You Want Us To Do What?
Proper 13, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 31, 2011
The familiar story of the feeding of the five thousand is the only one of Jesus' miracles that is recounted in all four gospels. It appears in Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-14. There is also an account of Jesus feeding the four thousand in Matthew 15:32-39. The fourfold repetition of this story is a clue that it represents a memory near and dear to the heart of the early church. Apparently, they viewed it as a memory too important to ever be forgotten.
Matthew's account has the disciples respond in a matter-of-fact way to Jesus' command to give the people something to eat. They simply give a factual account of their limited provisions (Mt. 14:17). The accounts of this story in Mark, Luke, and John, emphasize, in varying ways, the sarcastic skepticism of the disciples (Mk. 6:37; Lk. 9:13; Jn. 6:7).
"Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?" (Mk. 6:37)
"We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people" (Lk. 9:13).
"Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little" (Jn. 6:7).
In Matthew, they simply report: "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish" (Mt. 14:17).
To which Jesus responds "Bring them here to me."
So in Matthew the disciples raise fewer objections at the outset. They also seem to have a more active role in distributing the food to the people. In Mark and Luke, they "set (it) before the people." I picture them setting up the buffet table and covering it with the white paper that comes in those big rolls, cutting it to the right length and taping the corners so they don't blow in the wind. In John, Jesus himself distributes the food. But in Matthew, the picture seems to be of the disciples themselves moving through the crowds, distributing baskets of food to the hungry people.
Looking Back and Looking Ahead
So it would seem that, as we stand in the shoes of the disciples in Matthew's account, we are to obey Jesus' daring, ridiculous command. We are to offer our limited resources to him to bless and multiply, and take responsibility, not to hoard them for ourselves, but to distribute them to others. Resources could be money and possessions, but they also include time, energy, innate abilities, and acquired skills.
I mentioned at the outset that this account of the feeding of the multitude occurs four (actually five) times in the four gospels. It is recorded for future generations because we need to hear it over and over again too.
Why? Because over and over again in life, we stand in the shoes of the disciples in this passage: surrounded by human need, faced with a challenge, knowing we do not have the resources, in our own wisdom, wealth, and strength, to meet the need, to stand up to the challenge. With the disciples, we say, "This is a deserted place" (Mt.14:15). We sometimes feel our only option is to sit in our La-Z-Boy and try not to see the needs, to ignore the challenge. What other choice do we have? Because we do not have what it takes to meet them.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.