Jesus draws a crowd
The great thing about tonight’s Gospel lesson is that it tells us everything we need to know about who Jesus was in his own day, and who Jesus IS for us in our age. What tonight’s Gospel lesson tells us is that Jesus is the one who TEACHES us how to be who God created us to be, who LOVES, HEALS, and FEEDS us along this journey that we call life. And above all, tonight’s lesson shows us that Jesus draws a crowd.
Yet curiously for a story about huge crowd of people, the lesson begins with Jesus getting into a boat and going on sabbatical. At least Jesus TRIED to take a sabbatical, a time apart from his ministry to be alone with God. Matthew does not say WHY Jesus needed a time-out,–a hiatus, a sabbatical, an interim period—but you will notice in the scripture reading that Jesus went to a “deserted place by himself.”
We know from elsewhere in the gospels that on other occasions Jesus went alone to the desert to pray. Perhaps Jesus needed some alone-time for concentrated prayer, and alone-time was not something that Jesus was able to get in large measure. One of the many things that the gospel writers all agree about is that Jesus was thronged with crowds of people everywhere he went. The crowds just loved to be near Jesus, and from this we can imagine just how charismatic and caring Jesus was. Crowds came, and Jesus loved them. Crowds came, and Jesus taught them—and they even marveled at Jesus’ understanding of the scriptures. Crowds came to Jesus, and he healed them.
So Jesus was almost always around people. Yet the crowds of people who followed him did not seem to drain him. Quite the opposite: Jesus was predominantly moved to compassion by the crowd, as he is in tonight’s lesson. Sometimes the huge numbers of people surrounding Jesus presented logistical challenges. Remember in Mark’s gospel when there were so many people that Jesus ended up with a hole in his roof, a hole that some people cut to get their paralyzed friend near enough to Jesus so that he would be healed? So, too, in Matthew’s gospel there were vast multitudes that caused logistical problems. Earlier in Matthew there were so many people around Jesus that he sat in a boat off the shore of Lake Galilee to teach the crowd the very parables that we have been hearing about this summer. Everywhere he went—except to the desert—Jesus drew a crowd.
I am telling you about the crowds because it definitely was not like Jesus to need a sabbatical from the people who sought him out. So what is going on here in tonight’s gospel lesson? Here are a few possibilities. First, Herod had just killed John-the-Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and colleague in ministry, his friend. Perhaps Jesus was afraid. We don’t like to think of Jesus as having a flicker of fear about his fate, but if we acknowledge Jesus’ humanity as well as his divinity he MIGHT have been afraid.
Perhaps Jesus was contemplating and praying about what John’s death would mean in terms of a change of direction for his ministry. It is clear that Jesus’ work DID take on new directions in relation to what was happening to John-the-Baptist. For instance, after John had been arrested Jesus began to preach that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and he called some fishermen to be his disciples. Perhaps Jesus just needed some alone-time with God after John was killed, time to ask God, “What should I do NOW?” AND “Are you SURE that this is what you want me to do?”
Whatever caused Jesus to return to the desert, away from his disciples and the crowd, he emerged from his sabbatical with a new agenda. And what did he find when he returned from the desert? Verse 14 tells us that he “saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick.” So Jesus’ new agenda was a lot like his old one: LOVE THEM, TEACH THEM, HEAL THEM. But this time Jesus went one step further than he had ever gone before: He also FED THEM, not just with spiritual food, but with physical food as well.
I have often wondered about the point of this miracle. Why did Jesus feed the crowd with loaves and fishes? He loved them. He taught them. He healed them. Now he served them dinner! Scholars tell us that Jesus’ feeding of the crowd was a foretaste of the Eucharist. I think that this is so, but giving us a preview of the Eucharist could not have been the entire reason. By this feeding-miracle Jesus revealed plainly who he was—for all who had faith to understand and eyes to see. So, too, we have this story today of the “feeding of the five thousand” to tell us exactly who Jesus is, for all who have faith to understand and ears to hear. Jesus is the one who has the power of God to do all things, who teaches us how to be fully who we are created to be, who has compassion when we fall short, and who loves, heals, and feeds us along this journey we call life.
To know this information is one thing, to apply it to our lives is quite another. Jesus went to the desert, presumably to pray, after John-the-Baptist had left them. He might have been afraid, he might have sought new direction in his ministry. How is Jesus’ time apart like our interim period at St. Andrew’s? Our Vestry is working on a new mission statement, one that will set in print and on our lips whatever new direction in ministry we feel God telling us to pursue. And, like Jesus’ new direction after he emerged from the desert, presumably our mission statement will be a lot like our old one, perhaps with a new dimension or two.
Will our new mission statement draw a crowd, like Jesus’ did? I believe so because Jesus is so charismatic that crowds are always drawn to him, even to this day, to the extent that we let who Jesus is be seen in all that we are and in all that we do.