Famine and Feeding Five Thousand
By Donald McKenzie
August 18, 2017
The Feeding of the Five Thousand is found in all four Gospels. (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-14).
Please feel free to leave your thoughts, ask questions for clarification, challenge my statements, or all of the above, in the comments section below. Thanks.
Our Gospel reading for this morning has lots going on in it. Matthew’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand picks up several themes, and they are part of the themes that characterize Matthew’s Gospel as a whole.
Jesus greater than moses
One of the themes that runs through Matthew is that Jesus is great than Moses. Another is that Jesus is greater than the prophets. So, there are a lot of these things here, and I am going to just briefly go over some of them before we deal with other parts of this story. Finally, there are echoes of Matthew’s account of the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. (Matthew 26:17-30).
One of the books on famine that I have been reading in the last little while. It is a harrowing read and leaves one aghast at how easily we can be lured into treating each other as less than human.
First off, this encounter with the crowds comes at a very difficult time for Jesus. Our reading starts off with Jesus withdrawing to a deserted place. The after this concerns the news Jesus has just received about the death of his cousin John the Baptist. The forerunner of the kingdom has been executed by Herod, and Jesus tries to escape, to have some time alone with his grief.
However, the crowds follow him, and seeing them, he takes the time to heal those that are sick. One of the things that we want to pick up on with this encounter today is they are in a deserted place. Here is where we have a connection back to Moses. Moses leading the children through the wilderness and they receive the manna from heaven. And here, Jesus gives them bread to eat.
The food is always sufficient
In the wilderness the manna was sufficient. There were to be no leftovers. It was the original just in time inventory system. The Israelites were to collect only what they needed for the day, or, the day before the Sabbath, two days. Anything extra turned out to maggot infested by the next day. Not only that, it never failed, until the day they ate of the food of the promised land. (Joshua 5:12).
And the story of Elisha is also present here. In 2 Kings Chapter 4 beginning at first 42. A company of prophets has been eating and getting ill on the food. So Elisha gets a little flour and throws it into the stew and suddenly everything is all right. I’d like to see Gordon Ramsay pull that off. Picking up from there:
42A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ea rs of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” 43 But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” 44 He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.
We see the same thing here in the feeding of the five thousand. Here It’s five loaves and two fishes. Everyone is fed and there are still pieces leftover. Jesus is greater than Elisha and all the prophets and the miracle he performs is greater than Elisha.
There are also allusions to the Eucharist in our Gospel reading today. Matthew’s description of the Last Supper uses the same words to describe Jesus’s offering of a blessing, breaking the bread, and then sharing it with the disciples. (Matthew 17:26). I’ll come back to this later.
So, that’s all going on in this story. Then we get to the end of it, and this is what I’m going to be focusing on this morning, and what seems like an afterthought. It says that five thousand men were fed plus women and children besides.
Missing the point on 5,000
Here we get into all kinds of conversations. Was it really five thousand fed, is it just a story. This morning we are taking it that there were five thousand people fed. If you want to argue something different, I’ll let you have the pulpit the next time it comes up.
Then sometimes people say 5,000 maybe it was really a case that there was something like thirty thousand, after all there were all those women and children, so that’s even more amazing. Then why not call it the feeding of the 30,000?
Or, people will say “everybody just decided to share.” they saw the example of the boy who brought the five loaves and two fishes and decided that they should share the food they had with each other. In that large a crowd, that would be quite a miracle. So, why not tell that story. Why tell this story and then add this phrase, and women and children besides. I thinks it’s a very important phrase.
feeding 5,000 with real food
First of all, one of the things that we have to remember as we hear this story is that it is a miracle that is done to take care of physical hunger. This isn’t some sort of, “I know it says he fed them food, but this is really a spiritual activity and we need to spiritualize this event.”
No, there was a crowd, they had been with Jesus all day. He had been healing their sick, and they were hungry. Many of them would have a very long way to go before they got home. There would be no drive-through or 7-11 where they could pick something up along the way.
So, Jesus fed them. The first thing we need to know about that is that with God cares about our physical bodies and our physical needs. This desire to care for our physical hunger shows up in many places in Scripture. In Psalm 22, for example. Perhaps not the first Scripture reference we think of when it comes to hunger. Although, we are quite familiar with Psalm 22 because it is a Good Friday Psalm.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
3 Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
6 But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8 “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10 On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help
12 Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15 my mouth[a] is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
We read that on Good Friday. Yet, there is more to that Psalm. More that is meant to be a result of what happens at the beginning of the 22nd Psalm.
25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor[h] shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.[i]
Out of that great suffering comes the poor being fed. In the midst of all that mourning we are reminded of the future, where the poor are to be fed. Psalm 107 is another place that talks about what God will do for God’s people.
33He turns rivers into a desert, springs of water into thirsty ground,
34a fruitful land into a salty waste, because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.
35He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water.
36And there he lets the hungry live, and they establish a town to live in;
37they sow fields, and plant vineyards, and get a fruitful yield.
38By his blessing they multiply greatly, and he does not let their cattle decrease.
God pulls down the proud, and he takes that wasteland and turns it into a place of life. He turns into a place that produces food, and who does he do it for? The hungry. Those who are most at a loss. Who are the hungry?
Women and children go hungry the most
Well, in most cases, when it comes to widespread hunger and situations like famine, it is the women and children who suffer most during the famine. It is the women and children who are most likely to face the most dreadful consequences of hunger.
This is from a book, Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalishnikovs and other war stories. The author of the book, Anna Badkhen is a journalist who has traveled throughout war zones and documented famines all over the world. She has been in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, and in Kenya. It is from Kenya that the following account comes. She is writing about Dr. Khadija Abdalla and her efforts to try and save from starvation the children under her care.
…Assisted by six nurses, two per shift, who had time to do little more than deliver medicine and weight the patients, the doctor was fighting to reverse the effects of malnutrition and treat the diseases that typically effect starved children everywhere close to the equator: tuberculosis, measles, malaria, cholera, dysentery, pneumonia.
Hypothermia, too, was a problem, despite the suffocating heat: “They have no fat,” Dr. Abdalla explained, curtly.
There was no tenderness in the doctor’s voice, no warmth in the way she touched her fragile parents. It was as though she was resisting becoming attached, as though she knew that these children would not be in her care for long, and was steeling herself. She may have been in charge of the main pediatric ward in the region, but ultimately, it was not up to her to determine which whether the children made it through or succumbed to the famine that had put at least half a million Kenyan children at risk of starvation.
The decision lay with the children’s mothers – most of them barely adults themselves. Every day, as nurses in the pediatric ward weighed the children to see if the treatment was working, the children’s mothers weighed the pros and cons of the treatment itself, doing the unsentimental arithmetic of famine: Who needs them more, the famished body in their arms or the hungry family back in the bush? Which of their children gets to live, and which dies of starvation?
More often than not, the mothers scooped up the wasted, weak children weeks or even months before the treatment was complete, crossed the disinfected tiles of the ward’s courtyard, and disappeared in the thorny acacia bush as suddenly and without warning as they had arrived at the only hospital in the province of four hundred thousand people that could help nourish their children back to health. (169)
In times of famine it’s women and children that suffer the most. In our parable today, and I think this is an enacted parable, Jesus is not only feeding the people to take care of their immediate physical needs but he is acting out a parable of how things should be.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand reminds us that with God, in Christ, there is plenty for everyone. It’s a reminder that not only is there plenty in God, through Jesus Christ, but it is there for everyone. 5,000 men along with women and children besides. What the Psalmist talked about, the idea of the waste places being fertile, and being handed over to the hungry, that is God’s desire. It’s God’s desire that all have enough to eat.
I was reading recently that there his been talk over the last few years that we need to double the earth’s food production by 2050. Even more recently. I’ve read that they’ve revised that. They say we only need to increase production by 26-68% by that time, which is in keeping with historical production growth patterns.
What we do need to do is: We do need to be less wasteful. We do need to be better at sharing the food we have. We do need to be better at making sure that women and children are fed.
Here are a few facts about women and hunger listed by the United Nations World Food Programme. I’ve listed a couple of the more challenging facts. You can follow the link and read about other challenges women face in regards to hunger, as well as some ideas of how empowering women would take great steps in diminishing or even eliminating hunger.
When a crisis hits, women are generally the first to sacrifice their food consumption, in order to protect the food consumption of their families.
Malnourished mothers are more likely to give birth to underweight babies. Underweight babies are more likely to die before the age of five.
Around half of all pregnant women in developing countries are anaemic. This causes around 110,000 deaths during childbirth each year.
Women left to make the tough decisions
And as Anna Badkhen said, women are often left with that decision, which child eats and which child doesn’t. That’s a decision nobody should have to make. Nobody should be put in a position where they say, yes, this child will get food and live, this child won’t, and will most likely die.
Here we get back to the Eucharistic allusions in the passage. Jesus, gave thanks, broke the bread and then gave it to his disciples to distribute. Gratitude is the starting point for us if in our sharing. In giving thanks we recognize that God has blessed us. However that isn’t just meant to be a phrase we throw around when something good goes wrong or we acquire a new toy. “Just got me a Lexus.” #blessed
Instead it is the recognition that everything we receive from God is a gift and one that we are meant to share with others. Monika K. Hellwig, in her classic little work “The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World,” says this:
Perhaps few Christians reflect that one is not blessed at the expense of others but for the benefit of others.
This is old teaching, teaching that goes back to the story of Abraham in Genesis 12:2. God blesses Abraham so that through Abraham all the world should be blessed.
Blessed to be a blessing
This teaching continues in the book of Deuteronomy, as Israel is preparing to enter into the promised land. The line “the poor you will always have with you,” is often used to justify the neglect of those in poverty, and it is those in poverty who are always hungry and at the greatest risk in times of famine as well. But the quote in context says.
7If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. 8You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.
9Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.
10Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
Yes, there will always be poor and hungry, and especially during times of famine, but the blessing comes from being liberal in our giving.
The Eucharist reminds us the at Christ gave himself totally and completely for our sake. We are called to do the same as we follow after Christ. The promise of the feeding of the 5,000 is that there is plenty. But the promise of plenty doesn’t mean anything, if we don’t live that out. The language used to talk about the people being fed is that everyone has enough. There is sufficient.
Sharing the sufficiency
We know there is sufficient. How can we live out the feeding of the 5,000. How can we make sure that our table is large enough that everyone is fed. Make sure that there is a place for women and children at the table. Perhaps we need to make more of a point of giving them the place of honour around the table.
The kingdom of heaven is among us. The life of the kingdom is meant to be one of generosity. Generosity, because we are people who worship and follow a generous God. A God who gives us the bounty of nature. Who gives us life in all it’s fullness.
Let us feed the hungry. Expand our tables and open wide our cupboards. Let us cut down on our waste. Maybe one day, we will be able to say, there will 3 billion men fed, with women and children beside.
God cares not just for who we are and what we say, but God became one of us, took on flesh, and he cares about our flesh, he cares about our bodies. Let us make sure that we care for the flesh and the bodies of others. Let us learn to take that food that we’ve been given and give thanks to God for it, and pass it around until all have been fully satisfied, and we ask this in Christ’s name. Amen.