Isaiah 55.1-5, Romans 9.1-5, Matthew 14.13-21
2nd August 2020
Today's Gospel reading, the feeding of the five thousand, is one of the best-known miracles of Jesus. But what I find particularly interesting about it is its context, which is often overlooked. In both Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels, this story follows the account of the brutal murder of John the Baptist by King Herod, during the King’s birthday celebrations. I am sure that this is not an accident. We are meant to read these two stories together. It is a tale of two banquets, as different as they could possibly be.
Herod's banquet was an extravagant, self-serving affair, designed to demonstrate to his invited guests the extent of his wealth and power. So carried away was he by his own rhetoric that he made a foolish promise in public, to give to Salome whatever she asked. When she demanded the head of John the Baptist, the king’s pride would not allow him to climb down, and so he ordered the execution of a man he both liked and feared, probably the one person who saw Herod as he really was and told him the truth about himself.
So here we have a ruler - a politician - trapped by a rash promise on which he can't deliver without disastrous consequences. If that sounds startlingly familiar to us here and now, I suspect the same has been true of every age and society since the Gospels were written.
But the story of the feeding of the five thousand shows us a radically different way. This is not a gathering of the rich and powerful, but a crowd of hungry people in a desert place. Jesus doesn’t make any promises. In fact, he seems to go out of his way not to pull the focus to himself. He passes the responsibility to his disciples. "You give them something to eat" he tells them. It is only when they have collected the five loaves and two fishes from the crowd that Jesus does anything at all, and then it is something quite ordinary: he blesses the food and gives it back to the disciples to distribute. It is a very low-key miracle. Without explaining it away, I think it’s possible that the sight of people in the crowd offering up their own precious rations released a spirit of generosity in others, and that this contributed to the simple banquet which enabled everyone to be fed.
In the story of these two feasts the Gospel offers us a stark choice - to cling to those things which affirm our own status and power and sense of self, or to let those things go and allow ourselves to be directed by the Spirit of God. In doing so we may lose control and agency, but we gain the freedom that comes with trusting in God's generous provision. This is the promise that God gives through Isaiah in the Old Testament reading set for today: 'Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good.'
And, as the miracle tells us, this food is for sharing. One of the great Christian writers of the fourteenth century, Meister Eckhart, expresses this beautifully: 'There is no such thing as "my" bread. All bread is ours and is given to me, to others through me, and to me through others.'
So as we come forward today to receive bread at the Eucharist, I pray that as we eat it we may be filled afresh with the creating, sustaining, redeeming love of God in Christ, so costly to him and yet given so freely to us, and that we may go out to share that love with others.