Yawn…another feeding story…another miracle story. Because versions of this story show up in the readings so often, the power of the story gets lost in our familiarity with it. Even the delightful details are familiar – Jesus inviting (commanding?) the disciples to share the work with him, the grass that evokes a new Eden, the blessing and the breaking of the meal that foretell the last supper, and our communion meal. And yet, set between Herod’s banquet and Jesus walking on the sea, there are powerful themes to consider here.
When “Jesus heard this,” the story begins, sending us back a chapter to see what he’s heard. He learns the news of his cousin and mentor’s death, a silly death at the hand of a capricious tyrant. It’s a grief that’s not unexpected, and yet there’s a layer of added sadness that John’s death has happened in such an unnecessary way. Jesus withdraws to grieve and pray and rest, but the needy crowd finds him, and he musters up the energy to care for the people.
Read the scripture here.
Read the Working Preacher commentary here.
Herod’s drunken banquet, and the exploitation of a young woman, gives us a contrast to Jesus’ simple banquet on the grass, where everyone is cared for. One is over-full, with too much posturing and drink and food, full of jaded people and ambition. The other is full of need, and yet also overflowing with Jesus’ abundant compassion.
Jesus’ need for solitude is another bracket for this story. He seeks the restoration of being alone before and after the healing and feeding. The disciples have been buffeted by the overwhelming needs of the crowd, and now they are buffeted by the winds on the sea. Jesus has power over the unruliness of the hungry crowd, and over the unruliness of the sea. Human storms and natural storms both bring powerful moment of chaos, and Jesus has the power to still both.
Parallel to inviting the disciples to make the feeding happen, Jesus invites Peter out of the boat and onto the water. He keeps sharing the power, and the disciples and Peter keep doubting their own abilities. Peter is part of the feeding miracle, in the first part of the story, and then the recipient of Jesus’ care as he sinks below the waves and Jesus catches him. He reminds of all us, who are sharing in God’s work and the receivers of God’s compassion, all mixed together.
RevGal Liz Crumlish calls our attention to the leftovers from the banquet. Her reflection could be the start of a sermon about leftovers and what God can do with leftovers. Leftovers are often overlooked and discarded – what parts of God’s world are we overlooking? What can we – and God – do with scraps of things, where no one else sees a use?
Or the sermon might look at Jesus seeking solitude, and reflect on whether we are able to do that. With our phones and laptops in hand, we are rarely truly alone. What spiritual practices can we recommend to people who are like lost sheep, so they can draw from the well of quiet?
Stanley Saunders observes for Working Preacher that Jesus’ feeding the crowds is also about disrupting their vision of reality. “Sending the crowds home means sending them back into the oppressive and alienating economic realities of Galilee. Scarcity, hunger, alienation, and fear are symptoms of unjust political, social, and economic arrangements…Jesus sees things differently: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Here, in a deserted place as night falls, the economic and social realities of the Roman Empire and Galilee do not hold.” The sermon might look at the places where the church offers another view of reality. How are we called, collectively, to hold up another view of the world?
The sermon might look at the balance of our roles in God’s world. How do we hold onto the tension of being people who pass on God’s grace, following Jesus’ instruction to give people something to eat, and being the people who doubt ourselves and slip beneath the waves, like Peter?
Where are your thoughts taking you this week? We would love to hear in the comments section below.
Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church. She is the author of Meeting God at the Mall.
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