Malankara World Journal - Christian Spirituality from an Orthodox Perspective
Malankara World Journal
Theme: Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
Volume 6 No. 353 June 10, 2016
II. Lectionary Reflections

And It Was Enough

by Stan Duncan

Gospel: Matthew 14:14-23

This is a remarkable passage. It's found in all four of the Gospels, and twice in Matthew and Mark. No other story is like it in that regard. (Two have birth stories, only one has the story of Lazarus being raised from the grave, only one has the story of the Prodigal Son, etc., but this is in all four and repeated in two.)

Let us look at the background. John was just executed as a terrorist by the authorities because they thought that he was inciting people to riot against the empire. After Jesus hears of this, he goes off on a boat trying to get to a "lonely place by himself," probably to pray. The hills, though, were filled with people who had heard stories about him, and they all came out after him. A testament to his charisma? Reputation? Who knows. The numbers could be as high as fifteen to twenty thousand. (Note that they wouldn't have counted the women or children in those days, which could possibly have doubled or tripled the numbers.)

At the end of the day, everyone is hungry. The disciples had only packed a basic peasant's lunch of a few loaves and fishes, so what to do with about the others? The disciples gave a plain market-based answer. They said, send the people into the towns, and let them buy their own food. That, of course, was impossible. For one thing, most were poor and sick or else they wouldn't have been following Jesus in the first place. Homelessness and extreme poverty were at crisis levels in Jesus' day. The transfers of wealth out of the poor regions and into the wealthy ones had decimated the rural areas where Jesus did most of his ministry. For them, this wandering prophet was a rare possible hope. As weak and diminished as our structures of aid for those in need are today, they had nothing anywhere near them. For another thing, even if they all immediately left and rushed to the surrounding towns to buy something (assuming they had money to buy with) the towns would be overwhelmed and flooded, and incapable of servicing them.

The market simply was not (and is not) a mechanism to handle poverty and hunger. One of the now-well-documented findings of Thomas Pickety's new book, Capital, is that left to its own devices, market based economies always gravitate towards greater and greater inequality and create more and more poor people. The only countries that have contradicted this trend are countries that have instituted policies to circumvent it, that is, countries that put higher taxes on the wealthy and higher supports for the poor. One country that illustrates this is Brazil that has recently been increasing taxes on its wealthy and increasing benefits for its poor. And for them, inequality has gone down and the incomes of the poor have been going up. Conversely, in the US, for the last thirty years, we have been cutting taxes for the wealthy and cutting benefits for the poor, and the result has been an increase in poverty and an increase in wealth inequality. The two are related.

Jesus responded to their market answer to his question by saying that the hungry people around them don't have to go away. You (the disciples) just feed them. They complained (slightly) about that. They said, but, all we got is these three loaves and two fishes.

The logo for the Christian World hunger organization, Bread for the World, is the loaves and fishes. This story is where it came from.

The disciples' first response was to worry about how little they had to offer. There are so many of those people down there, and our resources are so tiny. Jesus responded simply: share what little you have and let's see what happens.

One way to look at this is that they were thinking out of a theology of scarcity: we don't have enough to go around. We can't feed all of those people with our meager provisions. Somewhat similar to the comments we hear so frequently today, that America can no longer afford to care for its poor people. Even though we are the richest country in the world, we simply can't afford to give hungry people Food Stamps (SNAP) or WIC, or School Lunch programs, or the Earned Income Tax Credit (though that last one was instituted by a Republican President and seems to maintain modest but fairly non-partisan support). Jesus on the other hand, had a theology of abundance: share what you have because God provides everything.

It's true that you can't feed everyone. It's true that there will always be suffering. You can't make it go away. You can't end it for everyone, everywhere, forever. Jesus certainly did not feed all of the people in the world, nor did he try. But that is no reason to do nothing and let those whom you can save die.

The old, old, story of the starfishes on the beach comes to mind. The guy was on the beach after a storm rescuing them one by one. A friend came up to him and said "you can't save them all. Why are you out here? You can't make a big difference." The man said back, "Yes, that's true, but it makes a pretty big difference to this one," and he threw another back out into the water.

Which is actually the greater miracle: for Jesus to change those few loaves into an abundance of loaves, or for Jesus to change the hearts of the people there to teach them how to share? What's the greater miracle for us? For Jesus to do all of the work for us, or for Jesus to change our hearts to enable us to do it.

Do we have enough money to change the community? Do we have enough people to spread the word about the gospel? No. But we have a theology of abundance that says we do what we can and we will see a miracle.

A Feast of Plenty in the Face of Death

by Andrew Prior, First Impressions

Gospel: Matthew 14:14-23

At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; and he said to his servants, 'This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.' 3 For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, 4 because John had been telling him, 'It is not lawful for you to have her.' 5 Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. 6But when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod 7 so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. 8Prompted by her mother, she said, 'Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.' 9 The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; 10 he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. 12 His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, 'This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.' 16 Jesus said to them, 'They need not go away; you give them something to eat.' 17 They replied, 'We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.' 18 And he said, 'Bring them here to me.' 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, 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; 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.
Matthew 14:1-21

Scranton says what we have to learn how to die, which should not surprise us given that our Faith is in large part about how we face death.

How we live and how we face death has much to do with The Feeding of the Five Thousand which is this week's reading.

The first thing to note is that this reading does not stand alone. It is linked to the death of John the Baptist. The Feast of Jesus stands in contradistinction to the Feast of Herod. (It is not so in Mark and Luke.) After the parables of what the Kingdom is like in Chapter 13, we are being shown the difference between kingdoms.

The two stories are about scarcity and plenty, hunger and feasting, living and dying. Perhaps most of all they ask us a question: One whose side are we? Are we on the side of Herod, or are we on the side of Jesus? Where will we look for our food and for our life? Which will be our kingdom?

Where we look for our food and our sustenance will have a profound effect on our dying and on all our living.

Jesus is the prophet who is against Herod.

In 2 Kings, shortly after the great prophet Elijah is taken up into heaven, there is a feast given by Elisha, his successor. The servant is sure, like the disciples, that there will not be enough food. "How can I set this before a hundred people?" But "they ate, and had some left." (2 Kings 4:22-24)

In Matthew, after John has gone, (murdered by Herod) Jesus performs the same miracle. Just as Elisha inherited a double portion of the spirit of Elijah, (2 Kings 2:9) so Jesus is greater than John.

But first, Herod the King.

Herod lives in the world of power politics. He can throw a feast beyond the means of anyone else. He can promise "on oath to grant [the daughter of Herodias] whatever she might ask." (Matthew 14:6) Even to half his kingdom, says Mark— only the richest could dare this! (Mark 6:23)

Yet his kingdom is the dog eat dog kingdom of fear and insecurity. Herod did not want to kill John "yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given..." (Matthew 14:9) In the world of envy and the need to possess more and more in order to maintain status and power, he is as vulnerable as anyone else! Once you are at the top you can only go down... unless you do whatever it takes to stay on top. You fear losing what you have. There is never enough. While she earns $600 a second, Gina Rhineheart hints Australian should workers should go back to working for $2.00 a day.

Herod's kingdom is ultimately a Kingdom of Scarcity.

In Herod's kingdom you are either "in" or "out." And the whole structure works by keeping most of us out, seeking to make us desire to imitate the Herodians so that we can be let "in." We will do whatever we need to get "in," what those who are already "in" want of us, a willing slavery, and then exclude our former friends.

Herod's kingdom is ultimately a Kingdom of Exclusion.

There is an intriguing twist to the story of Herodias' daughter. Google asked me if Mark had plagiarised Esther. "Even to half my kingdom" is apparently copied from Esther 7, and we poor Christians are ignorant of this! What "thrillobyte" does not understand, of course, is that Mark's people would have known the parallel without Google telling them. The point is that where Esther makes her wish it is for the saving of her people. For Herodias the wish is for the death of a prophet of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Herod's kingdom is ultimately a Kingdom of Death.


Jesus lives in a world which is fundamentally different.

Herod fears the crowd (v. 5) and what his guests might think of him if he goes back on his word (v. 9). Jesus has compassion and cares for the crowd (v. 14), even though they had interrupted his desire to be alone, probably to grieve the death of John (13a). Herod is tricked into putting John to death (v. 10). Jesus provides life by curing the sick (v. 14) and feeding the hungry (v. 19) (Brian Stoffregen)

Gil Bailie suggests that during Jesus' life and at the time the New Testament was written the flash point of Jewish religious orthodoxy was the dietary laws.

This means the Feeding of the Five Thousand was an abrupt dismissal of all the careful shibboleths of those who were "in" the socio-religious establishment.

Scrupulosity about defiling contact with sinners and the fear of ingesting unclean food combined to make the sharing of meals a particularly touchy issue. ... [Even c]onscious intention had nothing to do with the all-important matter of avoiding impurity. Contact with sinners or the ingestion of forbidden or unsanctified foods would defile one...

By sharing meals with those considered by the religiously righteous to be outcasts and sinners, Jesus challenged "the central ordering principle of the Jewish social world." As Geza Vermes put it, Jesus "took his stand among the pariahs of the world, those despised by the respectable. Sinners were his table-companions and the ostracized tax collectors and prostitutes his friends." The meals Jesus shared with the outcasts were not, therefore, simply the occasion for the delivery of his message. They were the message. They served as "prophetic signs" meant to manifest the meaning of Jesus' ministry. They involved what Borg speaks of as a "radical relativizing of cultural distinctions."

Jesus is announcing a Kingdom of Radical Inclusivity.

I have no opinion on how this gospel story came to be, or what happened. But the point of the story of the feeding is clear. In a desert place food appeared to be scarce. But that desert place, in the presence of Jesus, became a place of grass on which to sit and feast. It becomes and embodiment Psalm 23, which makes a table upon the green pastures in the presence of one's enemies, even in the shadow of death.) And there was food so that all ate and were filled, and there was food left over.

I have often wondered about the place of the fish in these echoes of the great messianic feast. In 2 Baruch 29:3-6 we see the two fish:

And it shall come to pass when all is accomplished that was to come to pass in those parts, that the Messiah shall then begin to be revealed. And Behemoth shall be revealed from his place and Leviathan shall ascend from the sea, those two great monsters which I created on the fifth day of creation, and shall have kept until that time; and then they shall be for food for all that are left. The earth also shall yield its fruit ten-thousandfold and on each (?) vine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster produce a thousand grapes, and each grape produce a cor of wine. And those who have hungered shall rejoice: moreover, also, they shall behold marvels every day.

In Psalm 74:14 the NRSV notes a variant reading of the Hebrew:

4 You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the people of the wilderness.

This great feast where, after all are filled, there are twelve baskets full of broken pieces gathered like the scattered people of the twelve tribes will be gathered, shows a life which, in the desert, in the place where the land seems destroyed, is nonetheless a life of plenty.

Jesus is announcing a Kingdom of Plenty.

It is not scarcity which is the problem. The way we think about the world is the problem. Nuechterlein says

... the Bible is trying to introduce us to the true God, a God of abundance, even in the face of scarce resources. The preeminent text of the Old Testament is the story of manna in the wilderness; and the preeminent story in the New Testament is the feeding of the five thousand.

The biblical view is a massive contrast to that of our economies which are based on the presumption of scarcity. Isaiah 55 spells it out.

1 Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 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 delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
6 Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

What is missing here? Is scarcity only imagined because of our envy of each other?

What is missing is consumer society. Isaiah 55 promises a world where there is manna for each day. This is promise, not rose tinted spectacles looking back to good ol' times that never were.

What is missing is all our security; the health systems and home insurance; the warehouses that insulate us from the lean times; all good in themselves, but enmeshed in a military industrial complex close to 1984 where what matters is not the good, let alone God, but profit and power for their own sake. A place where there is never enough.

Why do we opt in to this? Why have we not left? Because we are afraid of death. We do not know how to die.

[H]e who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying...[But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed 'man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,' [Job 2.4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one's country? For these are small things to him 'who counteth not even his life dear,' says blessed Paul [Acts 20.24]. Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil? John Chrysostom

Jesus is announcing a Kingdom which Teaches Us How to Die.

In the feeding Jesus breaks the bread we know will be his body. He celebrates the sacrifice of his life! He rips his own heart out. He shows us how to die.

"When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion (Gr: esplagchnisthe) for them and cured their sick."

The New Testament Greek word for compassion, splagchnizomai, has a fascinating derivation out of ritual blood sacrifice and through the Septuagint translation of Hebrew words. The noun form splagchna was used in the earliest Greek literature to designate the inner parts of the sacrificial victim ripped out during a ritual blood sacrifice. Eugene Peterson, in his The Message translation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, translates the phrase as, "his heart went out to him" -- which is a remarkable capturing of the derivation. Originally, of course, the heart was literally ripped out of a person. For Jesus the term is subverted from within to mean its opposite, compassion -- namely, an intentioned 'heart-going-out' to someone in mercy rather than the merciless ripping out of a heart. We once again clearly see the Gospel reversal: instead of the heart coming out of the sacrificial victim, compassion means one's heart going out to the victim. (Paul Nuechterlein)

Jesus is announcing a Kingdom which Gives.

He gave the bread. Herod did not give a party. He called people to a feast, which even if they had coveted the invitation, meant they were now obliged to him. The Kingdom of Herod demands and takes.

We are going to die, whether in flood, famine, war, or the warmth of a hospice. Getting used to this— even admitting it— is a fair amount of our growing up! After that the cause of much of our behaviour and anxiety becomes plain to us: The one "who fears death is a slave and subjects [themselves] to everything in order to avoid dying..."

I visited two men I knew quite well when they were very close to death. They were simple, rough edged blokes, who were both working fairly hard to even keep breathing. And both of them, I think, had lost most of their fear of death. In this most dire time, hours from death, they were unusually happy and energetic! They were free from the fear of death in a way I have only sometimes glimpsed, and rarely practiced.

How will we die? At the feast of Jesus is plenty, and the giving of plenty; it will call us to tear our own heart out. A new way of seeing the world will infect us with compassion. If we are not moved to compassion, we have not really eaten the feast, we have just swallowed dry bread.

Or will we opt for the Feast of Herod? We may be surprised at how easy it is to garner an invitation. He will be glad to have us. And then we will find the real infection, the real disease, and be always struggling to keep up with the Joneses, always trying to be somebody, always afraid of being the next victim or, at least, being left out.

It is here with the high wages, the nice houses and the comfort of plenty that the true scarcity exists, and the true famine.

For at Herod's table we are the slaves of death, living in famine in the midst of plenty. We seek to be like Herod, like the agent and sender of death, who sits at the top of the pile of the dead.

Why be like Herod? He has no power. He can do nothing to evade death. He is afraid of it; even still afraid of his guests and what they think of him. His is the true poverty.

In the desert places, in the presence of Jesus, we find plenty; a way to live and die that is not failure, and not destruction, but joy. Even if Herod thinks he has sent us there. It is a joy in living. I find living for the Kingdom of Heaven gives me much more than I give it. I find a satisfaction that transcends what I have or do not have. There is something of what Haybron calls happiness.

Unhappiness is not just a brute animal response to your life. It is you, as a person, responding to your life as being somehow deficient. On this view, we can think of happiness, loosely, as the opposite of anxiety and depression. Being in good spirits, quick to laugh and slow to anger, at peace and untroubled, confident and comfortable in your own skin, engaged, energetic and full of life. (Daniel Haybron)

There is something enduring about this. The Kingdom of Heaven transcends happenstance. This "at peace" has substance and endurance.


The re-enacting of that feeding by the sea, with its overtones of coming death binds me sacrificially to the congregation I serve. It drags me, the aloof introvert, into the company of compassion. And with this shift I have found something of the fear of death diminishing. I do, sometimes even easily, the things which once terrified me. I shall keep my back turned on Herod and all his benefits.

Channels of Compassion

by Alan Brehm, The Waking Dreamer

Gospel: Mt. 14:14-23

I think our generation must be the most analyzed generation of human beings in the history of the world. After all, psychology didn't even begin as a formal scientific discipline until the late 19th Century. And it didn't really take hold in our society as something helpful until the last 50 years or so. One of the results of the rising interest in the human being as a mental, emotional, and social creature is that there is now a fairly massive self-help movement. Much of this is good - for example various forms of 12-step programs have literally saved many lives. But sometimes too much of a good thing can be not so good.

One of the lessons of the self-help movement is that we have personal "boundaries" that we can maintain in our relationships with others. Again, this is a very healthy thing - especially in a culture like ours where people have been raised to be subservient to those around them, and wind up giving so much of themselves away that they have nothing left. But as with any helpful lesson, it has to be applied with care and thought, not just used as a hammer for any and every situation. When we apply that lesson with wisdom and compassion, I think we learn that there are times when we should maintain our boundaries and take good care of ourselves; and there are other times when we should set our needs and wants aside and offer kindness and care to those who are in need around us.

I think this is at least part of the lesson from our Gospel reading for this week. Jesus had given so much of himself to those around him that he withdrew to a deserted place to be alone. To make that happen, he took a boat from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other. Now, I think we'd have to say that this was a good and wise choice on his part. He must have been tired from all he had been doing, and he was taking care of himself. But the crowds actually walked around the lake to find him. They literally took the long way around! And when they showed up, the Scripture says that he had compassion for them. It seems to me that Jesus' interaction with the crowds that followed him provides us with an example of the lesson that there is a time for self-care, but there is also a time for putting our own concerns aside and simply offering ourselves as channels of compassion for those around us who are in need.

The story that follows is intriguing, because although it is the only miracle of Jesus recounted by all four Gospels, there is also no mention of what actually happened to make the five loaves and two fish feed such a massive crowd! Some have suggested that the example of generosity inspired those in the crowd to share their food with others. We don't know that. Popular movies have depicted it as an instantaneous miracle - Jesus lifts the food in a basket to heaven to bless it, and when he brings it down the basket is overflowing with loaves and fishes. But we don't know that either. We really don't know and may never be able to explain how Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish. [1]

What we do know is that initially the disciples wanted to send the crowds away. I would imagine they too were tired and wanted to have some down time. After all, the whole reason why they got in the boat and went to a deserted place was to be alone. Or perhaps, in their characteristic "little faith," they were afraid there would not be enough food. [2] Probably a pretty reasonable concern! And what we do know is that Jesus gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

This brings us no closer to explaining this story. But I wonder if it could be that it was in the act of the disciples being willing to put their own concerns aside and to simply give the food they had to the crowds that the miracle occurred? [3] We still don't know that for sure, but it does seem significant that the disciples who wanted to send everybody away turned around and served their food to the hungry crowds around them. And it would seem that the miracle happened somehow in giving. By setting aside their own concerns, their fears and their doubts, Jesus disciples became channels for God's miraculous work. Perhaps one of the lessons is that true miracles happen in ways we can never explain. [4]

We'll probably never know for sure exactly what happened that day by the Sea of Galilee, but I think this might point us in a direction. When we remain excessively focused on maintaining our boundaries, when we stay in our fears that there will not be enough or perhaps we aren't good enough, when we just want to send others away to fend themselves, we inevitably withhold the loving kindness and compassion that we have been so generously given. On the other hand, when we let go our fears and concerns about our own well being - at least when the situation calls for it - and open our hearts to the people we encounter with a giving spirit, we become channels of the divine compassion that can have a truly miraculous effect.

Our compassion, our loving kindness may be small and faltering, but if we will just give what we have, perhaps in the giving it will be multiplied to meet the needs. When we give compassion freely, it ripples out far beyond our ability to explain or even imagine. When we open ourselves to be channels of compassion, those streams of kindness and mercy that flow through us have an effect that only God knows.


[1] Douglas Hare, Matthew, 165, says that all the efforts to "explain" the miracle "hardly do justice to the story in the Gospels."

[2] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, "The Gospel of Matthew," New Interpreters Bible 8:324.

[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:447, where he says that Jesus feeds the multitude "with the little that the apostles themselves have to offer them, and all that truly remains for them is to deliver and offer the much that He gives in the form of the little that they have to give."

[4] Cf. Charles L. Allen, "A Sermon: When Worlds Break Open," Encounter 65.1 (2004): 75.


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