Trinity 8 – 2 August 2020 – Feeding of the 5000 by Francesca Vernon
Jesus hears about his cousin John the Baptist’s death. He gets into a boat and sails off alone, perhaps looking to find some space in solitude… to process.
On coming ashore, however, Jesus is suddenly faced with this stadium size crowd of people standing before him, following him, waiting for him. I don’t know about you, but I feel that faced with this on top of the grief, I’d have been at the very end of my emotional tether.
But, Jesus’ response is not frustration, not even a slight sigh of weariness. He responds with a full, open-hearted compassion. Amidst his deep personal grief, the only response he has to these people is love, a deep love that strikes him to his guts: in the original Greek text, the word for having compassion here is made from the word used to describe a person’s deepest guts, their heart, stomach, liver, their insides. So, Jesus’ compassion for the people overflows out of the very core of his self, out of his inmost being. This is the God who faces us here.
Then, out of this compassion, Jesus feeds the people. He sees their hunger, their need, and he responds. The disciples on their part want to send them off to town to buy their own dinner, as there is barely enough food for them! But Jesus does not want to drive anyone away. And so, his compassion within him creates, gives birth to, a spontaneous miracle in this place of wilderness. He multiplies bread.
One comparison that struck me here is with the other place of wilderness that involved Jesus contemplating making extra bread…then, it was bread from stones. A number of chapters earlier in Matthew’s gospel, the devil says to Jesus as he is fasting in the wilderness, ‘if you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread’. And of course Jesus can, he has the ability to, as he has demonstrated here!
But back then, Jesus does not give in and make bread. He does not give in to using his status as Son of God for selfish reasons. As St Paul says in the letter to the Philippians, “Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he emptied himself.” Here, in the feeding of the 5000, this miracle of bread-making comes not out of selfishness, which is I think an opposite of compassion, but it comes out of a completely spontaneous selfless giving, a wish to give to others and to respond to their immediate need. And this of course foreshadows both the breaking of Jesus’ body on the cross, and his offering of himself to us all through the bread of the Eucharist.
Another fun detail from the original Greek text – is to do with the place where Jesus invites the crowd of people to sit down, before he breaks the bread and feeds them. This place in Greek is called the χορτος (chortos), and this χορτος is normally just translated into English as ‘grass’, just plain grass. But in Greek it actually has a strong link with the idea of a specific place where a flock of animals, such as sheep, is fed; it is pasture-ground or a specific enclosure where animals are brought for feeding. So this use of language directly invites us to see Jesus as a shepherd, a caring, compassionate shepherd who is inviting his flock to sit down in his pasture-ground to be fed.
We are Jesus’ flock. When we find ourselves in places of wilderness in our own lives, Jesus does not drive us away from him, but invites us towards him, to commune with him in his pasture-ground. We are invited to eat with him, to eat his bread, and to drink of his living water that we may never thirst.
We are also Jesus’ disciples. We are called to share Jesus’ compassion, and his selfless gift, as he asked the disciples to share the bread. Everything we have and everything that we are is a gift from our God; food, friendship, our very life. And whether we are called to feed 5 or 5000 people with our gifts, it is God who calls us, and it is God who multiplies in extravagant abundance whatever little it is that we can offer.
So, may we live our lives in the light of Christ, sharing with others God’s love and compassion for us, God’s gifts to us, God’s grace that we receive spiritually, even when we can’t gather for the broken bread of Holy Communion. May we shine the light of God’s compassion in the lives of others, as much as we possibly can. For: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it’.