An inexhaustible God

Pentecost 8 – 2-14
Matthew 14:13:21

Marian Free

In the name of God who never tires and who abundantly provides for us. Amen.

It is probably obvious to you that I find the study of the New Testament absolutely fascinating. It is like a giant puzzle that is just waiting for me to find the key. I am delighted to discover points of difference in the gospels or to come to a new understanding of Paul’s use of rhetoric. Such discoveries deepen and enrich my faith and give me some insight into the nature of early Christianity and into the characters who formed the faith as we know it. I am intrigued to find out why Matthew and Luke altered and added to Mark’s gospel and to learn what that says about the situation of the communities for whom they wrote. When I understand the conflict that is raging in the community behind the letters of John the letters come to life and the themes of the letters are more accessible. And so I could go on!

Today’s gospel is the account of the ‘feeding of the 5,000’. This story is unusual in that it is repeated in all four gospels and three of the four agree that the event was followed by the account of Jesus’ walking on the water and preceded by the news of the death of John the Baptist. Mark and Matthew think the event so amazing that they add a second miraculous feeding (of 4,000).

A useful exercise is to place all four (six) accounts side by side in order to see which details are included and which are left out. Some of the differences between the accounts are curious. For example, Mark tells us that there was ‘green’ grass, John that ‘there was a great deal of grass’ whereas Matthew simply says that there was grass and Luke just that the people were made to sit down. John’s account is the most complex and longest of the four. The author of John sets the story in the context of the Passover and uses it as the introduction to a lengthy discourse on the bread of life. Another notable difference in John’s account is the naming of the disciples – Andrew and Phillip – the detail that the loaves were made of barley and that the loaves and fish were provided by a boy. Mark and John let us know that bread for such a large number of people would cost the equivalent of 200 days wages for a labourer – an unimaginable sum for any group of people to have at any one time!

Mark wrote his gospel first, so it is his version that Matthew and Luke have adapted. In general terms both Matthew and Luke tidy up Mark’s Greek, correct any mistakes that he made and make Jesus more in control and the disciples less foolish. When Matthew and Mark are placed side-by-side it is clear that Matthew’s version is considerably shorter. In fact, Matthew has shortened Mark by one third. Both Matthew and Luke leave out Mark’s awkward introduction and some of the discussion between the disciples and Jesus – in particular that which emphasises the disciples’ misunderstanding (the cost of bread). Matthew uses the sentence comparing the crowd to sheep in another context so he doesn’t repeat it here. Matthew also omits any reference to Jesus’ asking for the crowd to be organised into groups. Only Matthew includes the women and children – not necessarily because he thought that their presence was important, but because drawing attention to their presence increases the significance of the size of the crowd.

All these facets are interesting, and tell us something about the development of the tradition and about those things that were held to be important by the different authors of the gospel. We can wonder about the allusions to the feeding miracles of the Old Testament, the meaning of the twelve baskets or the grouping of the people into hundreds and fifties. What is more important though is discerning what the story means for us. (Here we will focus on Matthew’s account as that is the gospel set for today).

As Matthew tells the story, Jesus seeks to be alone having heard about the death of John the Baptist. It may be that he wants time to grieve or that he needs time to absorb the implications of John’s death for his own ministry. In any case he and the disciples ‘withdraw to a deserted place’. It is clear to Jesus that if he continues on the path that he has chosen, he like John will find himself in direct opposition to Israel’s leaders and his life too will be at risk. He needs to get away to reflect. It is however, impossible for him to be alone – even though he travels by boat, the crowds ‘follow on foot’ and arrive ahead of him. Then, ignoring his own needs and sending the crowds away, Jesus ‘has compassion’ and exercises his healing ministry. (Something that must have been exhausting if the crowds were as big as they say.) Even when it gets late and his disciples press him to send the crowds away so that they can find food, Jesus insists that the people do not need to go. He tells the surprised (and unprepared) disciples that they should give the people something to eat. They don’t even have enough for themselves (five loaves for twelve disciples AND Jesus will not go far) and yet, when the bread and fish are blessed and distributed, there is more than enough for all – twelve baskets more than enough.

The miracle is one thing, but it is what this story tells us about God that is important for us today. When we are exhausted, when we have used up all of our reserves and feel that we cannot go on, God keeps on working. When we have nothing left to give, we know that we are supported by the inexhaustible God, who never tires, who never rests and who always provides more than we can ever need.

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