Posts Tagged ‘Feeding the 5000’

Our “nothing” will be more than enough

August 5, 2017

Pentecost 8 – 2017

Matthew 14:13-21

Marian Free


In the name of God who believes in us and pushes to believe that we can share in God’s work. Amen.

We are so familiar with the story of the feeding of the five thousand that we may not have noticed that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each tell the story somewhat differently. There are many differences, but today I want to focus on the conversation between Jesus and the disciples. Matthew, Mark and Luke agree that the disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds away to find food (and lodging) and all three are agreed that Jesus turns the situation around and says to the disciples: “You give them something to eat.” If there are five thousand men, there may well have been ten or twenty thousand people if they had all brought one wife and two children. Five thousand mouths to feed would have been overwhelming, ten or twenty thousand would have presented and absolutely unimaginable feat. (The disciples must have wondered what Jesus was thinking!)

According to Mark the disciples respond to this extraordinary instruction by saying: “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread?” In Luke also the disciples suggest shopping for bread: “We have no more than five loaves and two fish – unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” According to Matthew the disciples make no mention of buying bread. They say: “We have nothing, except five loaves and two fish”.

This is one instance in which John includes material that is found in the other three gospels, but in John’s account the conversation is quite different. According to John, Jesus takes the initiative. Before the crowds have even reached Jesus and the disciples, Jesus turns and asks Philip: “How are we to buy bread for all these people?” Philip, like the disciples in Mark, considers buying bread and like those disciples recognises that six months wages would not buy enough bread to give each person even a small amount.

John’s gospel gives a clue that may help us to understand what is happening here. He suggests that Jesus is testing the disciples. Now perhaps “test” is too strong a word for what is happening in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but it does seem possible that Jesus is putting the disciples on the spot, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own ministry and stretching them to see what they can do. The disciples are so used to Jesus taking the initiative that instead of doing something themselves they come to Jesus with their problem and expect him to do something about the impending dark and the need to manage such a large crowd. They have seen a need; they should use their own resources to try to meet it. So, instead of responding to their concern, Jesus put the responsibility back on them. “You do it,” he says. Was Jesus just worn out or did he, as John suggests, have another purpose in mind when he refused to act on the disciples’ request?

Let’s try to imagine the scenario as Matthew presents it. Jesus has just heard of the grisly death of John the Baptist. He needs time to grieve – and to process what this means for himself. Jesus tries to escape the crowds and takes a boat to a “lonely place”. However, by now the crowds know what he can do for them, and having seen the direction in which Jesus was heading, make their way there by foot. Jesus’ compassion overrides his need for time alone and he heals those who are sick. Evening arrives and the disciples begin to think about practical matters. Unless the crowd is dispersed now, it will soon be dark. The disciples seek Jesus out and tell him that he should send the crowds away to buy food before it gets too late.

Maybe Jesus has reached the limits of his endurance, maybe he is tired of the burden of responsibility or, more likely, Jesus wants the disciples to begin to take ownership of their ideas instead of expecting him to do everything. Either way, Jesus turns the situation around saying to the disciples: “You give them something to eat”.

The response of the disciples is contradictory: “We have nothing, but five loaves and two small fish.” Five loaves and two small fish is not nothing – it is something and, as we shall see it is something from which Jesus can make something much, much more.

How often do we depend on God to do or to fix something instead of doing what we can to help? How often do we think that we have nothing to offer instead of trusting God to use what we have? How often do we underestimate our own abilities instead of recognising the gifts God has given us? How often are we frozen in indecision instead of believing that God will guide and direct us if only we start moving?

In other words we have no excuse for sitting back and thinking that we are not worthy, or that we are not talented, or that we have nothing to offer, or that we do not have what God wants or needs. Our “nothing” is always something and, as so long as we have the confidence to offer it for God to use, God will ensure that it is always more than enough.



Finding in Jesus all that we desire

July 25, 2015

Pentecost 9

John 6:1-21 (Matt 14:13f, Mark 6:32f, Lk 9:10f)

Marian Free

In the name of God who provides for us more abundantly than we can imagine and more generously than we deserve. Amen.

I always approach the sixth chapter of John with a sense of trepidation bordering on dread. This is not because I find it particularly difficult to unpack or that there are themes within the chapter that jar or disturb. The reason John 6 fills me with a sense of disquiet is that we will spend the next five weeks working our way through it – all 75 verses of it! For the next five weeks (allowing for some literary license) I will be lying awake at night wondering whether there is yet another way that I can speak about bread or help to make sense of eating flesh.

Fortunately, John’s gospel has timeless appeal and is sufficiently complex that it warrants regular rereading and rewards a more detailed examination. So let us take a close look at today’s gospel – a well-known story that we hear today from a Johannine perspective.

The first thing of note is that the account of the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle story that is found in all four gospels. We know it so well that we have probably only paid attention to the elements that are familiar – the crowds who have followed Jesus, the concern shown for the hungry crowd, the worry that five loaves will not provide enough to go around, Jesus’ giving thanks, the sharing of what little is available and that not only is everyone satisfied but also that no less than twelve baskets of fragments are gathered afterwards.

So far so good, but I wonder if you noticed there are a number of significant differences in the telling of the story that alert us to the fact that John has a particular reason for recording this miracle. To begin at the beginning, John does not tell us that the hour is getting late as do Matthew, Mark and John. Instead John sets the scene by saying that the Passover is near. This detail is significant, as the remainder of the chapter will make clear. The author of John’s gospel wants the reader to understand that Jesus has supplanted not only the Passover Feast, but all the Jewish Festivals. They have been made redundant because in his own person Jesus is the light of the world, the living water, the bread of life and so on[1].

Another difference is that it is Jesus who takes the initiative in John’s gospel. It is he (not the disciples) who is concerned about the hunger of the crowds and he who asks how they might be fed. Further, Jesus doesn’t engage with the disciples as a group, but specifically with two of them – Philip and Andrew. It is Philip to whom Jesus addresses the question about the bread and Andrew who identifies the boy who has brought the barley loaves and dried fish.

These and other differences tell us that John has a specific reason for recording this particular miracle. Unlike the Synoptics writers who emphasise Jesus’ compassion and welcome in their accounts, John’s purpose in recording the feeding is to emphasise Jesus’ foreknowledge and power and to set the scene for the discussion and discourse that is to follow. The discussion will allow Jesus to reveal something of himself, his relationship with God and his purpose on earth. In this instance the story provides the author of the gospel with the opportunity to introduce a number of topics – Jesus as the bread of life, the bread that has come down from heaven. Unlike the manna in the wilderness, this bread will not perish and those who eat of it will live forever. Those who come to Jesus the true bread, the living bread – will never hunger or thirst because the bread that Jesus will give is his flesh – his life, his very self. Those who eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood will be raised on the last day.

This is a lot to absorb, which is why it takes 75 verses and why we take five weeks to explore it. It is important to note at the start that at the heart of the argument (and at the heart of the gospel) is the Johannine idea that Jesus and the Father are one and that discipleship consists of nothing more and nothing less than having a relationship with Jesus that is the same as Jesus’ relationship with God. According to this view, discipleship results in a complete dependence on God that stems from an understanding that in and through Jesus all our needs can and will be met. The miracle of the feeding is the vehicle that enables John to explore this theme and to make it clear that intimacy/union with Jesus puts an end to all our desires and all our striving because in and through our relationship with Jesus we will discover that we have all that we require and more besides.

Yes, it is extraordinary that five thousand are fed with just two small fish and five small loaves, but it is just as extraordinary to recognise that the discipleship that results in eternal life does not depend so much on what we do, but what we don’t do. By allowing Jesus to be our primary source of sustenance and our sole reason for being, we will discover that union with God that provides a sense of fulfillment and well-being such that the world can never supply.

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:15-19)

[1] The Festival of Booths celebrated water and light and a central element of the Passover was bread.

An inexhaustible God

August 2, 2014

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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