When Christie and I go out of town on vacation, as we did a few weeks ago, we always try to conceal my identity as a minister. I make it a rule to never wear my collar on an airplane. I love being the rector of Christ Church, but revealing that I am a minister sometimes invites all kinds of conversations and expectations that I’d rather not have when I am at the beach. There are times when I’m quite happy being just a fisher of fish, if you know what I mean.
One time I pretended to be a chef from New Orleans, but that didn’t work out very well because people started talking to me about recipes and spices and the other chefs at the famous New Orleans restaurants. And I don’t really know very much about cooking. So, now I usually just pretend that I’m a lawyer so that I can be sure that people will completely avoid me. Ha!
I may be a minister, but I’m not Jesus, thankfully. That’s good news for everybody. In this morning’s gospel we read about how Jesus tried to go on vacation to the beach by himself. “Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” After teaching, healing, debating with the scribes and Pharisees, casting out demons, He was in need of some well-deserved R and R.
But no such luck for Jesus. “But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd.” You wouldn’t blame him for staying in the boat and rowing or sailing in the opposite direction. So long, suckers! But instead, the text says, “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.”
Then it just gets worse for Jesus. After He heals everyone, they just hang around. They don’t go home. Some vacation. One of the parts I like about our medical mission trip in Haiti is the van ride from the village back to our hotel in the city after a long day. I’m quite tired and hot and dirty, and all I’m not even a doctor! All I’m doing is taking blood pressure and recording weights. But I still look forward to a jump in the pool and rum punch before dinner.
So not only do people not go home, they also forgot to bring their lunches, or their dinners. Everyone is hungry. The disciples (when and how did they get there – I thought he was in a boat by himself?) do the sensible thing and tell Jesus to send the crowds into the villages (presumably a ways off) to buy something to eat. Enough is enough, already. At least, Jesus can have a peaceful and relaxing dinner. But, no. Jesus says, “don’t send them away – why don’t you give them something to eat!”
This command had to have struck the disciples as completely absurd – which it indeed was. Remember the text says there were 5000 men and that didn’t include the women and children! That’s like fairly full crowd at the JPJ. The disciples may have looked knowingly and condescendingly at each other thinking that Jesus was overtired and really not thinking straight, like a grumpy toddler who needs a nap.
The text doesn’t convey the tone with which the disciples responded to Jesus’ command. Maybe it was alarmed, maybe it was sarcastic, maybe it was patronizing. In any case, they say in response to Jesus’ command to feed the thousands, “we have only five loaves and two fish.” What happens next is pretty famous. “He looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied.” Not to mention the 12 baskets of fish sandwiches for leftovers.
What are we to make of this feeding of the 5000 account, other than another example of Jesus’ extreme compassion for people’s physical well-being? Let me mention 2 common interpretations that are less than helpful:
The first is that Jesus didn’t actually produce food, but by his example of sharing the food the disciples had, others were prompted to share the food they had stuck in hidden pockets of their cloaks. While anyone who has small children or has been around small children realizes that it is indeed a minor miracle to get anyone to share anything, there is no indication in the text that this is what is happening in this miracle story. We should trust that Jesus miraculously produced bread and fish.
The second less than helpful interpretation is the old “I’ll do my share and God will do His share” idea. The thinking is that Jesus somehow needs the 5 loaves and 2 fish that the disciples contribute in order to pull off this culinary miracle. This is also known as “God is my co-pilot” or “God helps those who help themselves” or “you need to do your part, then God will do His part”, or “you must cooperate with God for Him to work.”
In terms of actual, documented heresies, this is known as “Pelagianism”, named after a Pelagius, whom the great theologian Augustine put in his place in the 4th century. Unfortunately, like bad pennies, bad heresies have a way of turning up all over the place, and this is one of the most commonplace ones today. But just because everyone else is jumping off a bridge doesn’t make it right.
The absurdity of that interpretation in the feeding of the 5000 is right there in the facts. 5 loaves and 2 fish do not a dinner for the masses make. Had He wanted to, Jesus could have used a breadcrumb in his pocket and a fish scale stuck to his sandal from his boat ride in order to produce the food. Or, like God, because He was God, He could have created ex–nihilo, that is, “out of nothing.”
I heard one good example of our so-called “cooperating” with God from a youth minister at our church in Birmingham. She said that when she was a little girl – 2 or 3, her father would tell her he needed her to get the morning paper from the driveway. This made her very proud. Her father then would scoop her up, put her on his shoulders, walk out to the end of the driveway, take her off his shoulders and lower her close to the ground while still holding her, help her pick up the paper, then carry her back inside. She was convinced that she was the necessary worker in the picking up of the paper. It’s a pretty good analogy – for God the Father does love to carry and support us in, as we say in the post communion prayer, “the good works which (He) has prepared for us to walk in.” Let’s just not get carried away with ourselves though.
So, what are we to make of the feeding of the 5000, besides the fact that Jesus performs compassionate miracles because he loves people? I think the deepest significance is found when you see the placement of the miracle in the context of Jesus’ ministry.
In all the gospel accounts, the feeding of the 5000 is one of his last miracles. It is as if He realizes that the basic problem of life can’t ultimately be solved by temporary fixes. A day later, all those 5000 people were hungry again. Maybe a month or two later, the sick who were healed were likely sick again.
Add the days and the months and the years together, and we all end up in the same place – our graves. When we were in Boston a few weeks ago, we tried to make a pilgrimage to one of my holy places – the plaque on a bridge outside of Cambridge commemorating Quentin Compson’s fictitious suicide in the Sound and the Fury. I was heartbroken to find the bridge under construction and completely inaccessible.
Maybe the futility was fitting for Faulkner, however. As he says in the Sound and the Fury, we are all on the same long ride to the boneyard. If that is all that awaits us, then even the temporary fixes of food and health do not mitigate life’s absurd futility. Life is indeed “a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.”
So, on the heels of this miracle, it’s as if the Son of God knew He must do more than feed the 5000 for one day. He knew that He must feed the world forever. And this, of course, is what happened. Did you pick up the familiarity of the line “He looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples.”? It’s a whole lot like, “For in the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying ‘Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”
The allusion is no coincidence. For in and through and by His body broken on the cross for us, Jesus not only feeds you, me, and the 5000 for a day, but He feeds the world forever. After all He does say, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
All we do is kneel to receive Jesus, the Bread of Life, with empty hands – a perfect and enduring picture of the God who helps us who cannot help ourselves. Amen.