This story is set in a wilderness of scarcity, hunger, in which a lot has gone wrong. It may be correct to describe our situation today as a wilderness of scarcity in which a lot has gone wrong.
If that describes our national and global condition, perhaps it also describes your personal condition right now; a wilderness of scarcity; things having gone wrong, leaving you hungry. We are going to look at this text together and find that it has a powerful message that we need to hear today.
This story is told in all four gospels, each with it’s own unique perspective. We will look at how Matthew wove this story together, gathering strands from other stories to form a richly complex narrative, deeply profound
A Tale of Two Meals
The story begins “Now when Jesus heard this” – so really it doesn’t begin here – we are diving in, mid-stream. What Jesus had just heard was that his cousin, his prophet, his friend, John the baptist, had just been killed by king Herod. It happened at a banquet. Matthew wants us to notice the contrast between Herod’s luxurious meal at the palace that culminated in death, and Jesus’ spartan meal in the wilderness that ended with these life-giving words:
20“And all ate and were filled.”
By ending with those words, Matthew has just woven in another, older story in which those words were famous. Long ago the Israelites broke away from oppression from a brutal, tyrannical bricks-without-straw regime and found themselves out in the wilderness of scarcity and hunger. But they were sustained by two things: manna from heaven, which was their “daily bread” and a vision of a hopeful future, a promised land. Moses himself held out that promised land vision:
7 For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land… 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees …9 a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, … 10 You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you. (Deut. 8)
What a vision: “you shall eat your fill” – it was a lot to promise, from the wilderness.
From Moses to Jesus – what happened?
But lots of water had passed under the bridge between the promises Moses made and the land that Jesus walked in. How was it that those people ended up all those years later, following Jesus out in the wilderness, in scarcity, and hungry?
Why didn’t each one, each Israelite have their own inheritance of tribal territory in the Promised Land on which they could work and produce their own vines and figs and wheat for bread that Moses had spoken of?
If famine or disease or drought or death robbed them of their land, was it not, according to Moses, supposed to be restored in the year of Jubilee?
Why were there hungry people out there in the wilderness with Jesus? Weren’t the widows, the orphans, the foreigners and the poor to be supported by the annual tithes which everyone contributed?
Perhaps, by the time we get to Jesus, that old vision Moses had, of the common good, was so far back in the distant past no one even remembered it anymore. By the time of this story, it is a time of scarcity and hunger; a lot had gone wrong.
Compassion, not smugness, not guilt
So Jesus is out there in the wilderness with the hungry people, and Matthew tells us, he felt compassion for them. How could he not? They were humans, they were
hungry; how could a person not feel compassion?
Easy. If your theology is that “people get what they deserve,” then you may not feel compassionate; instead, you may feel smugness when you see scarcity. You feel smug, unless the hunger is inside yourself; then you feel guilty; “I’m being punished by God; getting what I deserve.”
It is true that Israel had told their own story that way: Moses’ vision of a good land to live in had a lot of conditional “if” clauses – “if you obey, then you will eat your fill.” Their story included a lot of chapters describing their disobedience, so maybe they were out there in the wilderness of scarcity feeling hungry because they were getting what they deserved?
Is that the assessment Jesus made? Quite the opposite! Jesus did not look at their hunger and feel smug. He did not look at their scarcity and shame them. He looked at their condition and felt compassion. The blame-game stopped with Jesus. The question was not, and is not, “whose fault is it?”; the question is, “who is hungry?”
What do do
And then, if you feel compassion when you see hunger, the next question is, “what are you going to do about it?”
The way Matthew tells it, Jesus then makes a huge assumption: he assumes his disciples would automatically adopt his perspective of compassion for the hungry people in front of them. Jesus says to them:
16 “…you give them something to eat”
Of course disciples of Jesus who had been with him, observed his life, absorbed his teachings would feel what he felt in the face of human need. The whole point of being a disciple was to learn to follow and become like the master, after all!
Economic Analysis: “nothing but…”
Their reply shows something revealing: they have analyzed the economics of the situation and have concluded that scarcity is the final word:
17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”
If all you have are the things you can count, the things that can be numbered and entered into a spreadsheet, then the conclusion has to be scarcity, and the result, hunger. “We have nothing but a bit of bread and a couple of fish, and it’s not enough.” “Nothing but…”
Matthew is intentionally invoking the memory of that older Israelite wilderness story as he tells this story of wilderness and scarcity. If you are able to tell the story
in which the people in the wilderness were never for a moment without God, then the words “nothing but” are wrong! All those years ago, did not God sustain them with the daily bread of manna and the hopeful vision of the promised land? Did he ever abandon them in the wilderness?
Even when they rebelled, did punishment ever have the last word? Did God ever abandon them? Could they have ever said, “we have nothing but this manna and a promise”? Was not God there?
Took bread, Blessed, Broke, Gave it
So Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. Taking, blessing, breaking and giving bread; now we see that Matthew has told this story to point both backwards to the Israelites in the wilderness, and forwards to the church gathered around the table of the Lord’s Supper. Now the stories are connected: the bread of manna in the wilderness, the bread Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave, and the bread we break as we gather around the Lord’s table as his disciples. This story has become our story.
After Jesus said those words he gave the job of distribution to the disciples:
19…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;
The Meaning of the Story
The solution to the experience of wilderness scarcity is first to understand that God is present, even in wilderness. He has never abandoned his hungry people. If you are in a wilderness period now, feeling hungry know this: you have not been abandoned. God is present, and always has been. Trust him.
But don’t stop there. Wilderness is not just a psychological condition: hunger exists as a reality today. While we Americans are myopically focused on our budget, millions of Somali’s are at risk of death by starvation.
We have learned from Moses’ vision of a community of mutual responsibility in which the ones who are blessed are obliged to contribute to the needs of the ones who are at risk. Our goal is always that everyone will be able to sit under their own vine and fig, and make their own bread from the wheat they have grown on their own land. We have inherited the tradition of a commitment to the common good.
As disciples of the master, Jesus, we are people who have learned to look at the hungry with compassion. We cannot imagine looking at people in need with smug
content that God is giving them what they deserve, as if our luxury and prosperity are somehow what we deserved!
We are the people who gather around the Lord’s table, who hear the words about Jesus, taking the bread, blessing it, breaking it, and giving it, and we see Jesus, present in the breaking of the bread.
And from that table he tells us, his disciples, to go and take the bread and give it to the people. When we do that, there is no longer scarcity, there is abundance, as Matthew tells us:
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.
A shout out to Alyce M. McKenzie’s article “You Want Us To Do What?” for helpful insights and for connections to other stories that time didn’t permit mentioning here.