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August 4, 2002

Matthew 14:13-21

By Tony Grant



When Dave Thomas died of liver cancer at the age of 69 last winter, America lost one of its favorite TV personalities. Dave, like the burgers he served, was square, but there. He was an ordinary guy, the type of middle-aged, mild-mannered guy you might expect to see behind the counter at any one of the 6,000 Wendy's stores. He would ask you whether you wanted the Monterey Ranch chicken sandwich, or more bacon on your bacon cheeseburger. He would invite you to pump as much ketchup as you wanted. He owned the company, and he wanted you to come back. Dave seemed ordinary, but he had extraordinary business sense. He understood the value of R.O.I.--Return On Investment. If you do not get a return on investment, you are out of business before the lard melts in the fryer.

Return on investment is the percentage you earn for the cash you invest. Say we invest $100,000. This $100,000 is called capital. One year later our $100,000 yields $110,000! That's a good R.O.I. [NOTE: step up to a tripod and marker board and write on it: (Return - Capital)/Capital) x 100% = Rate of Return]. Therefore: (($110,000 - $100,000)/$100,000) x 100% = 10%..] Your rate of return in this case is 10 percent, which these days, or at any other time for that matter, is respectable.

Now let's talk about another square offering a square meal--Jesus. The carpenter's son from Nazareth is also interested in R.O.I. but without the denari signs. Here we see him with five loaves and two fish, about five servings total, yielding M.D.A's of about 650 calories per serving, which includes about 55 grams of fat, 130 grams of carbohydrates and 35 grams of protein. And Jesus proposes to take these servings and distribute them to five thousand people in such a way that not only is everyone fed, but there is food left over. That R.O.I. [NOTE: On the marker board, write: ((5000 fed - (5 loaves + 2 fish) / (5 loaves + 2 fish)) x 100% = a miracle.]

The Miracle

The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is found in all four gospels, although the context and emphasis vary; this is the only miracle, other than the resurrection, that is told in all four gospels.

In Matthew this story happens right after the death of John the Baptist. Jesus' forerunner is dead; he has finished his work, and so he dies at the hand of Herod. This portends Jesus own death when his work is finished, and the same individual, Herod, will have a hand in Jesus’ death.

By setting this feeding miracle story directly after the death of John the Baptist, Matthew is contrasting Herod's bitter, murderous banquet with Jesus' joyous, lifegiving meal. Herod, filled with evil jealousy, kills God's prophet. Jesus, filled with love and compassion, heals the sick and feeds the hungry. Matthew uses these two meals, Herod's great banquet and Jesus' feeding of the five thousand, to prefigure Jesus' coming last meal and death. Jesus' path to kingship is the opposite of Herod's. Herod killed his way to the throne, leaving a path littered with corpses. Jesus' path to kingship was by offering himself on behalf of others (20:28). In another contrast between the banquets, we see Herod gathered his friends to celebrate his birthday, while Jesus gathers those from the surrounding towns and villages in the wilderness to celebrate the birth of a new kingdom.

We do not know why Jesus withdrew with his disciples to "a deserted place" (14:13). Perhaps he was mourning the loss of John the Baptist, perhaps he was tired. In any case, the crowds followed him. When Jesus saw the crowd, he "had compassion" (14:14) for them, and began to heal the sick. As the evening draws near, the disciples urge Jesus to send the people to the towns and villages to buy food. But Jesus says, Let them eat here. We imagine the disciples saying that is a nice sentiment, Lord, but we "have here but five loaves, and two fishes" (v17)—implying that the people cannot eat here. It cannot be done.

Jesus answers the doubts of the disciples by action—saying bring me the loaves and fish. Confident that they can eat abundantly with so little, Jesus takes the loaves and blesses them, praising God for their scarce supplies, and breaks the bread, which he then gives to his disciples to feed the crowd. Matthew’s point is that in this miracle Jesus demonstrates his power over illness and hunger. Jesus is God's Anointed, the Messiah. Verse 20 concludes the story with the demonstration of the miracle when twelve baskets of fragments are left over. Matthew finishes by giving the number of participants as five thousand men, plus and unnumbered multitude of women and children.

It is at the end of this feeding story that Matthew departs from the usual reaction to the miracle stories. There is no response—no amazement, no faith, no fear--expressed by the participants. Neither the disciples nor the crowd do or say anything to indicate that they have beheld anything out of the ordinary. We wonder if they understood what was happening. Perhaps it was only later, after Easter, that they began to understand.

Scholars debate the significance of this incident. Some say that this miraculous feeding reminds us of the Lord's Supper. In support of this, they observe that Matthew omits the distribution of the fish, which would not fit with the Lord's Supper. Moreover, in v15, Matthew uses the phrase "When it was evening," which is the same phrase he later uses in his narrative of the Last Supper (26:20). So perhaps Matthew did intend for this miracle to remind us of the sacrament, but that was not his only purpose in including this incident in his gospel.

Skeptical Reaction

That is the miracle. Because this is such a prominent miracle in the gospels, it has been subjected to many interpretations.

For example, an Australian ad agency used this miracle to market a resturant named Sizzler. The thirty-second TV spot, created by John Singleton Advertising, parodied the New Testament's miracle of the loaves and fishes. In the commercial a bystander is told that Jesus is miraculously producing fish and bread. The bystander responds, "How about some prawns and scallops? Or a big, juicy steak with Greek salad?"

The first man says, "Jesus, where does he think he is -- Sizzler?" The Jesus character simply looks heavenward with an exasperated expression. This totally tasteless commercial was withdrawn after a storm of protest from Christians, and rightly so. [Paul King, "'Miracle' TV ad multiplies headaches for Sizzler," The Nation's Restaurant News Magazine, August 10, 1998.]

A more serious interpretation, first offered by H.E.G. Paulus in 1828, is that when Jesus and his disciples started sharing their small portions of food with others in the crowd, the rest of the crowd began to bring out food that they had secretly hidden away, thus providing enough rations for all. Paulus did not deny the miracle. He changed its nature—saying that it was a miracle that love triumphed and expressed itself in sharing.

Another interpretation, that of Ernest Renan, is that when Jesus journeyed into the desert, followed by a crowd, they exercised great restraint and survived on minimal rations. Jesus taught them that they did not need much, hence they were willing to make do with little or nothing.

Perhaps we can find a clue to the real meaning of this text from the old Testament. In 2 Kings 4:42-44, about Elisha having 20 barley loaves and fresh ears of grain and issuing an order to his servant to feed "the people." The servant replies, But there are a hundred people here. Elisha replies, (43) "Give the people, that they may eat: for thus saith the LORD, They shall eat, and shall leave thereof." And v44 reads, "So he set it before them, and they did eat, and left thereof, according to the word of the LORD." We see similarities then between what Elisha did and what Jesus did. Both did what we might call food miracles, though Jesus operated on a larger scale than Elisha did.

God Is Able

So what is the point of both miracles? The point is that God is able when we step out in faith. Elisha told his servant to feed the one hundred. Jesus told his disciples to feed the five thousand.

In both cases, the responsibility for doing the feeding is with the followers. Now it looked like an impossible task in both cases, but especially in the New Testament where we have many more people, five thousand, and less food, five loaves. But Jesus assumes that the disciples can do what he asks them to do—because Jesus knows that God does not lay a responsibility on us that we are not capable of fulfilling.

Think about this incident in Matthew 14. Jesus asked the disciples to do something. Their response was we cannot do it because we have nothing to do with. We do not have the resources. Well, we do have these five loaves and two fish but that is practically nothing, that is a joke.

And ask yourself, how do we respond when God calls us? We are not much different from the disciples. We have a whole line of excuses.

For example, we use the same one as the disciples. We do not have the resources, cannot be done. Or we can think of others. We can always invent reasons why somerthing cannot be done.

"I'm too old for this sort of thing."

"I'm too busy."

"I've already given and done my bit."

"We should let the younger folk do it."

The disciples when told "you give them something to eat" were unaware that they had the resources to fulfill Jesus' command. They didn't know it, but they did have something! They had the power of God.

Jesus' point is clear: You give what you have and I will take care of the distribution issues. The miracle, then, was not only one of food, but of expanding the imagination and faith of those doing the feeding.

Rev. Alan Kimber was at one time the pastor of Westfall United Methodist Church in Durban, South Africa. He says that at the time there were two classrooms in the township with 500 kids going to school in two sessions, 8 a.m. to noon, and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The children were poor. Many had no shoes. And the classes sometimes took place under the shelter of trees. The kids had a hard time learning. They were hungry, and it soon became apparent that in order to facilitate learning they needed to feed these children.

When the problem was addressed one Sunday morning, Pastor Kimber said, "You give them something to eat." His congregation was poor and black. They said they had nothing. Except one man said he had $5. Then another person said he had $10. That Sunday morning, they collected $2,000 on the spot and began to feed those children.

In Matthew 14, feeding the five thousand was a miracle, and miracles are by definition unexplainable. Part of the miracle was opening the eyes of faith of those who would be "feeders." When their faith vision was operative, they were able to see a huge R.O.I.

Our God is a lavish God. God deals generously, giving much out of little.

Our God is a generous God, a God of great abundance. The measure we get back is far greater than the measure we give. It is a divine law of spiritual investment. But we cannot take advantage of this law until we stop thinking, "We have nothing."

One reason the divine law works is because the people of God do the work of God. We are the hands and feet, the eyes and hearts of God. In the New Testament, Jesus' disciples served as the means by which the work of God was carried out. Today, we serve as the means by which the work of God is carried out.

So, how are we doing? Not very well sometimes. I want to preach at myself a bit this morning. I do that most of the time anyway. As you may know. We have a Deacon’s Fund that I and a committee for the diaconate administer. The fund limits the amount of money that we can give to any one person or family or cause—to three hundred dollars. I have been very conscious my resources and have been perhaps somewhat skeptical about helping some folks. A type of call I have received a number of times goes like this. "I need some help on my power bill, it is $450 a month." And as I talk with them a little more, they will add something like and I am three months behind. Of course, that is over $1300 and we cannot significantly help them. I usually tell them at that point that they need to talk to the power company about reducing their payments. One man told me that he owed the power company well over a thousand dollars, and his church had given him $50, and he wanted $50 from us. And my response was why? That does not help your situation. You need to talk to the power company about your bill. I have turned down other people for various reasons. People call from out of town and want help. I generally tell them you ought to look for help in your town first. And sometimes their story just does not sound right to me, and so I do not help. I have been very resource conscious. We only have so much money in the Deacon’s fund, We need to be careful how we administer it. And I do not really have a problem with that, but we ought to remember that God can supply every resource.

I came across an interesting statement by George Steinbrenner. He said, "My mother was Irish. She couldn't do enough good for others. If I have any strain in me that drives me to try to help others, she's where it comes from ...Why should there be any such thing as a kid "at risk" in this country? If they're at risk, then we're not doing our job ... .The ability to have is so you can do things for others. If you can do things for others who are less fortunate, then it will come back to you." ["What I've learned," Esquire, January 2002, 57]

George Steinbrenner is the owner of the New York Yankees, and he is not a person that I have ever admired very much, but he said something there that sort of struck home to me. "Why should there be any such thing as a kid "at risk" in this country? If they're at risk, then we're not doing our job."

Now here we are about to start school again, and you are going to hear soon about at risk kids—the borderline group, the drop-outs, the ones least likely to succeed. Steinbrenner says we are people Christ called us to be, that group would not even exist. Now I know what your reaction, what my reaction may be to that. We cannot help all kids at risk, we do not have that kind of resources—exactly what the disciples thought at first, in Matthew 14. We do not have the resources, but God does.

What God provided at the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand was more than enough. What God provides for us today is more than enough—if we live by faith. Jesus knew this and he taught this: God is a God of abundance, therefore, the spiritual Return On Investment is bound to be plentiful and eternal.

So we should pray everyday, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer for our daily bread. We should pray for bread to feed us both physically and spiritually. We should pray for bread that will give us love, and hope, and trust, and openness, and the power to live as God’s people here and now. Amen.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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