The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” by Jacopo Robusti, ca 1545-50
Matthew 14:13-21 New Revised Standard Version 13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.
14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves."
16 Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat."
17 They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish."
18 And he said, "Bring them here to me."
19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.
21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Matthew 14:13-21 New Revised Standard Version
Try to imagine yourself in our gospel scene.
You heard the news about Jesus and his disciples when you were at the market this morning. Jesus of Nazareth is in the area, teaching, and healing. He had come back to his hometown of Nazareth just down the road after all these years, and do you know what they did? They ran him off. “Oh well,” someone standing next to you says, “A prophet is never welcome in their hometown.” I guess that seems about right, you think.
But you’ve heard that Jesus is a pretty incredible teacher. You don’t know about the healing stuff. There have been many charlatans in these parts coming through with different tinctures and cure-alls. They all seem to fall flat, in your opinion. But you’ve heard good things about this Jesus and his teachings.
“And you heard about that wild prophet John,” one of the vendors piped up. “Herod Antipas threw himself a feast for his birthday, and he invited all those other wealthy rulers and governors. And there, on his birthday, he had John beheaded. Can you imagine? I knew he didn’t like the guy, but he could have just left him in prison.” You sigh. These things happen, you think. Dissenters always seem to meet an end like this.
“They were cousins, you know,” The man continued.
“Who?” You ask.
“John and Jesus were cousins. I think they were close, both prophets and all. Several of John’s followers began following Jesus after John was arrested.”
“Yeah, they were close, I think,” said the vendor’s assistant. “My cousin just got in from fishing, and he said he just saw Jesus in a boat, sitting in the middle of the lake by himself. He must be really torn up.”
You are curious. You’d like to hear what Jesus has to say. You’d like to see if he can heal people. You would like to listen to him speak. Will he speak out against Herod Antipas? Will he lead a rebellion to avenge his cousin? There are already a lot of people on the road and at the market from out of town.
You decide to walk toward the water, and as you get closer, you see even more people. They are gathering at the water’s edge in a cove off the beaten path. Some are calling out to Jesus. His followers are doing their best to manage the crowds.
You can see a faint silhouette of a solitary man in a small boat out on the lake. But as folks continue to gather, a massive crowd for this deserted place, you see that he begins to row back to shore.
His disciples have to hold back the crowds, so he has a place to land his boat. And they are pressing in. There are sick people here. And injured people. And starving people and curious people. There are dangerous looking people, and there are your neighbors. There are people from foreign lands and people of all ages, the very young and the very old. And there, at the shore, Jesus gets out of the boat and begins to heal people. You can’t really find the words for what you are seeing. It just seemed like everyone who came to Jesus received the healing they needed the most. Sometimes it came in the form of kind words, other times a compassionate touch.
And you sat down and watched all of this happen. For hours, you sat there, watching, listening, until it was getting dark. Around dinner time, Jesus’ followers, those closest to him, pulled him aside. They looked nervous. They showed him some food. He said something that bewildered them. They just looked at one another in confusion. So, Jesus asks the crowds in groups. When all were sitting and quiet, he took the food that the disciples had brought him, some bread and some fish, and he gave thanks to God for it, and he blessed it. He then divided it among the disciples, and they began to pass it around.
Now you didn’t have much to eat with you—a few dried fish and some bread that you picked up from the market earlier that day. But you notice something happening. As the disciples walk around the seated crowd, folks are pulling food out of their bags. Now, not everyone brought something, but the people who did, shared it with those who did not. And if a group had extra, they gave it to the disciples to pass along if a group did not have enough to go around. As the disciples get to your group, you break your loaf of bread and put it in one of their baskets, and you share the rest with the people sitting in your group. During dinner, your group talked about Jesus. Some had been following him all through Galilee. Others spoke about losing John, and you couldn’t help but think about how this meal was probably so different than the feast at Herod’s Birthday. His meal celebrated himself. There were only a select few. It was lavish, and someone was murdered at it. This meal was held because of a common need. There were several thousand at it, most poor folks. It was simple but filling, and people were healed at it.
As folks finished eating, the disciples placed baskets with extra food at the front for people to take home if they needed it. The disciples rowed away in the boat, and Jesus said his goodbye to the crowds.
I don’t know if this is how the story happened. It doesn’t really say. But the story is important. It’s shared in all four gospels and was a favorite of the early church. Some early communion liturgies retell this story. The story is simple enough.
Jesus is grieved by the news that this cousin, John the Baptist, has been murdered by Herod Antipas, the regional governor. He tries to get some personal time away by rowing out to the middle of the lake, but the crowds call out to him. Moved by compassion, he comes ashore and heals the sick. As evening approaches, the disciples worry about feeding everyone. They ask Jesus to release the crowds, but he says that they’ll figure it out. They worry that they do not have enough. But Jesus seats the crowd and blesses what they have, and somehow, everyone eats and is full, and there is some left over.
There are many reasons why this story is one of the most celebrated gospels' stories. It speaks to Jesus’ compassion toward others. It highlights Jesus’ ability to heal. One of its themes is abundance. And it stands against Herod’s banquet. In Jesus’ world, the Kingdom of Heaven, the poor are not exploited but have what they need. It’s a message that runs against how the kingdoms of this world work, where the wealthy dine extravagantly and harm people with impunity.
But I want to focus for a few minutes on the role of the disciples. Jesus’ disciples are more involved in the action of the story In Matthew’s gospel, than in other gospels. They are the ones that bring the initial gift of fish and bread to Jesus. They are the ones that pass out the food. And they are concerned that they will not have enough. After all, how will a few fish and a few loaves of bread feed thousands? Yet, miraculously, for no matter how we think it happened, it is a truly miraculous story, everyone had more than enough.
I wonder when we face the needs of the world, we, as a church or as individuals, respond like the disciples, saying, “We don’t have enough.” How can we meet the needs when the needs are so great? It makes it seem like the few things we do have, a few fish and five loaves, a few hours and five bucks, can’t even put a dent in the problems. Sometimes, because we feel the need is too great, we don’t offer our own meager gifts, but instead, ask that the need be sent away, out of sight for others to handle.
Yet, for us, for people of faith, what we have is important. And those few hours and those five bucks are blessed by God. They are made holy. And they are added to the gifts of others.
When it was still possible to visit folks in the hospital at UVM, I always walked back to my car through the second floor because there was an excellent quote on the wall. It read, “Individually we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.”
The way I imagine this story shows that people can be an ocean – a force of compassion and generosity. It may take prompting, and it may require inspiration and modeling. But people can be an ocean. And oceans are mighty.
Our work is not to cure the world of all its ills. It’s to participate in the movement of healing and generosity. When we hear the word movement, think waves. Waves of healing. Waves of compassion. Waves of Thoughtfulness. Waves of generosity. Because of us, and countless others, doing our part to lift the tide.
May the God of abundance and generosity bless how we give to make this world better, especially now during these uncertain times.