The feeding of the five thousand is arguably the most well-known of all of the miracles Jesus performs during his ministry. This is the one miracle of Jesus that can be found in all four of the Gospels. Most of us know this story in one form or another. At the least, many of us know that Jesus fed 5000 people some bread and fish, and some of us know that there were more than 5000 people present because the women and children present were not counted. Many know that is Jesus is taking the meager food the disciples had, the food they mockingly gave to Jesus, “we have nothing except five loaves and two fish” and blessing it. The disciples did not realize what they had. The group of followers had become “discouraged by” their reality. Patiently, Jesus takes the loaves and fish from the disciples, and we know the rest.
We miss something in this story when we read it by itself. When we read the story like we just did, verses 13 thru 21, we isolate the story, and because we know this story so well, in isolating the story we treat this scene as a one-off event in the ministry of Jesus. In reading this story alone we miss the beauty of Matthew’s writing. We miss that this miracle scene is connected to the stories before and after it. In verse 22, right after the baskets are filled, the saga continues as Jesus commands the disciples to get into a boat, which we will talk about next week. When we isolate this story and ignore the previous 13 verses of this chapter we miss that the feeding story we just read about offers us a contrasting story to another feeding story. The feeding of the 5000 offers us a contrast to a birthday party Herod of Antipas threw for himself just a few verses earlier.
“Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison because of Herodias the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. That’s because John told Herod, ‘It’s against the law for you to marry her.’ Although Herod wanted to kill him, he feared the crowd because they thought John was a prophet.”- Matthew 14:3-5 (CEB)
Herod wanted John the Baptist dead. John was citing 2 laws that prohibited Herod of Antipas from marrying his brother’s wife: Leviticus 18:6, “None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness: I am the Lord” and 20:21, “If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother. They will be childless.” John was a “popular leader and a political” threat to Herod’s rule but John’s death posed the possibility of a greater threat so Herod kept John the Baptist alive, but still imprisoned. All of this changes when Herod swears to give his daughter anything she wanted after a “thrilling” wedding dance.
“But at Herod’s birthday party Herodias’ daughter danced in front of the guests and thrilled Herod. Then he swore to give her anything she asked. At her mother’s urging, the girl said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a plate.’ Although the king was upset, because of his solemn pledge and his guests he commanded that they give it to her.” – Matthew 14:6-9 (CEB)
When those in power hesitate they loose power. Herod feared losing control of his power from an angry crowd if the popular leader was killed. Herod hesitated but realized his guests were watching. He also feared losing control by going back on his word in front of his guests. What you have to know here is that this Herod is not the same King Herod we read about during Christmas. Herod of Antipas became the tetrarch, local ruler, of Galilee and Pera while his brothers ruled other regions that were once a single kingdom under their father. John is beheaded as Herod is trying to maintain control, to maintain power that had been and was continuing to be diminished.
Stanley Hauerwas put it this way,
“Matthew has described the insecurity of those in power who depend on the presumption of those around them; this is, they must act in a manner that assures those they rule as well as themselves that they possess the power they pretend to possess.”
The contrasts continue. We have two contrasting feeding stories. Two opportunities to show a leader’s power and yet we have two entirely different stories. Herod showed us pride, arrogance, scheming, and murder while Jesus on the other hand shows us healing, truth, and sharing. Jesus is obviously hurt by the death of John the Baptist, and instead of lashing out or scheming revenge on Herod he teaches his disciples, he teaches us, that even in the midst of despair and sorrow there will be opportunities to care for one another. His ministry continues.
He has moved to the other side of the lake where Herod has no power, demonstrating God’s true nature by responding the John’s death without using violence. Jesus is showing us that following him requires sacrifice, a contrast to the world Herod is offering: just as Jesus sacrifices everything so too will his disciples. Jesus shows compassion and love towards the crowd even when he wants to retreat alone. Jesus show this power in charity for others in the shadow of Herod demonstrating his power through murder.
In this this story we see that when we give what little we have to Jesus, God will do miraculous things for those who are following Christ. In this story we see that God “uses what the church has in her hands” and then multiplies it. We know that part of the story but when we often miss the alternative politics Jesus is offering to us, offering to the world.
The alternative politic Jesus offers us exposes realities of the Kingdom of God we often glance over.
First, God will use what we have in our hands right now. There is no need to say “one day I will…” or “one day the Church will…” God is ready to act right now with what we have in our hands today. There are times when we feel as though the overwhelming need we see in our community and world cannot be alleviated with the underwhelming resources we have. We see hungry crowds and injustice in the world, and think that the five loaves and two squishy fish-ies we have are not enough. That may be true. What we have in our hands may not be enough to change the world, even when we act with compassion. But when we give what we have to Jesus, big things happen. Just like the mustard seed growing to a large bush with branches reaching out, when we give our bread and fish to Jesus miraculous things will happen.
Second, there are “therapeutic” and “non-therapeutic” aspects to Jesus’s authority. Healing and helping go hand in hand for Jesus. They are not isolate from one another. The feeding of the 5000 is not just a feeding story. It began with Jesus healing people. “When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion for them and healed those who were sick.” Jesus did not heal them to further his own power. He healed them out of compassion. Jesus ministered to the therapeutic needs of the people before he fed them. He did not ignore their ailments and hand them some food. Jesus’ compassion extended beyond the quick-fix handout.
Next, compassion, when given to God, results in abundance. There has been debate over the meaning of the 12 Tupperware baskets at the end of this story. Do they represent the 12 tribes of Israel? Maybe Jesus’ disciples? All debates aside, at the very least the abundance of leftovers showed the disciples and gathered crowd, shows us today, the greatness of the event and the greatness of the alternative politics Jesus is offering to the world. Jesus’ compassion is abundant. It is not limited to a particular constituency group, abundance is available to all in need through Christ.
Finally, in the breaking of bread we are all filled. Jesus blessed the fish and bread, but broke and distributed only the bread. After the middle of verse 19 there is mention of the fish. Jesus is not creating a “new supernatural food.” He is breaking this bread in anticipation of his own breaking. There is a sacramental element to this miracle calling us to gather around the table today. We are fed so that we can feed the world through the breaking of bread. When gathered at the Lord’s table for the breaking of bread, our responsibility to provided bread to the world is renewed.
Jesus’ contrast to Herod’s rule and party, Jesus’ contrasting way of establishing power, is similar to the way power is maintained today. We live in a “what have you done for me lately” world. If you haven’t done something to benefit me, advancing my power and standing, you will be cast off. If you’re lucky enough to have power and influence and the ability to cast-off other influencers to the sidelines, you are still looking over your shoulder, wondering where the next threat to your power will come from. Because when those who were once in power lack the power they are seeking, their lives turn “destructive and desperate.” Contrasting Jesus’ compassion is the desperation, and the results others pay, when those in power rule from a place of “insecurity.”
Those outside the spheres of power and influence are often viewed as unworthy of compassion. They are not welcomed at the seat of power. They are not welcome at the table. They are a number or a vote, a burden to those in power. Jesus exercising of power does not seek to overcome any insecurity. Jesus is not gaining power to fill a void. Instead of killing or casting someone off, he gives new life to everyone he shows compassion towards. His compassion is an invitation to participated in his kingdom, a kingdom being ushered in by peace.
Jesus is offering us an alternative. An alternative where it does not matter if 5000 or 10,000 are fed. What matters is that all are fed. The reality of what we have to offer Jesus is something that should discourage us. There is no agenda of pride, arrogance, or power. The only agenda is an agenda of compassion.
In world of fakes and alternatives, let us be a church where the alternative offered by us is the same alternative the risen Christ is embraced. Not so we can further the standing of our own agenda but so that we can be a part of the miraculous work of our Lord and King. Our scripture reading today is one of an alternative politic that we all know, now let us all live it out.