Two thoughts struck me as I reflected on this passage. Firstly, it is not an easy passage to preach on. Because it is so well known, it is difficult for the preacher to find anything new to say. And secondly, this is certainly not an event which would be allowed under current restrictions – well above the maximum number – and food as well. So what to say about this miracle, which incidentally is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels – so, clearly of high significance for the gospel writers. Let me reflect on 2 themes, both of which resonate with our current circumstances and are regularly in the news; one because we have seen a great deal of it, and the other because we have been deprived of it. The themes are Compassion and Hospitality.
Matthew comments that Jesus had compassion for the crowd and cured their sick. The word translated compassion has its roots in the language of sacrifice and was originally used to designate the inner parts of the sacrificial animal. Eugene Peterson in his Message version of the bible, translates the same word as used in the parable of the Good Samaritan with the phrase “his heart went out to him”. Other commentators suggest the phrase “gut-wrenching” compassion. What the original colourfully and clearly conveys is the depths of Jesus’ compassion.
And what is remarkable about this, is the context of this compassion. Jesus has just learnt that his cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded. He is grieving, and, in response, seeks a quiet, deserted, out of the way place on the other side of the lake. Only to be confronted on his arrival by a crowd the size of the population of Oakham – “5000 men besides women and children.” Yet all day he heals the sick. And the healing of the woman with the “issue of blood” demonstrates that such healing comes at a physical cost to Jesus. And then confronted with a request from his disciples to send the crowd away so they can do some late night shopping for food, he says there is no need.
Now I don’t know about you, but when I am both sad and tired, I am not at my best. Irritable only begins to capture it. But Jesus only seems to be more compassionate the more he has to contend with. What does the miracle say about the character God ? It says he is a God of extraordinary compassion, who cares for every part of us. I am struck by how much this miracle, and this day in the life of Jesus is about the physical – about keeping the body alive and well. And for you and I the challenge is how can we show compassion even when we are down and under stress? Which is what we have seen from so many of our key workers this year – Godly compassion.
And secondly hospitality. Now that is something which has been in short supply over the last 4 months.Only recently have we been able, once again, to enjoy having a family meal together, or entertain friends. Hospitality is at the heart of this miracle. Matthew records – “And all ate and were filled: and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, 12 baskets full.”
Matthew sets this outdoor meal in direct contrast with the feast that is recorded in the first 12 verses of the chapter. The feast that Herod hosts is a feast of death. The feast that Jesus hosts is a feast of life. Herod’s feast is for the exclusive few; lavish; riotous; over the top; and ending in the death of John to preserve Herod’s reputation as a man who keeps his word.
By contrast, look at the ingredients of the meal where Jesus is the host:-
• It is inclusive. No-one is left out. ALL ate and were filled.
• It is generous. Not only is everyone satisfied but there are 12 baskets left over – one for each of the 12 tribes of Israel – a pointer to the reality that God provides sufficient for everybody, and then some. God is a God of abundance.
• It is the product of scarcity. All that is available is 5 small loaves and two fish. We are told elsewhere that they are barley loaves, the food of the poor – wheat was too expensive. Enough for one, maybe two people at most. Yet Jesus takes these in his hands, blesses God the provider, breaks the loaves and the feast begins. Out of scarcity, God provides plenty. That’s a principle God always works with. Even though the resources we have, or our skills, may be lacking, God picks up the scarcity we offer in His service, and the results can be miraculous.
• It is a meal of fellowship. Jesus only seems to hold centre stage for a short time, as he blesses the loaves and breaks them. From then on it is the disciples who give the crowd something to eat. One article I was reading asked the question “I wonder how the people at the back of this crowd got to know what was going on? They wouldn’t have been able to see and hear Jesus. How long would you have had to wait?” I suspect the word will have been passed on at great pace, from family to family – “there is going to be food for everybody – I don’t know how but it’s happening” Passing on the good news!
• It’s a prophetic meal. Some see this miracle as a pointer to The Last Supper. But also, it was held by some that The Messiah would repeat the provision of manna in the desert as the Israelites journeyed to the promised land. This meal is a repeat of that provision. The message is that this man Jesus is himself the true bread of life. As Isaiah says in our Old testament reading
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.”
Godly Compassion combined with Godly Hospitality make Jesus “the perfect host” in this impromptu picnic, an event which encourages us to a way of life where we are motivated by deep caring for others and a desire to share God’s abundance. All made possible by feeding on Jesus the bread of life.