You Want Us To Do What?
This story motivates us to get up out of our comfortable chairs and throw ourselves into offering our resources on behalf of a needy world. It calls us to remember and to anticipate. We are to stand in the story, looking back and looking forward, looking back to the manna in the wilderness and forward to the Lord's Supper. We are to stand, looking back, re-experiencing who God has been in the past. We are to stand looking ahead with faith in who God will be and what God will do in the future. This is the dynamic of anamnesis (active remembering) that undergirds participation in both the Passover and the Lord's Supper.
We are motivated to share our limited resources as we stand in the shoes of the skeptical disciples on the brink of a miracle. There we remember the manna in the wilderness. There the Israelites, newly escaped from bondage in Egypt (Ex. 16), feeling the pain of hunger in the pit of their stomachs, took refuge in fantasizing about their meals in Egypt. There God provided manna, nourishment in the desert.
We are also to remember the story of Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42-44.
A man came from Ba'alshalishah, bringing . . . twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said "Give it to the people and let them eat." But his servant said, "How can I set this before a hundred people?" So he repeated, "Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, 'They shall eat and have some left.'" He set it before them; they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.
We are motivated to share our resources by anticipation as well as memory: we are to look forward to the Lord's Supper when Jesus instigates the four liturgical actions echoed in this text: He took bread, He blessed it, He broke it, and He gave it (Mt. 14:19; Mk. 14:22). It's a funny thing about past and present in this text. It looks forward to the Lord's Supper, given where it comes chronologically in Matthew's narrative of Jesus' ministry, death and resurrection. It looks back on the Lord's Supper, based on its identity as a memory shaped by the faith and context of the evangelist Matthew.
We stand in our present desert, whatever it may be, looking back to instances of God's provision to be reminded of who it is who equips us to meet challenges we are incapable of meeting on our own. We stand in our present desert, looking forward with the faith that God's provision is not a relic of the past, but a reality that undergirds our future.
Thomas G. Long, in commenting on this passage, says,
With desperate and hungry people camped all over the church lawn, Jesus turns, then and now, to his followers and speaks what is either a cruel joke or lavish divine humor: "They need not go away; you give them something to eat" (M.t 14:16). The disciples, fully aware that their own resources are not up to the magnitude of the need (Mt. 14:17) nonetheless trust that the jest is a divine one and obey Jesus. (Long, 165)
Jesus' words "You give them something to eat," are a "divine jest." They are a daily dare. He's saying "I dare you to take me at my word. And see what happens. "
The scene leaves us with the disciples moving through the crowds, lugging twelve baskets full of leftovers. That's the mental image we ought to keep before us whenever we stand in the shoes of the disciples in this passage—which is every day.
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.