Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: John 6:1-21
9Pentecost, Proper 12, Year B
“Feeding the crowd”
I remember the first time I heard Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 explained away. The thesis was—and perhaps you’ve heard this speculation also—that the boy’s offering of his small meal shamed the other 4,999 people present in the crowd into sharing their hoarded food. I remember how cheated I felt, hearing this theory. I wanted to understand the miracle, not to have the miracle rationalized away.
So what do YOU want to hear, as we approach this miracle again today?
I wanted to hear about Jesus’ compassion. That’s what I remembered about why Jesus fed the 5,000 hungry people. But did you notice that in our gospel lesson today we don’t hear anything about compassion?
Turns out, this is the only miracle of Jesus’ that is recorded in all four gospels. And, as usual, the four accounts differ. Mark’s and Matthew’s versions say that Jesus had compassion on the crowd that had followed him. In Matthew, Jesus’ compassion moved him to “cure the sick.” In Mark, Jesus’ compassion moved him to “teach them many things.” Luke doesn’t mention Jesus’ compassion, at least not directly. In Luke’s gospel Jesus welcomed the people, spoke to them about the Kingdom of God (in other words, he taught them), and then Jesus healed those who needed to be cured.
Not so in John’s gospel. Here we learn that when Jesus saw the large crowd coming toward him, he asked Philip where they could buy bread for the people to eat. This is NOT the people needing dinner at the end of a long day of teaching and healing. Here, according to John’s own words, was a test for Philip. No teaching; no curing, just feeding as a “test” and as a “sign.”
From this comparison of gospel versions, one might surmise that there are different reasons WHY Jesus fed the crowd embedded in the text.
- One theory is utilitarian—the practical explanation: Jesus knew that people who are physically hungry aren’t able to hear, really hear, the Word of God. So he fed them. But this is not John’s explanation.
- John’s theory is Christological—revealing of who Jesus is: John’s theory is that Jesus fed the people so that scripture about the Messiah would be fulfilled, so that they would know he is the Messiah. This is why John calls the feeding a “sign” rather than a “miracle.” And John’s theory seems to be borne out by the text: the people wanted to make Jesus their king. This little details is only in John’s gospel, though.
- The third theory is Mark’s and Matthew’s: that Jesus fed the crowd because he had compassion for them, had empathy for them. The people were hungry, so Jesus fed them. No ulterior motives. No “signs of the Messiah” box-checking. Just empathy, even though John is so intent on making another point he doesn’t even mention Jesus’ compassion. Or the teaching. Or the healing.
We can speculate why John’s focus is different than the other gospel writers’. John wrote his gospel last, significantly later than the others. By then the early Christians were recognizing that Jesus was and is the Messiah. By then the Christian church had been swamped with widows and orphans looking for sustenance from the church. By then, John’s community might have had a problem with people following Jesus for the cures and free food that they received there. But John, minimizing Jesus’ compassion, even writing Jesus’ empathy out of the story, does not make Christ Jesus less compassionate.
This is where I was in my thinking on this subject on July 12, two Sundays ago, when I read a New York Times article entitled, “Empathy is actually a choice.” The article noted that two groups notoriously lacking in empathy, psychopaths and people in power, have been shown to have empathy when they choose to do so.
The article began by quoting a saying, which I will paraphrase:
“One hungry person is a tragedy. 5,000 is a statistic.”
This saying speaks to the truth that, when confronted with great need, we feel overwhelmed. Our empathy fails us. When we compare our assets of time and money with the need and find our assets lacking, we walk.
We are like Philip. We say, “We’d have to give half of our annual salary just to give all the hungry families in Alexandria one small can of tuna.” Click. Our empathy turns off. Not so Jesus’. What Jesus did was to bless the food by giving thanks for what he had. Then he gave the food to all. And this meal continues to this very day. If we were a McJesus franchise (and we are!), and if this miracle were about food, we’d have a sign outside that says, “Over one trillion served.”
But this miracle, this sign, isn’t about food, really. This meal is a test about empathy. This meal is about a miraculous multiplication of our material assets so that we choose to feel compassion for the needs of others.
Following Jesus’ example, we do this miracle every week. Every week at our 10 am service the ushers bring forward the offerings, bring forward the money given at both services. And I bless what’s been given. This isn’t about me, you understand—I’m no Jesus. I’m just the one who gets to bless our offerings on our behalf.
Do you know what I say when I bless the money? I don’t use a fancy prayer. Instead I say, “Please, Lord, as you did with the loaves and fishes, please make this money enough.” Enough to continue to exist as your Resurrection people. Enough to meet the need you’ve given us to meet. And then, Jesus’ feeding miracle continues, right here at this altar.
If you want to get clinical about this weekly enactment of Jesus’ miracle, maybe for us we do have to reach into our hidden stash and contribute to the whole, so that all will be fed. Maybe the true miracle was Jesus unleashing our empathy so that we give beyond what our own choosing would normally dictate.
Please note, though, that Jesus did not continue to feed the people physical food day after day. THEY wanted that. Jesus said “No.” Because to be only a social service agency would have kept him and his followers from accomplishing their mission and ours, which is to tell the whole world “the Good News that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel.”
- WE know that people who are physically hungry cannot really hear the Word of God. So we feed them; do we tell them about God?
- WE know that we feed people in the name of Jesus; how do they know that we act in Jesus’ name?
- WE know that we feed people because the Holy Spirit stirs our empathy within us; do we then tell the people we feed who impels us to act?
Jesus walked away from the crowd’s continued physical hunger, but continues to feed the world with spiritual food. We can do both, if we act and speak in Christ’s name.