What we have here today, folks, is a very popular-and a very odd-story.
It certainly was a real winner in the first century. As you know, there is a lot of variation among the Gospel writers as to what should be told and what could be left out. Today’s story is the only miracle that gets a place in all four Gospels. This they all agreed on: Tell the people about what happened that day when we had a picnic up there on the shores of Lake Galilee.
The story is still pretty popular today, especially among children, particularly John’s version, which gives a little kid the credit for being the only one who had enough presence of mind to pack a lunch. And he, bless his little heart, gladly gave it away when Andrew asked for it. We know that later on the boy got his lunch back, but he didn’t know that that would happen when he was asked to give it away. It is not easy being a kid. It never is, is it?
So, we have a charming story here. But what’s the point? First of all, I think it’s clear that it’s misnamed. Matthew says the 5,000 does not include the women and children. So what’s the real figure? Maybe a conservative estimate of about 15,000 would be in the ball park. But that doesn’t tell us very much except to signal that whatever was going on, Matthew wants us to note that this is a very big deal.
What’s really odd about the story is not what we are apt to notice first. Matthew did not write as a 21st century journalist—as sometimes modem readers strangely seem to assume he should have known how to do. (Now, that really would be a miracle!) What Matthew was was a creative genius working in a brand new literary form. And, as though that were not enough, he did this by operating on two different levels at the same time.
Do you ever recall having seen cartoons which, depending how you look at them, have very different subjects? You look at the sketch one way and you see a graceful young woman dancing. Look at it another way and you see the face of an old hag. So which is it? Actually it’s both. Artists can delight in showing how what we think we see at first can turn out to be something else. I don’t think the Gospel writers are playing artistic tricks on their readers, but they certainly expect them to note the richness, the different levels, in their stories.
So, maybe more is going on here than first meets the modem eye. We need, of course, to try to look at this narrative from its writer’s own strong Jewish perspective. This story is not about groceries-or where they came from. The story is a new version of a much older narrative in the history of Israel. Fortunately we got a reminder of that connection in the reading from the book of Nehemiah in today’s liturgy. We heard there how the prophet Ezra, engaged in the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Exile, vigorously chastised his people for their having forgotten who they were. Our history, he charged, is a dreary tale marked by unfaithfulness and disobedience before God. Why don’t you remember the Exodus? When our ancestors were starving in the dessert, the Lord fed them with mana. Why have we forgotten the mercies of the Lord back then —and now?
Matthew wants to make sure that his readers do not forget. He recalls that the God who gave us Moses, the God who saw to it that we were fed in the desert, has now given us Jesus, and again we are fed. What is God? God is that final Mystery who saved us from slavery and fed us on the way so that we could survive to live lives of justice and faith. The good news now is that in our time and in a new way, God has done it again!
Let’s move now to the second level in Matthew’s narrative. Fortunately this does not require us to have access to a long memory. Instead, Matthew picks up on something that would probably seem familiar to his readers. He says Jesus did four things at the lakeside: He took the loaves of bread, he blessed them, he broke the bread and gave it to the disciples to distribute to everyone. Does that remind you of anything? We need to note that near the end of his Gospel, Matthew will again speak of Jesus doing four things. The day before his death Jesus will take some bread, bless it, break it, and give it to the disciples. This echo, however, has a new emphasis. Jesus now clearly speaks of the future: “I tell you, I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
Memory and expectation: that’s what seems to be the point. The deeper miracle is that in the simple act of eating and drinking people are able to recall the immeasurable goodness of God in their lives. The miracle is that they can see they are fed by a divine love that will never let them go. Perhaps we today should ask if the story may not have a third level. Where are we on memory and expectation? Memories and expectations are, of course, a part of everyone’s experience. But that may not always be good news.
For knowledgeable people, memory can be a kind of curse. For informed people, expectations may have the smell of disaster. For some of us much of our social memory seems a burden too heavy to bear. Are not all of us are at least dimly aware that our national memory has been stained by oppression, violence, inflicted on all sorts of minorities because of all sorts of fears? To be sure, one can simply ignore social problems, but that proves no real escape. For how does one silence one’s own memories of personal infidelity, personal greed, emotional deadness, moral apathy?
Expectations for the future may not be much better. Do we really think the future will be all right even when we habitually ignore the demands for justice and equity—here at home and abroad? Do we think the future of America will be secure when most children in most schools in our nation’s great cities, including Washington, do not get an education adequate for their future? Or look at how our leaders are proving willing to support today’s tragic cycle of violence, revenge upon revenge, that is devastating the Holy Land. Do we really think the future will be none the worse if we decide to give up on the hard work of peace making? After all, we can’t be sure how such efforts will benefit us in the short run anyhow. As for us as individuals, do we really think that lives with no place for commitment, for sacrifice, for patience, for moral courage can possibly lead to personal fulfillment?
The good news is that these rational projections of what memory and expectation have come to be are not our only options. If we go to that picnic on a Galilean lakeshore, or to any of Jesus’ meals, especially the last one, we may begin to see that memory and expectation have far greater power.
As for memory, Israel’s prophets were right. The human story is one of oppression and bondage. The past can tell us many sad things. But be alert that you do not miss its most significant witness. Israel saw that in history the will of the Lord calls oppressed people into freedom and justice. Amos argued that all nations are likewise called by God. Surely it is the employment of that historical memory and promise which two centuries ago brought our nation into existence. And it is that call which in our time has come to be a kind of self evident truth across the whole planet—even though its religious origin is usually ignored.
As for expectation, it is striking that Jesus’ message of the coming of the Kingdom of God was heard to be good news. His life was the breaking in of that Kingdom now and in the future. This is to be a kingdom for all peoples, and for everyone. It is not an enclave for only one nation or group. Come one, come all. In coming we too find we are fed. We may even be able to see that we can help the hungry multitudes in our day also get to eat. I mean this quite literally. We too can work in a spirit of compassion so that the sick in our time can be healed-not blamed. Is that not what Jesus was really doing on the shores of the Galilean lake?
To be sure our service this morning is not exactly a picnic. But it is an “hour of banquet and song” in which the gift of a new past and a new future becomes available. At this banquet Christ is among us—assuring us of deep roots that ground us into a sacred history. We go back not just to Moses but all the way back to the beginning of time. How is that for stability?
This banquet is also a celebration of hope: the reign of God announced by Jesus has already begun and we have been invited to share in it. We are given a future marked by freedom and justice and an enduring love. On entering it, we learn we can say yes to life. Yes to hope. Yes to those who need us. Yes to justice. Yes to God who invites you this splendid banquet today: your own foretaste of the feast to come.