Matthew’s gospel tells the story of the feeding of the 5,000; a story that contrasts two very different (let’s call them…) community dinners. Now some congregations might get confused about what part of the story constitutes the miracle. That is unless you’re a congregation who’s been operating a dining hall at the Minnesota State Fair for oh, say, 64 years, and providing free community dinners for about six months.
Certainly when we saw that great crowd of 6,000 BMW bikers descending on the fairgrounds last weekend,
we weren’t sure what to expect. But I can tell you this, none of us said as the disciples did: “send the crowds away so that they may go into the City of St. Paul and buy food for themselves!” And Jesus did not have to say to us what he needed to say to his early disciples: “They need not go away; YOU give them something to eat.”
In truth, there were a few times when our serving the 6,000 bikers was nothing short of a miracle-especially when we ran out of eggs, or bread, or strawberry rhubarb pies. A couple of times it rather felt like we were dealing with 2 fish and 5 loaves. One thing we never ran short of was compassion, and compassion is at the heart of today’s text. You see it wasn’t about WHAT Jesus did, or HOW he did it. It was about WHY.
Matthew records that when Jesus saw the great crowd that had followed him he had compassion on them. He healed their sick, tended their needs, and shared with them his presence. And then, when evening came and they found themselves without food, he fed them.
To fully experience why he withdrew in the first place, we need to know about the other “community dinner.” Did you catch the transitional line at the beginning of the gospel? “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Heard? Heard what? What Jesus just heard was that his friend and cousin, John the Baptist had just been murdered, beheaded by King Herod at an opulent, A-list, over the top dinner party—another kind of community meal.
The juxtaposition of Herod’s A-list dinner and Jesus feeding the 5,000 couldn’t be more ironic, or powerful. David Lose is President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He writes, “One moment Matthew invites us to focus on one more episode from the “lifestyles of the rich and shameless” and in the next he fastens our attention on a scene portraying poor, sick, and hungry crowds looking for relief. It’s like switching channels from the Kardashians to a news report on immigrant children stranded at the border. Matthew is indicating by these contrasting scenes just what kind of God Jesus represents.
In fact every one of Jesus’ acts points us to the character of the God. In this story, the character of God that Jesus reveals is captured in that single word, “compassion.” And the contrast between Herod’s dinner for the “haves,” and Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 “have nots,” was that Jesus’ dinner was banquet of possibilities, a banquet where Jesus created an outpouring for people who almost never have enough.
Banquets are a funny thing. Rather like community dinners.
What we are doing with our community dinners is that we too are creating an outpouring for people who almost never have enough. Are you smellin’ what I’m cooking here? People talk about how nice our community meals are, that we put out the china, the flowers and the good food. We do that because have a certain expectation about the way we want our dinners to be. Dr. Ruby Payne is a popular speaker on the topic of understanding poverty. She remarks that when people of privilege enter a banquet, their first concern is that it looks pretty and will they like the choices?” People in the economic middle will be concerned with whether it tastes good. However, people living in poverty, those with little, will want to know if there is enough. And with Jesus, there was so much that there were leftovers!
This was important because in Jesus’ time the only religious choices beyond Judaism were often cults and sects, some of which required economic standing. Except Christianity. What distinguished Jesus’ ministry was the fact that everyone, with or without economic or social standing, were ALL welcome. That’s why they were following him.
Jesus’ entire ministry was to represent the God of extravagant possibility in the midst of little. For in God we have everything that we could ever want, more than enough for our hearts, heads and stomachs to hold!
The real wonder of this story is that it continues: God still cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable – the poor, the immigrant, the hungry. God still shares God’s presence with us, in the bread and in the wine – and…
God continues to use us to care for world that God loves.