We frequently find ourselves caught in the midst of seemingly unresolved tensions. Such situations arise at home, at work, on the field of competition, and in our corporate national life, especially in the areas of politics and the economy. Despite the fact that all economic indicators place those of us in the United States in possession of the greatest abundance of goods and services in the history of the world, the vulnerability we feel when events like September 11, 2001, and the subsequent instability of our financial markets impinge, we begin to allow ourselves to be influenced by fears of scarcity.
This was no less true for Jesus and those around him. The context of today's story of the feeding of more than 5,000 people is one of extreme political and economic stress. Herod, Caesar's appointed King of the Jews, upon hearing reports about Jesus, declares that Jesus must be John the Baptist come back to life after having been beheaded at a palace birthday party. John, it may be recalled, was attempting to lead a social revolution that had caught the attention of all of Jerusalem and all of Judea; a revolution that challenged the authority and powers of the religious, political, and social elite.
Herod had heard about Jesus and his work. John's disciples, after burying their beloved leader's headless body, go to Jesus to report on John's execution and the fact that Herod now believes that Jesus is John "raised from the dead and for this reason these powers are at work in him." Jesus is viewed by the powers that be as the continuation of John's social revolution.
It is no wonder that Jesus attempts to "withdraw" by boat to a deserted place by himself. This sets the stage for a view of contrasting works of power: the power of political consolidation through capital punishment meted out at a palace birthday party versus the power of compassion and love in a deserted place. Matthew could hardly have drawn the contrast more sharply.
Of course we know that Jesus cannot get off alone. As much as he seeks privacy in prayer, an impressively large crowd of people, men, women, and children, we are told, walk around the Sea of Galilee to be with him. He needs privacy and solitude. The people are sick and hungry. His needs and theirs are in tension. This tension is resolved, we are told, by his compassion for them. His compassion is the ability to be moved by the needs of others and then move toward them in mercy. Compassion seems to precede privacy and prayer. It would be later that evening before he could turn his attention to his own needs.
The next conflict of interest and tension arises when his disciples recognize that resources are short; it was getting late, so the crowds should be dismissed to fend for themselves. That is, the disciples, the followers of Jesus, believe it is Jesus' responsibility to dismiss the crowds, and the crowd's responsibility to feed themselves.
The compassion of Jesus does not see it this way. "They need not go away," he says, "you give them something to eat." After taking an inventory of supplies, the disciples have only five barley loaves and two fish. There is no debate over whether God or the church is responsible for addressing the needs of the world. It is not a matter of who is responsible. It is a matter of bringing what we have, all that we have, to Jesus as his disciples.
We are not called to the management of limited resources. Discipleship is a matter of giving what we have in faith, hope, and charity; in acts of offering and worship. If compassion resolves the first tension in the story, discipleship resolves the second.
Then there is the tension between supply and demand. It is the law of the marketplace in a free economy. Five loaves and two fish among a crowd as yet to be numbered but looking very large indeed in comparison to the resources on hand. What Jesus does next ought to be instructive for all of us who claim to be his disciples,i.e. Christians.
In a scene that is overflowing with Eucharistic overtones, Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples to give away. In effect he turns to the crowd and says, " This is all that we have. It isn't much, but what is ours is yours. Here, take it and eat." Note that the disciples are not mere spectators of Jesus' acts of compassion. They, we, are participants. Jesus involves them from the very outset. And more than one interpreter of this story has suggested that the miracle here is not the multiplication of the loaves but the fact that beginning with the reluctant disciples people shared what they had without leaving anyone in need.
This is a discipleship story, one that needs to be internalized. From the diagnosis of the problem to the distribution of the bread the disciples are involved. We are involved.
In fact it can be construed that Jesus should have been able to go off alone and the disciples, being well schooled in his life of compassion, the Way of Jesus, a life of Eucharist/thanksgiving, should have been able to meet the needs of the crowds themselves.
What the story has to say about our role and responsibility in God's kingdom is as essential to our being Christians as breathing air and drinking water are to life itself. But of course the story does not end there. The compassionate Jesus and the ministry of his disciples offered all they had which turned out to be enough to feed a multitude. "And all ate and were filled." This wasn't just a juice box and some crackers to tide them over until they could get to the nearest restaurant or marketplace. They were filled! They were satisfied.
And still there is more. "And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full." That is, there is more bread at the end than in the beginning! How utterly astonishing! But that is not the end either, for we are told, "And those who ate were about five thousand men." What could be more astonishing than this? What can be more astonishing that feeding five thousand men? The fact that we are told that all their women and children were fed and satisfied as well!
This story means to propel us from our economies of scarcity in which acquiring, accumulating, consuming and protecting goods are marks of our culture and presumed good self-sufficient citizenship and into becoming citizens of the Way of Jesus that recognizes an economy of shared abundance for all. This is where the power of Jesus really lies. It is a power that continues to threaten Herod and all that believe in his model of power and authority. It is a power that is moved by the needs of others and then moves toward them in mercy.
The good news is that on that day beside the lake of Galilee, two thousand years ago, the powers at work in Jesus were given to all who will follow him and live in his way. This power has been taken, blessed, broken, and given to us all. This Jesus is not a resurrected John the Baptist, but the incarnate Son of God, says Matthew.
Bring what we have to him and witness the abundance that results.