You Want Us To Do What?

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.

Taking Jesus at His Word
I just finished reading The Help, New York Times best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett.I read the book last week, sitting in a beach chair under an umbrella with my extended family at a weeklong family reunion at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. As I sat turning pages of The Help, peering at the print from beneath the brim of my beach hat, I saw parallels to the situation of this text. It takes place in a spiritual desert—a racist Southern town in the early 1960s amid a culture of violence against activists and presidents who oppose racism and schoolgirls caught in the crossfire. In this desert, three women are inspired to gather their experiences and courage and create something, a book, that would challenge and inspire thousands beyond the three of them.

The novel is filled with specific instances of women both white and black who move beyond the prison of their circumstances and prejudices in response to the book project these three women create. Without giving away the story, all I'll say is that somebody is inspired to leave an abusive relationship. Somebody else is inspired not to get into one. Somebody else refuses to fire someone. Someone else gains the courage to make a fresh start. That's all I'll say, but that's a whole lot of nourishment out of one little book.

It was late afternoon by the time I turned the last page of The Help and closed it on my lap. Just about that time my son came up and said, in an impatient tone, "Come on Mom, enough excuses. Let's see you get up out of that chair and ride a wave."

Well, who could resist a challenge like that? Unfortunately, by this time in the day, the waves were breaking just a little too close to the shore to prevent me from being completely turned upside down and dragged up on the beach with both ears brimming with sand. I think someone in the family made a video that I hope is not on YouTube. (Do not check to find out.)

From the comfort of the beach chair to throwing yourself with abandon in front of a big wave isn't that big a step geographically speaking. Spiritually, now that's a different matter. It's not easy to take Jesus' "divine jest" ("You give them something to eat") to heart and offer our resources, limited as they are, for him to bless, to break, and to distribute. Yet that is what this story, told five times in four gospels, reminds us we must and can do. Starting now.

Sources Consulted
Thomas G. Long, Matthew: Westminster Bible Companion Series (Louisville, KY, 1997)

7/22/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Alyce McKenzie
    About Alyce McKenzie
    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.