our spiritual callings, like we did last week.

But ultimately, if those aren’t meeting the needs of the community, both inside our walls, but especially outside of our walls, then what are we really doing but showing off how wonderful we are?

And we must be ready for this.  The world still does need us.  The prophet Isaiah reminds us that “See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.”

This is a hurting world and it needs us.  It needs the church, and if this seems daunting, its because it is.

But there is hope, thank God.

Meeting the needs of our community will require listening more than talking, going out beyond the walls of the church more than staying in where it is warm inside. It will require that we recognize that we cannot do this work alone. 

It will require that we work with partner organizations, such as GWIM, that we have close ties to, and for us to work sometimes with those we disagree with, either politically or theologically.

It will require us to recognize both our common mission and diverse set of gifts present in the people of this church and throughout our social networks, who even if they never attend a church service, might still help us meet the needs of the community.

But most of all it will require us to move from hoarding of resources to recognizing the abundance of God, who not only fed a multitude on a lake shore, with what seemed like a little but who also invites us into his limitless love in the book of Isaiah with these words: Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.