Today’s gospel is the familiar story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 (actually 5000 men plus women and children) with five loaves and two fish. We know it by heart.
Jesus was trying to be alone in his grief for John the Baptist, but was followed by great crowds who had heard about his healing powers. Suddenly he was faced with thousands of people. Thousands of hungry people. The disciples wanted to send them into the villages to buy food for themselves, but Jesus had compassion on them. Taking only five loaves and two fish he feed all 5,000 with leftovers to spare.
This gospel would seem to be a welcome relief to all the parables we’ve heard recently. Three weeks ago it was the parable of the sower. Then we heard the parable of the wheat and weeds. Last week we had three parables: The treasure in a field, the merchant in search of fine pearls, and the net full of fish.
I don’t know about you, but I was getting “parabled out.” So, then this account of Jesus feeding of the 5,000 would seem to be a welcome change-up from all of that: a retelling of something which actually happened, not a made-up story. At first I said to myself, “Oh, this is good. I don’t have to go about interpreting a story this week.” But, on deeper reflection I am wondering if we don’t really have another parable – this one told in actions rather than words. It was St. Francis of Assisi who said, “Always preach the gospel. Sometimes use words.”
Just as the parables are windows into the kingdom of God, so this story of the feeding of the 5,000 is a window into the kingdom of God. And there are are couple of ways we can look through that window.
One way is to see Jesus as a model for the way people interact with one another in the kingdom of God. For instance, we are told that the entire miracle takes place because Jesus had compassion on the crowds. So, Jesus is modeling compassion. He saw that the people were hungry. It could have been that he, himself, was hungry and said to himself, “If I am hungry, they are too … times 5,000!” His compassion moved him to action.
Compassion is understanding how another person feels … putting yourself in the place of what they are experiencing. Compassion is an acquired gift. That is, it is one of those things we can decide to have … by sheer will power. What emptiness do rural women feel that causes them to fill that emptiness with opioid drugs? What is it like to be addicted to opioids? How does it feel to overdose? What would it be like for someone to lose the health insurance they had counted on? What is the fear like which causes an undocumented person to not go to the emergency room or to keep her kids home from school or even come out for our Tuesday lunch? What does addiction, hunger, and fear feel like? What does our compassion move us to do?
When we peer into the kingdom of God through the window of this miracle story we see Jesus take what appears to be a limited supply of something and make that supply limitless. He keeps on handing out fish long after the first two were given away. He keeps on giving out out bread long after the first five loaves were gone. He just keeps on giving and giving until all are fed and even then there are more left over than he started with.
In the kingdom of God grace is not a limited commodity. It is limitless. Infinite. God just keeps on having compassion, keeps on forgiving sins, keeps on welcoming people back into his loving arms over and over and over again. 5,000 times. 5 million times. Five times infinity times. And, remember, Jesus is modeling for us the way the kingdom works here, too. We have the ability to have compassion, forgive sins, and welcome people back over and over again too. That’s just the way things are done … in the kingdom. Think of it. Your money is limited. You only have so much. The days of your life are limited. You only have so many. But your grace is not unlimited. You can keep on giving and giving and it never runs out. As a matter of fact, the more you give the more you have to give away. That’s just the way it works.
So far we have been drawn into this living parable spiritually … looking at it through compassion, grace, and forgiveness. But, as is said, we should guard against being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. We can also see this parable literally and physically. That is, Jesus fed food to hungry people.
Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that Jesus has more than 5,000 people standing before him. Let’s say he has all the hungry people in the world standing there. One estimate has that at 795 million in today’s numbers. Some would tell you that there is not enough food on the planet to feed 795 million people … that’s just a fact of life. Well, that’s a myth. A study by the University of Minnesota has found that, for the past two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. The world already produces more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. You see, after all are fed, there could be leftovers.
But it doesn’t work that way, does it. The real cause of hunger is not scarcity, it is poverty. If you are making less than $2 a day or are a third world farmer trying to grow something where climate change has decimated the yield of your crops then you are denied the food that, in fact, exists.
And, if scarcity does exist, we’ve created it. The bulk of industrially-produced grain crops goes to biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than to hungry people. Only if we prioritize people over livestock and cars will we be able to meet feed the world’s next generation of people.
Back in the old days when I went to seminary they taught us that we should summarize, in the last paragraph of our sermons, what we had spent the entire time saying. I’m not sure that is followed so much anymore, but it seems like a good idea for this particular sermon: This account of Jesus feeding 5,000 people can be seen as a parable about how the kingdom of God works. In the kingdom of God there is compassion, forgiveness, and welcoming. That’s the way we can be. In God’s kingdom hungry people are given food. We can give hungry people food. We saw Jesus do it. We can perform the miracle, too!