Below is my sermon from August 6, on Jesus’ feeding the 5,000. With such a familiar story, I thought it would be interesting to pull out the details we could easily overlook. What stands out to you in this story? Have you ever been in the position of the disciples, facing an overwhelming problem and unsure of what to do?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus feeding the five thousand is one of the best known stories from the gospels. It’s a lot of people’s favorite story about Jesus and it is one of the only stories to appear in each and every gospel. Because it’s so well known, though, it’s easy to listen to it but not really hear it.
So I’d like to take some time to re-read the story and to take note of some of the things we might frequently gloss over. “Now, when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” We’ve jumped into the middle of a narrative, and so are left wondering—what did Jesus just hear?
Well, he has just been told that John the Baptist has been murdered by King Herod. Jesus’ cousin, friend, forerunner, is now dead at the hands of the state. And so it makes sense that he withdraws: he is grieving, he is tired, he wants just a little bit of space to be by himself and process his emotions.
“But when the crowds heart it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Jesus may want space and some alone time, but he doesn’t get it. The crowds, hearing about the death of John, are drawn even more to Jesus. And there’s two little details here that we might not notice: Jesus sees them, and has compassion for them.
To truly see someone is more than just to look at someone, or take in their outer appearance. Rather, Jesus acknowledges them, takes notice of them. And then he is moved to compassion. What is compassion? Compassion is not just feeling sorry for someone else, it is truly feeling with them. It is understanding another’s troubles or situation from the inside out—and then acting on it. One definition I read said that compassion is empathy in action. And Jesus acts on that feeling, healing the sick in the crowd.
But by now, the sun is setting, and “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.’” The disciples can come off looking a little bit callous here. Maybe they were a little.
But I also hear something else in their statement: they were overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the size of the crowd and the expanse of the need. When faced with need beyond what we think is in our power to deal with, how often are we paralyzed? Large-scale need can cause us to feel powerless in our ability to help. Maybe they were being a little callous, too. Maybe they thought if they sent the people away, at least it wouldn’t be the disciples’ problem anymore.
Not so, according to Jesus. “They need not go away,” he says, “You give them something to eat.” The disciples reply, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And the truth comes out. The disciples have not acted because they think they don’t have enough. That what they have to offer will not be enough to make a difference to so great a need.
But Jesus doesn’t hesitate, and simply tells them to bring him the loaves and fish. He looks to heaven, blesses the food, and gives it back to the disciples. And the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. All ate and were filled. In the hands of Jesus, the disciples’ meager offering becomes an abundance of riches.
What can we take from this story? I think the first point is that God is love. That sounds cliché, but God isn’t love in a cliché way. God isn’t love in the abstract; God isn’t love in a good-feeling kind of way. Jesus sees the crowds and has compassion for them. Compassion is love that cares deeply about the most basic needs of all. Jesus, and by extension God, isn’t merely interested in how we feel or what we think or our spiritual life. Our whole being matters to God. Our ability to be healed from sickness matters to God. Our physical hunger and needs matter to God. God is love in the active, all-encompassing way that sees and wants to tend to our needs.
Secondly, we learn a lot about being disciples. Being a disciple sometimes means being overwhelmed by great need. I am overwhelmed sometimes. When I see a world that has so much need: so much poverty and hunger, so much hatred for fellow humans. And the news seems to pile up faster than we can respond to it; it is easy to get overwhelmed.
But as Jesus’ disciples, we are given a responsibility to care for God’s people. Jesus doesn’t feed the 5,000 in this story. Jesus gives what is needed to his disciples and tells them to do it. To follow Jesus is to express our faith in concrete acts of love, justice, and compassion. We don’t get the luxury of turning our heads when faced with need and injustice—whether because we feel overwhelmed or because we’d just rather not see—Jesus demands that we see, and that we act.
But we do not act alone. The third, and probably most important, learning that I see in this story is the true miracle of the loaves and the fishes. God provides an abundance. God takes what we have to offer—it might seem meagre or insufficient—but in the hands of God it is more than enough. It reminds me of the quote from Mother Teresa: “In this life, we cannot always do great things; but we can do small things with great love.”
It is such love that is at the heart of this story. Jesus’ compassion for the crowds sets the whole thing in motion. May we know that love and compassion in our hearts—know that God sees and knows and has compassion for us. And may we show the riches of God’s abundance in great love towards others. Amen.