[NOTE TO READER: The Greek word "esplahnisthÄ" in the fifth paragraph is pronounced "Es-plah-NEES-thee."]
Jesus’ cousin, the one who went before him to open the way, is dead. Both John and Jesus had started their brief ministries as courageous prophets, proclaiming God’s justice, calling people to repentance, inviting them to find their way to God. And now one of them, still young and vigorous, is dead at the hands of an immoral, weak king and his family. After hearing the terrible news brought to him by John’s disciples, Jesus withdraws to be alone, to grieve and to pray. This much we can guess, from the previous story on John’s murder and the beginning of today’s lesson.
Had such a tragedy happened to one of our close friends or cousins, our first emotion, even more powerful than grief at such a time, would be fear. “We’ve been involved in the same kind of ministry,” we would think. “We have called out the sinners and the powerful and the hypocrites, and we know what happens to prophets who tell the truth.” We would be afraid that death was just around the bend for us also.
Through human empathy, we can begin to imagine what Jesus might have felt after the death of John, but when it comes to fear, we have to rethink. We are confronted here by the one who always greeted his friends with, “Do not be afraid.” We can recognize in Jesus emotions that we, ourselves, have experienced; but fear is not one of them. What is probably evident in Jesus after the death of John is a sense of urgency – the realization that the end will come very soon, that when he sets his face toward Jerusalem he sets his face toward his own death.
But not yet.
For when he comes back from his time alone, he is met by crowds of people who have followed him and who are hungry for his words. He sees them, and as the Greek says in one powerful verb, esplahnisthÄ, he feels pain for them within himself, in his very body. First he makes them whole: he cures those who are sick. And as the other gospels declare when they tell this same story, he gives them the good news of God by teaching them. They are so riveted by him that they forget everything else. Twilight falls and they are still there as they have been all day long, men and women, together with children who are beginning to get restless and hungry.
The gospel writers disagree on who first noticed the failing light and the need for food – Jesus or his disciples – but notice they did. The disciples wanted Jesus to make an announcement, something like this: “Now, good people, you must go to the nearby villages to find food. We have no food here, so go in peace and take care of your own.” But as usual, Jesus surprised them. He said to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” Not the general imperative, “Give them something to eat,” but the specific “You give them something to eat.”
We can hear their protestations: “But we don’t have any food, Lord. The baskets are empty; the food pantry is empty. We can’t feed so many people. Don’t you see? It’s physically impossible. Look, all we have is five loaves of bread and two fish, and there are nearly five thousand people here.”
We recognize the panic. We have been there. There is too much need in our world. Too many people unemployed, too many people hungry, too many people hurting. “We can’t do it all, Lord.”
But the Lord accepts no excuses. “Bring me what you have,” he says, and when the meager resources are brought to him, he does what they have seen him do again and again: he blesses the food.
Now, the temptation is great – and thousands have succumbed to it – to try to explain away what happened that day, on a deserted stretch of land near the Sea of Galilee. Interpreters have tried to rationalize the resulting abundance of food. The reaction is understandable: It is frightening to stand in the real presence of the creative energy of God! In order not to be afraid, we try to explain it according to the laws of nature. But we cannot. When the eternal enters the temporal with such force, our finite minds either close up or become arrogant. So it doesn’t help to argue about the word “miracle” when we are confronted with this story. What matters here is that they were all fed.
God in Christ takes what we have, blesses it, and works his goodwill through this blessing. God wants us to be fed, wants us to be whole, wants us to be nurtured. Jesus sets an example for his church in this act of feeding the five thousand. The living Christ wants us to take what we have and offer it to God, no matter how little it is, no matter how meager our resources are. When it comes to the needs of his people, God will not take no for an answer. God will bless, but the rest is up to us. We bring the resources, and we do the work. It was the disciples who were asked to organize the people and who served the food that continued to increase because it was blessed by the loving energy of the Creator. How can the church do less?
First we bring our weakness to the altar, saying: “We can’t do it, Lord. The needs are too many.”
Then we answer his question, How much do you actually have? “Well, very little, five loaves and two fish.”
“Bring it here,” he says. “It is enough.” And he blesses it. Then, wonder of wonders, we discover that, yes, it is enough.
“And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.”
It is enough and more than enough, the gospel tells us. This is the good news. Thanks be to God.