The parable of feeding the 5,000 in Matthew 14: 13-21 is not only about vast numbers- which is a miracle. Or that he healed them, which is a miracle. Or the food that multiplied, which is also a miracle. This parable is also about the way we are healed and the promise of God to grant that to us in the most miraculous of ways, and specific to our need.
Let’s recap: John has been killed and Jesus finds out so he goes away in a boat alone, only to dock and find people waiting for him. He feels badly for them, hangs out and heals them, and then when he should be grabbing some grub and getting some shut eye, he tells the disciples to feed the people with a few loaves and fishes, which ends up more than enough.
There is a whole lot of hunger going on in this story. Did you notice? I mean, imagine the sheer numbers of growling stomachs. Matthew’s gospel counts 5000 men- plus women and children, so we can safely assume something like 10,000-15,000 people!
In most of America, if we are sitting in a pew in a nice church like this, putting money in an offering plate, we probably don’t know the kind of physical hunger that the crowds in this parable suffered. We may not be able to relate in any way. All I know is that when I tried to write this sermon on an empty stomach- it was nearly impossible to concentrate, and I am far from losing my generous proportions through starvation. So even though I have been hungry, I cannot relate to deep physical hunger. I can relate to another kind of hunger though.
While we often focus on the miracles here and the obvious lesson to feed the hungry, there are always layered meanings in the parables. The reading in Isaiah 55:1-5 covers the idea that we can be fed with more than bread and water. We can also be fed with living Word and Truth and here we see the people in Matthew’s parable are hungry for many things. But we sometimes miss what one particular character was hungry for and how his hunger was met- or even if it was met. This time, lets turn our attention to Jesus.
John was dead. Not only was he dead but, he died in a heartless manner through the capricious whim of a spoiled woman. Jesus had just found out and was grieving. All he wanted was some peace and quiet to mourn. And apparently Murphy’s Law was already in effect 2000 years ago, because, the crowds, like children and pets, when we most want or need a moment alone, they show up, right?
The crowds followed Jesus no matter where he was. They needed healing and they had heard of him. He made the Beetles and Justin Bieber look like child’s play when it came to groupies. So they were sick, seeking wisdom, oh, and by the way, they were HUNGRY.
And maybe we don’t need to hear this part of the gospel for ourselves, this idea of more food than we can imagine. Maybe we cannot relate to the bread and fish in abundance and how that ushers in images of the Kingdom of God here on earth… but we can relate to the other part; the part that talks about people hungry for healing and even more important, that Jesus needed healing too.
This may be hard to grasp, but as we declare in our Creeds, Jesus was fully human, even as he was fully incarnate (God). The fully human part means he felt what we feel- to the full degree. It was not eased by the ‘Son of God’ part of him and he was grieving. What else makes one who cares so much for people to need to be alone on a boat? Well, he had just learned of the death of John, his cousin, the one who leapt in the womb when their pregnant mothers hugged, the man who baptized him, who declared to the world that he was the one we waited for, the one who really believed in him before many others did.
The reading enters at the point that Jesus has GONE AWAY after finding this out. He was surely grieving; surely feeling justified anger, loss, sadness, regret, all the things we feel when we grieve and NOW… all these people show up- needy, hungry, ill. Instead of sending them away (the easy thing)- he feels compassion for them.
Where does his desire to be ‘away’ grieving fit? Is there room? Is there time? Is he ‘allowed’? Doesn’t God provide for Jesus too? As a mom, I suddenly realize this is the parable for the care-giver, the young parent, and the older child caring for their elderly parent. The ones who are often empty of energy and hungry for peace and rest.
Grief is not emptiness. Grief is over-fullness with inability to empty it out. It is so full that it feels like there is NO room for anything else, and in the over-fullness, because there is no room for other, it feels empty and alone. Jesus was overfull of grief- but He was hungry too; hungry for solace, for emptying out of the overwhelming feeling of sadness and love felt in grief.
And still, “when he went ashore and saw them, he had compassion for them and healed their sick until evening.” Even in his grief, when that day was done, instead of sending them away, he fed them, through the hands of the disciples, because Jesus could relate to the hunger in them. A hunger for healing and being nourished deep inside. Hunger is not just physical; it is not just for bodily healing, food, and water. It is for something much, much, deeper.
We all hunger. Today, it may not be for bread and water, perhaps it is for quiet, or time, or peace, or love, or companionship…. If you think about it, I am pretty sure that we could come up with quite a few things that have nothing to do with physical hunger.
I asked yesterday on fb what people hungered for: Here is the list of answers I received:
Under the same roof as my family
Reese’s Peanut Butter cups
Healing from cancer
Word of God
The thing is, with the exception of chocolate, these things we list all boil down to a need, a hunger that is deeper and can only be met by God. These other needs arise because we are no longer whole. It is our need to be one again, whole again, not broken, not sinful, not imperfect, not refugees from the Garden- but, full heirs to the Kingdom of heaven and eternity with God.
Matthew’s parable is for today, too. Our hunger is still filled today in the stories of the Gospel, if we allow it to be. In each parable, Jesus leads us to a closer walk with God, an understanding of our rightful place in the Kingdom of heaven as heirs because of the sacrifice Jesus made on that cross. Sometimes it is through his words and stories, sometimes though his actions, but Jesus relates to us because he was hungry too; hungry to have us be truly in communion with God again.
As we ponder the mindset and needs of Jesus, I don’t have solid answers. We can only guess at his feelings but, I do have these thoughts: Maybe this was God providing Jesus with an alternate manner in which to grieve, an outlet that gifts others, creating good in the absence left by an evil act and death. Maybe this was the way God provided for Jesus to empty out some of the over-fullness of grief he was experiencing.
Jesus was hungry in his human form, he was hungry for the pain of loss to be gone, and he was hungry for the pain of humanity to stop- to bring us into righteousness before God once more. The death of John is only one more example of how broken we are and why Jesus lived and walked in this place with us.
More importantly, the feeding of the 5000, even as he was grieving, is an example of how God sent a Son who could relate to us- to know our hungers and how the Lord will provide for us all- in our own need, in just the right way. It may not always make the most sense. It may seem at odds with everything we think we want or need, but we are provided for. Jesus had a hunger. And God fed him then, just as Jesus feeds us still.