In this miracle of the loaves and fish, Jesus feeds the crowds, enacting the power of God, something like Moses in the wilderness when God commanded him to feed the thousands of Israelites, ‘manna from heaven.’ But here, Jesus himself commands the feeding, as God’s agent on earth.
Joseph Sittler once called the miracle stories in the Gospels, “enacted parables.” For while parables announce “what the kingdom of heaven is like” in earthy stories, the miracles that Jesus does, are “enacted parables.” The kingdom of God comes alive, takes on flesh, and lives in our presence. The meaning of the parables, happen before our eyes, in the miracles of Jesus!
The multiplication of the loaves and the fish is just the first of a series of miracles in Matthew chapter 14, which follow a chapter full of parables that Jesus has just told, with one exception. The little transition story, that is neither a parable nor a miracle, but sticks out like a sore thumb, the beheading of John the Baptist. John, of course, is Jesus’ kin, his cousin perhaps. John had his own disciples and followers. Before he baptized Jesus, some thought John might be the long expected Messiah. As it turned out, he was “the forerunner,” the one who “made the paths straight for Jesus,” the one who was “not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” John was a fierce truth-teller. He was a wild prophet in the wilderness. And suddenly, he was dead, killed violently by the rich and reckless Herod. Herod had had an unhealthy fascination with John, eagerly listening to John in prison while he named Herod’s sin, his illegal marriage to his brother’s wife, knowing on some level that he was telling him the truth, but keeping him locked up none-the-less. And then, as a resolution to his conundrum, he fulfills the wish of his wife’s young daughter after she danced for him on his birthday, that is, her request for “John the Baptist’s head on a platter,” sacrificing the prophet, to clear his own conscience!”
So, when John’s disciples come to tell Jesus the news, he immediately makes plans to retreat into the desert, the place where John lived, to grieve for his kin-folk, and his mentor, this bell-weather for his own life. For the violent death of John is but a fore-shadowing of Jesus’ own death on the cross – a death and a glorification, for his truth-telling, but of course, for more, for the charge of sedition, that he is the anointed one, the King of the Jews, and savior of the world. Just so, Jesus’ time of grieving is cut short too. “When he went ashore,” the crowds of people were waiting, some who were followers of John perhaps, thronging his arrival.
I imagine, if it were me, that Jesus would get out of the boat and want to tell them all to go home and put on black, and grieve John’s death with him. Or, maybe like Jonah, he’d want to sail away in the other direction to the other side of the Sea. Or, maybe he’d want to invoke his 2nd amendment rights and organize a militia to get back at Herod! But Jesus has “compassion” for them. Jesus “reaches out” in care and concern, healing their sick, binding up their wounds and broken hearts. Compassion is an interesting term here, considering its root once referred to the blood-animal sacrifices in the Temple, and other cultures. It had meant, a “reaching in” to rip out the heart, a meaning which Jesus subverts and transforms into, ‘his heart went out to them.’ Jesus, our sacrificial innocent victim, demonstrates how to end the need for any further innocent victims: by compassion for one another.
And when he has spent all day with the crowds, compassionately healing their sick, the disciples urge him to get rid of the crowds, and let them go rummage for their own food. “They need not go away,” said Jesus, “you give them something to eat.” But eyeing up the 5 to 10 thousand people, the disciples reply, “we have nothing here but 5 loaves and 2 fish.” This is our human temptation every day of our lives, is it not? To live under the power of Herod, without justice, without choice, in the poverty of “not enough,” instead of in the realm of God Jesus brings that shares and feeds all?!
So Jesus welcomes everyone to sit down on the green space. “Taking the 5 loaves and the 2 fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves.” Matthew is already seeing this enacted parable, this meal, through the eyes of his churches Eucharistic meal they celebrated in worship together, the same communion we still share today at our table. Jesus gave the bread to the disciples, and the disciples gave pieces of the loaves away to the gathering; “that all may be fed as Jesus feeds us.” For the early church, Matthew’s allegory is clear: Jesus has commissioned the apostles to celebrate communion after he is gone, that it should be open to all, that all will be fed and filled on this ‘bread of life.’
The multiplication of the loaves and fishes is an ‘enacted parable.’ It is not just about testing our modern sensibilities. whether a miracle can really happen or not. But this ‘enacted parable’ is about our ‘hearts’ and what they believe in. Who is the true king and savior in our lives? Who is the one who feeds us and abundantly provides all that we need? Have our hearts been filled with the bread of life, Jesus body and blood, so that we too can reach-out in heart-felt care for our neighbor? Is the allegory of Jesus passing the bread to the apostles, who pass it on to us, enacted in our lives? Do we have a compassion that can heal the neighborhood around us?
In Israel last week, it was the price of cottage cheese, not bread, that finally brought the Arab Spring to their shores. I guess the deal with cottage cheese is, that, as the most common product served on Israeli tables, it has naturally become their symbol of the high prices and inflation they are fed-up with. Prices are artificially high in Israel, due to a lack of competition, and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few. The protests in Tel Aviv, which began with only dozens, quickly blossomed to tens of thousands, and has the Prime Ministry scrambling still to find a satisfactory deal, after offering a few feeble attempts to make it all go away. And so, food is the symbol, but the real complaint is fairness in being fed spiritually, and with compassion.
Jesus feeds us with bread, not just to fill our stomach’s, but to fill us up so that we will lack nothing. “We come to the hungry feast: hungry that all hunger cease;” and for the enacted realm of God to come down and take residence in and around us, making us one in Christ, that we share all that we have in a miracle of multiplication for the whole world. “We welcome everyone into [this] holy encounter, where we are changed, that all may be fed, as Jesus feeds us.”