When Jesus got the news, he slipped away by boat to an out-of-the-way place by himself. (Mt 14:13)
The get-away. Regardless of what comes first to your mind, these words invoke some serious imagery. For some, the idea of a vacation or a weekend that leads us away from the everyday drone of work, school, or whatever comes as a refreshing way to get free from the sometimes strangling grip of the ordinary. For others, the scene may change dramatically as crooks hurriedly make their escape with purloined riches. Perhaps for others, it is simply a way to get free from some awkward emotional situation that they don't feel equipped to handle at the moment. And in our passage for this Sunday, Jesus really needs to get away!
Did anyone come up with the mental image of Jesus needing some time off? Neither did I. After all, don't we see Jesus usually depicted as a kind of super-man, an always strong, always patient, always loving, and always understanding kind of guy? Yes, yes we do. And haven't we - as Christians - often been taught that we "can do all things in and through Christ Jesus our Lord?" Yes, yes we have. Yet, with that admission, I have to say that Jesus isn't superhuman and that we can learn what to do when we, like he, need a rest.
Our story is a familiar one as it is included in all four of the gospels and taught at the very earliest grades of Sunday School as well as preached on and about regularly within many congregations. Here, Jesus performs the miracle of feeding thousands of people. No surprise right? Jesus is always doing incredible things like this and the expectation of the Church is that we will be engaged in feeding (literally) thousands of people with our own hunger programs. And, I am also certain that many of you can get a bit weary from all of the "needs" and all of the "asks" that come with those programs.
Jesus was having a bad week. His cousin and close confidant John was just killed by the king because he made the political faux-pas of calling out Herod's lack of fidelity. On top of that, the miracle kid from Nazareth had been disbelieved and booted out of his childhood community and childhood home. No going back there! If we stop for a moment and think about Jesus state of mind we can imagine the loneliness, grief, heartbreak, and sorrow of this moment. Could it be that Jesus might have even (gasp) despaired?
Exhausted, Jesus tries to get away. He got on a boat and cruised to the other side of lake . . . alone. And he almost made it, except like most of the get-away stories, someone saw him and the chase was on. The crowds who had heard of his mighty deeds in the name of Yahweh followed him relentlessly on foot, tracking him down and refuse to leave him alone.
I am sure that many of you can relate to the constant pressures of being chased by emails, texts, and the ever-present responsibilities of work, school, parenting, management, and all of the other things which simply won't seem to leave us be. And our responses usually go along the lines of: resentment, dutifully responding, doing the minimum, or ignoring the situation outright. And here is where we see Jesus - at his lowest - doing what he does best. Instead of being resentful or frustrated or angry we find Jesus being aware of not only his condition, but the condition of those who were on his trail.
When he (Jesus) saw them coming, he was overcome with pity and healed their sick.
The miracle of this story in Matthew may well not be so much the healing and the feeding of this multitude of people, as much as it is Jesus' response to the needs of the world around him. And I will suggest that this will be the miracle story of the Church as well. Since the Church - you and I - are the representatives of the divine nature of God on earth, our response to similar needs when we are pressed, harried, frustrated or just plain tuckered out speaks volumes about the God of our faith. Rather than resent intrusion into our faith community and most closely held beliefs or become frustrated or demoralized by the ever-present needs of the world we can offer a start contrast to the business hours of social service agencies and the demeaning ways that the world determines whether someone is worthy of assistance, we can do as Jesus does . . . and compassionately act.
Is it compassion, or pity? I hope that someone has asked themselves this question since the biblical translators are all over the place on this one. The word that is translated as "pity" is also rendered "compassion." The root word comes from the place where the ancients believed faith resides - the splachna or gut. Jesus was moved at a gut level to help those who were interrupting his private time with their requests for help and wholeness. And that leads to my next question: are we moved by ritual, responsibility, or fear to reach out to the world around us or, are we moved in our gut to see and do what God calls us to?
Toward evening the disciples approached Jesus. "We're out in the country and its getting late. Dismiss the people so they can go to the villages and get some supper." But Jesus said, "There is no need to dismiss them. You give them supper."
The second miracle in our story comes as Jesus challenges his followers to see and do as he has done. How, you may ask? Easy! When you re-read the story of the thousands being fed, who actually does the work? Here's a hint: You give them supper. Did you get it? Jesus, after hearing from his closest disciples, tells them that it is really up to them to provide for the gathered crowd. And despite the practicality of not having a McDonalds or an IHOP close by, they gathered "what they had" - a couple of fish and some bread - and bringing them to Jesus, who gives thanks to God for what was available, the disciples literally fed all those gathered with some left-overs to boot!
As disciples in a modern age, we - like Jesus and his followers of old - often find ourselves in the midst of trouble, despair, heartbreak, scarcity and all of the other aspects of the human condition. And we must not only be like Jesus and the boys in seeing those who are looking for a Messiah, but also to move beyond the convenient practicality of counting what we have and proclaiming that there isn't going to be enough for others, only just enough for ourselves. The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is found in recognizing the need, gathering what we have, and then being bold enough to give it to Jesus for distribution in the world, secure in the knowledge that there will still be enough left for us.
At the end of the story, after all have been fed from the fish sandwiches in some kids lunchbox, we see the final punctuation in this series of miracles: 12 baskets left over. Whether this number of baskets represents the 12 tribes of Israel or the overwhelming provision of God to the larger world, it is a reminder that God works a much bigger room than we are used to. So, let us all look to see the needs around us, to have compassion on our neighbors even in the midst of our own "stuff," gather what we have, offer it to God in thanksgiving, and then serve with the expectation that God will continue to do even greater things than we could imagine in the name of our constant friend and savior, Jesus the Christ!
May God help we, who have chased Jesus and received the blessing of being seen and cared for, do likewise for our brothers and sisters in the world.