by Larry Broding
What was the last truly memorable meal you ate? Why does the memory stand out?
Since the beginning of civilization, meals have signified a time of social interaction. We meet friends for lunch, spend quality time as a family at dinner, and honor community leaders with banquets. While the different meals require different dress, manners, and conversation, every meal can begin or deepen relationships.
What turns a simple meal into an event, something that people talk about for years afterwards? Jesus created such an event when he took food for two and fed over five thousand people.
13 When Jesus heard Herod had killed John the Baptist, he left there by boat to a deserted place so he could think by himself. The people heard Jesus was gone, so they left the local towns and followed him on foot. 14 When Jesus came ashore, he saw how many people followed him. He felt sorry for them and healed their sick.
15 Just before sunset, his followers approached with a request. "This place is deserted and it's late," his followers said. "Let the people leave, so they can buy food in the towns around here."
16 Jesus replied, "They don't have to leave. You give them something to eat."
17 "We don't have any food except five biscuits and two fish!" his followers exclaimed.
18 "Bring them to me," Jesus said.
19 Jesus told the people to sit down. Then, he took the five biscuits and two fish his followers brought him, looked up to heaven, and thanked God by blessing him. He broke the bread and gave it to his followers, so they could pass it around the people. 20 Everyone ate until they were full. After the meal, his followers collected twelve baskets full of leftovers. 21 There were five thousand men in crowd, not counting the women and children.
The multiplication of the loaves and fish can be divided into two scenes:
the gathering and the test of the disciples, and
the miracle itself.
13 Having heard (John the Baptist was dead), JESUS left there in a boat toward a deserted place (to be) alone. Having heard (HE left), the crowds followed HIM on foot from (their) towns. 14 Having disembarked, HE saw the great crowd, had pity on them, and healed their sick. 15 When it was evening, his disciples approached, saying, "This is a deserted place and the hour is already late. Dismiss the crowds so that, having gone into the (neighboring) towns, they might buy food for themselves." 16 But JESUS said to them, "They do not have a need to go away. You give them (food) to eat." 17 They said to HIM, "We do not have (anything), expect five loaves and two fish. 18 HE said, "Bring them here to me."
Matthew contrasted this scene with the meal in Herod's court that led to the death of John (see 14:1-12). Intrigue and evil filled Herod's gathering; the outcome was death. In 14:13-21, the compassion of Jesus led to life.
The scene opened when Jesus left the crowd to be alone. He had just heard John the Baptist died. His desire for solitude implied a need for prayer or reflection.
But the crowd would not let him alone. They streamed out of the towns (either the local towns where they lived or where they visited) into the countryside and met Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Filled with pity for the people, Jesus healed their sick. [14:13-14]
The setting provided Jesus a chance to challenge the faith of his followers. They wanted the crowds to return to the local towns from where they came for the evening meal. But Jesus commanded them to feed the people. How could they? Among all of his followers, all they possessed were five small loaves (the size of dinner rolls or biscuits) and two dried fish. This food would feed two people. [14:15-17]
Small rolls and fish marked the food of the poor. The contemporaries of Jesus baked small loaves useful for individual meals alone or for dipping into foods at communal gatherings. Without utensils, people used these small loaves as the only means for sanitary eating. The loaves were usually baked from barley grain, since wheat grain was considered a luxury for the rich.
During the time of Jesus, fish was a food staple in Palestine. The government controlled the catch and production of fish from the Sea of Galilee. Fish could be dried, pickled, or cured, or salted. Fish was more easily distributed in these states. Thus, people preferred it as a protein source.
Jesus fulfilled the hunger of the crowd, both with God's word and healing [14:13-14]. And with sustenance for the body [14:18].
How do you hunger for the touch of the Lord? For his word, his healing, and his food?
19 Having instructed the crowd to recline (for a meal) on the grass, having taken the five loaves and two fish, and having looked up to heaven, HE blessed (the food) an, having broken (them), gave the loaves to (his) disciples, then the disciples to the crowd. 20 Everyone ate and were satisfied. (The disciples) collected twelve baskets full of pieces left over. 21 (Those) eating were about five thousand men, besides the women and children.
14:19 Read in order, the sentence is coherent in English. However, notice the first three participles define the action of the miracle, but the two main verbs with the sandwiched participle ("blessed...having broke...gave") indicate its theme: Eucharist.
Jesus himself had the people recline for the meal [14:19a]. Five thousand gathered men, with women and children in separate areas reflected divisions in the ancient social order. [14:21] Even today, extended family gatherings in the Middle East separate men from women, old from young.
Next, Jesus took the bread and fish, looked up to heaven, spoke the eulogos (Greek for "well spoken words"). Mentioning his body posture, Matthew implied Jesus pronounced a blessing prayer for bread like this one:
Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
(Blessing for Matzoh from a Passover Haggadah)
Notice who was blessed in the prayer: God the creator. Also notice God was praised for the production of bread, a human activity. While God provided the grain, humans harvest and mill the grain; humans prepare and bake the bread. The prayer, however, assumed God's activity included the cooperation of humanity. In other words, God produced the bread; humans only cooperated in the effort. In the Jewish mind, people should only bless the all-powerful God for the food before them. And they should bless God in the spirit of gratitude.
After the blessing, Jesus had the followers distribute their food, and the distribution produced an abundance of twelve baskets. In this context, the number twelve had many powerful symbolic references. The number also represented the twelve tribes of Israel. The audience symbolized the gathered nation. The number represented the apostles (a basket for each) who served them. Finally, the number itself represented fullness or completion in the Jewish imagination. The event itself and its results possessed fullness. The gathered tribes, the servants, and the event point toward the fullness of time in God's Kingdom, when the chosen would feast in the presence of the Lord. [14:19-20]
The multiplication of the loaves contained many Eucharistic overtones. The Lord called the faithful to a life-giving meal. At the meal, the faithful recognize the little they have came from God himself. The Lord would bless what the faithful offered and that small amount would provide an overabundance. Finally, the results of the meal pointed to the coming Kingdom. This was (and is) the miracle of Christian worship.
What little to do you bring to the Lord? What abundance does he give you in return?
Theme: The Eucharist
For Catholics and Orthodox Christians, the Eucharist sums up the Christian life. Christ calls his faithful together under headship (represented by the ordained presider) to hear his Word, to present all they have to share (symbolized by the bread and wine), and to receive the life-giving "bread of heaven." In the Eucharist, we see various aspects of the life Christ has called us to. A life together, a life of sharing especially with the needy, and life the comes from and is fed by God himself.
The core of the Eucharist lies in the prayer of thanksgiving (and consecration) called the anaphora. The prayer contains:
1) A thanksgiving preface.
2) An epiclesis, a prayer that asks the Father to send the Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine.
3) An institution narrative, where the Word that remembers Christ's self-giving at the Last Supper is proclaimed. Catholics believe the risen Christ himself proclaims the Word ("This is my Body...This is my Blood...") through the ordained presider (bishop or priest who acts "in persona Christi," in the person of Christ). And, through the power of the Spirit, the risen Christ makes himself present (Body, Blood, soul, and divinity) in the bread and wine.
4) An anamnesis, a declaration of remembrance. The assembly (the Body of Christ) recalls the mystery made present in the bread and wine: Christ's self-giving on the cross and his risen life.
5) Intercessions for the whole Church, both the living on earth and in heaven, both universal leaders and local ministers.
The Eucharist, through people God has called together, through the ordained minister who is Christ's instrument, through the Word proclaimed, and especially through the Bread of Life broken and shared, realizes what it proclaims: the presence of God's Kingdom in the risen Lord.
Have you ever experienced God taking the little you had and turning it into an abundance? When was the last time you felt close to Christ in the Eucharist? Was there a connection between the two experiences? Explain.
All four evangelists remembered the multiplication of the loaves in their gospels. While the experience crackled with symbolic overtones, it was the scarce changed into abundance that transformed the meal into an event. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all record the same message. For, the story itself proclaims what the Christian celebrates in worship. With God, what little he gives us will overflow into never-ending life. We can only respond by blessing God with a grateful heart.
Take an inventory of blessings and tests from the past week. Set some time aside to thank and bless God for these experiences. For, in them, he calls you closer to him.
Copyright 1999 -2007, Larry Broding. Used with Permission.
Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost
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