Matthew 14:13-21 August 3, 2014
This is a story that most of us know pretty well…at least I know this isn’t the first time I’ve preached on it.
And like all good stories, every time I read it, I come away with something different, if I let myself.
It begins with Jesus withdrawing, in a boat, to a deserted place, by himself.
It’s an image I can relate to. It’s an image maybe most of us can relate to.
There’s nothing I would like better, especially on a Sunday afternoon, than to withdraw, in a boat, to a deserted place, by myself.
And I have a feeling I’m not the only one!
I have to believe that each of us, sometimes each of us reach a point where, like Jesus in the story we’re looking at today, you just want to withdraw, in a boat, to a deserted place, by yourself.
This desire to get away sometimes, to retreat, it’s just part of our human nature, isn’t it?
Even the most extroverted person in the world…I have to think even they, at some point in their life, they get enough of ‘people’, and just need some space.
Would you agree?
Jesus himself made a habit of carving out time away from the crowds, places where he could be alone.
We all need space. We all need time.
We all come to the end of our ropes and find that the hem on our life is beginning to fray.
We all risk coming apart if and when we don’t find some solitude sometimes, to pull ourselves back together in the presence of God the master quilter who stitches together the patchwork rags of our experiences, forming a thing of useful beauty.
It’s easy to read this story in that manner.
It’s easy to find, within this story, a Jesus seeking some solitude, a Jesus whom the crowds chase down because of his magnetism and his charisma, a Jesus who’s unwilling to let their needs go unmet, who gives in and heals their sick in spite of his own need for solitude.
It’s easy to find the Jesus we need in this story…the Jesus who runs on fumes, giving beyond his limit and then requiring his disciples to do the same as they are given an impossible task; feeding the multitude with five loaves and two fish.
Indeed, I find this Jesus and his scandalous concern for these crowds to constantly stand in judgment on my own ministry…my own life and my need for solitude…my need to turn church “off” sometimes.
It’s easy to compare myself to Jesus in this story and feel quite inferior.
But the truth of the matter is, I think I’ve misunderstood this story for quite some time.
(and I don’t think the NIV translation that I grew up reading has helped me).
See, the story doesn’t start with Jesus getting into the boat to get away.
It starts by telling us that Jesus had heard that something had happened.
And if we were reading the book of Matthew as one long narrative, from beginning to end, we would know that what he had heard was pretty disturbing.
What he had heard was that John the baptist, his friend, his coworker, the prophet who prepared the way for him…had been killed. His head had been severed, and presented to the daughter of Herod’s mistress on a silver platter.
It’s sickening, shocking news to hear.
So it’s no wonder Jesus felt the need to get away: who wouldn’t?
But that wasn’t all of it.
Because Herod had heard reports about Jesus…and started to think that Jesus was actually John, come back from the dead.
Herod wasn’t a kind man.
He wasn’t generous.
He was a mean old codger, a ruthless tyrant who would stop at nothing to protect his power.
So not only did Jesus have to digest this news that his friend had met an awful end…he also had to come to terms with the fact that Herod had heard of him…and Herod was at least a little bit afraid of him.
It was not a good thing for Herod to fear you.
It meant you would be dealt with.
Can you see how this puts Jesus “withdrawing” in a little different light?
“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
This isn’t a simple retreat to recharge his batteries.
This is more like a grieving, a taking stock…it’s more like seeking some calm before a storm that you know is just around the corner.
And it’s at this point that I think the NIV makes a choice that isn’t the most helpful. I don’t have anything against the NIV…one of my favorite Bibles is an NIV…but the translators of the NIV made a choice here that I don’t think is the most helpful.
The NIV says “Hearing of this, (that is, Jesus leaving), the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.” It’s like they can’t get enough of him and chase him down so he could continue healing their sick and ministering to them. It’s like they can’t let him rest…they can’t get enough of this miracle worker.
But the Greek doesn’t make it that clear.
What the crowds hear is a little more ambiguous in the Greek…so the NRSV and even the old King James leave a little more of the ambiguity.
They say “But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot”.
Which means they might have simply heard that Jesus was heading out by himself and wanted to chase him down because they couldn’t get enough…but it also means they might have heard the same news that Jesus heard…that John had met a grisly end, and that Herod was gunning for Jesus next.
I can almost hear you asking what difference this could possibly make in the grand scheme of things…(go ahead, ask)!
See, if the crowds simply wanted more of what Jesus had to offer…then they become something like parasites, draining Jesus to the last drop and being rewarded for it by enjoying a miraculous amount of food from an impossibly scarce source.
And if that’s the case, the often unspoken assumption we take with us, is that Jesus is there to give us what we want, when we want it, and that there are no limits to the goods we can expect to receive from his hand, or from the hands of his followers.
But…if they heard the same thing Jesus heard, that is, that John had been brutally murdered and that their beloved Jesus was most likely next on Herod’s hit-list, then I would suggest the take-away is something drastically different.
Because then their following him turns into an act of solidarity and support.
Their wilderness rendezvous becomes an act of truly caring about this man who means so much to them, this miracle worker they think might be the Christ, the militant Messiah they’re expecting: the one who will usher in an age of prosperity and peace and overthrow the yoke of Roman oppression.
See; a Messiah needs an army. This was the thinking.
So, these people coming out to him, in his hour of need, out in this deserted place…it sends a clear signal to Jesus that he’s got an army at the ready; 5,000 men strong, able, and willing to follow him into battle (maybe that’s why the women and children aren’t included in the count).
5,000 men is a force to be reckoned with. They weren’t there because they wanted to hear more of his teaching, though I’m sure they wouldn’t have minded that. They weren’t there expecting to be healed…though again, I’m sure they didn’t mind that, either.
They weren’t there because they thought they’d gain a free meal…though the fact that this story has survived 2,000 years of telling shows that they appreciated that very much.
All those things are part of the nature of Jesus…but I have a feeling these are not the things that drew this particular crowd.
I think they were looking for a fight.
They were looking to Jesus to lead them, finally, into the battle they were looking for, the epic Messianic battle that would set the world right, that would finally usher in the golden age, the battle that would establish, for good, the Kingdom of God in all its splendor.
They were looking to Jesus to help them in their struggle against Rome.
And it seems clear in Matthew, that the crowds constantly misunderstand Jesus, and that the disciples themselves often misunderstand their rabbi.
But he’s a gracious, patient teacher who lets them keep following him anyway, right?
So it seems like everybody keeps missing the point…and it could be that even his disciples were under the impression that at some point, Jesus was going to utilize his fame and his following to enact a violent overthrow of the existing order.
So it makes sense, when it gets late and the crowds are getting hungry and restless, that the disciples urge him to send them away so they can get some food for themselves.
Enacting a rebellion is going to be hard work. They’re going to need their energy.
But when Jesus responds, he basically tells them, through his actions, that the Kingdom of God is not yet to come…the Kingdom of God is already here!
It’s known not by the winning of battles or the vanquishing of enemies…but rather in the in the breaking of bread and the healing of the sick.
The kingdom of God turns scarcity–five loaves and two fish–into an abundance with twelve baskets left over; twelve tribes overflowing with the goodness that only God can provide and Jesus, the Christ, enacting the role of the Jewish head of this new family; breaking the bread and giving thanks for the abundant provision of God even in the midst of our perceived lack.
There are a couple of questions I’d like to leave you with today.
One is, what kind of Messiah are you looking for when you look to Christ?
The kind that keeps on giving you what you want, when you want it?
Or the kind you’re willing to lay down your life for?
The other question I have is whether we have enough trust, today, to give our Lord even the most meager resources at our disposal, trusting him to abundantly bless all who seek to follow him and to know his will above our own.
All were fed with 12 baskets left over.
That doesn’t happen by the disciples only giving Jesus the leftovers.
It’s our job to give it all, and then trust God to do what God does best…turn scarcity into abundance, enacting the Kingdom in spite of our best efforts to control the outcome.
I’d like to close this morning with a simple blessing and a challenge.
Beloved Children of God, the day is passing, and it is growing late. The crowds around us are restless and heavy with bad news. They hunger for hope.
May you hear, as the disciples did so many years ago, the voice of Jesus, continuing to defy your highest expectations, calling to you “You, give them something to eat.”