OUR READING for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost comes to us from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Jesus had just been told about the beheading of John the Baptist. The resultant effect was that our Teacher tried to take his disciples away for shelter and rest. The needs of the people, however, seemingly made it more difficult for him to do so…
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. As he went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick.
When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.”
Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass; and taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:13-21)
To A Lonely Place…
Our gospel writer parallels what had been written decades earlier in the Gospel According to Saint Mark. Gathered thus from the church in Antioch secondarily, we possess this wonderful story passed along about the meaning of discipleship.
In historical reference, within this gospel we know that Matthew had previously related to his readers that John the Baptist had been executed. In response it seems, Jesus then gathered his disciples together. He desired to take them away for a restful time. In a boat, a nave as it were… it seemed that a sabbatical was to be fitting for his teaching purposes. He and the disciples so went to a “lonely place” ( in Greek - eremon)
Knowing John’s prophetic words had been silenced, Jesus took the disciples, both his own and those sent by John... to a quiet place. Jesus seemed to have wanted to turn his attention to the needs of his disciples, to those who mourned after right and righteousness, rather than those needs expressed by the whole of society around him. But the gospels reveal that it would not be so. Having found where Jesus was, the people went to the area of Bethsaida (as recorded in Luke) to tell Jesus of their need. When they arrived, Jesus saw them. He had compassion (in Greek – esplanchnisthe) upon them.
Suffering over those who were ill and disabled due to human sin, he worked to heal them. This gathering of people and healing continued until the end of that day. At that very time, a time of approaching darkness… a great teaching moment unfolded for his disciples.
What came afterward was a prophetic event that pointed beyond itself… to events which occurred later in Matthew’s telling. This instance was an example of the feast to come… the Last Supper with Jesus’ disciples. Jesus commanded his disciples to gather from their own resources. It was a seeming meager amount of food.
Taking this giving from them, he blessed the providence and commanded his followers to then distribute the resulting fare to the people. The miracle that occurred was so profound that the record of it exists today written across all four of our gospel records. We find that our reading here related that at least 5,000 men were fed! And more! Counting women and children, many biblical scholars calculate that the number related by Matthew could easily have been greater than 10,000 persons.
While some have said that was Matthew’s way of relating that a “zillion people were fed”, we see with a certain perspective that Matthew even more emphasized that twelve baskets of food remained. We therefore rightly stress for this teaching… that there was at least one full basket for each disciple! Was Matthew, therefore, telling his church and our own denominational differences that given our abundant receiving, we are continue to feed the world around us? Indeed it seems so.
Advanced Basket Weaving!
With the help and guidance from the Holy Spirit, it seems that Matthew related to his church and we ourselves today… that we are invited to participate in the miraculous. We may do so if we dare in faith. Note the progression here!
First, the disciples retire to a place set apart. Does this resemble any house church or stain-glass insulated worship space that you’ve gathered in as his disciple? I consider and believe so.
Second, do those who are hurting… made ill by the power of either personal or corporate sin… also gather there to obtain healing? Again… I believe so. There, in that sacred and set apart place where forgiveness is given… the meager offerings of humanity then are gathered. The resulting scene is that miracles of God’s grace spring forth. From those meager baskets of bread, as offering for the real presence of Christ in Eucharistic feast... fullness of community and love spills forth.We thus note that there remains an abundance left over to be taken out into the world.
Though Christians are aware of the correlation between the bread and the Body of Christ, we sometimes struggle with the ancient imagery of the fish. For the early Christian church, you see, the fish took on a very special meaning. The Greek word for fish is “icthus”. This last word became an symbol that was scratched on amulets and bracelets to be worn by disciples. The word identified a person as a Christian. The word within the fish symbol became known as: (I) “Isuous” for Jesus, (CH) Christos, for Christ, (TH) “Theos” meaning God, (U) “Ueos” meaning Son, and finally … (S) “Soter” or Savior. Thus the sign of the fish inscribed on an amulet became a second century insignia spelled out but often hidden from the hostile world.
We need remember this lesson of hiddenness in our church today. Jesus commanded his disciples to gather whatever their nearly hidden and meager means and begin to feed the world around them. Therefore, it seems prudent for us to do just as the Holy Spirit empowered the church of Matthew. They worked at the beginnings of great persecution, yet the Word of God empowered that hidden church. We too are called to work in a hurting world in modern time..., a world not always receptive to our Christian message. We also are invited by our Lord’s resultant bounty of forgiveness and faith… to go out in ministry from the confines of a “lonely place”. We are not to be driven by our own desires in navel-gazing toward our individual church growth, but are called by our Lord go out and proclaim reconciliation with God in Christ. We are to care for those that need healing, and watch miracles occur. We are to gather together and “give them to eat” of the body of Christ our Lord. We work the sure and certain numerology of Matthew, who simply said “five thousand men” and more. A daunting task to be sure, but it all begins with our Lord’s words… “Take and eat, this is my body given for you”. We are thus fed from the bounteous basket of our Lord for our journey... strengthened to share his kingdom. Thanks be to God!