The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Given by David Teall
3rd August 2008
Matthew 14

DavidTeallIn our journey through Matthew we have, over the course of the last few weeks, heard many of the parables that Jesus told during the course of his short ministry here on earth. Several of the parables have involved seeds and the sowing of seed and last week Philip left us with the question “What sort of seed are you?” During the course of my talk this morning I shall be asking a similar question.

This morning’s reading, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, occurs in all four gospels and there is a further account of a similar event known as the Feeding of the Four Thousand in Mark and Matthew. The inclusion of six separate accounts in the Bible of what may have been just a single event may well be part of the reason why the story is amongst the best known. But what type of story is it? Is it a Miracle or is it a Parable? I would like to suggest that it is both.

There can be no doubt that the miracles performed by Jesus helped to spread his name rapidly across Galilee and Judea and to draw the crowds to see him. Indeed, in John’s Gospel we are told that the Five Thousand had gathered ‘because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.’ Through his performance of miracles, and in particular, his healing of the sick and feeding of those in need, we are given a vivid insight into the love and compassion of God. A love that has no boundaries and extends to all: Man and Woman – Jew and Gentile. And what a blessing that insight has proved to be to us and to countless millions of believers over the centuries. The knowledge that we have a God who feels our pain and loves and cares for us as his children.

But what of the Feeding of the Five Thousand as a parable? Much has been written on this subject. Some writers have looked back to parallels in the Old Testament such as Elisha taking 20 loaves of barley to feed a hundred people in the Second Book of Kings or the story of Moses and the falling of manna, or bread from heaven in Exodus. Others have looked forward to parallels with the Last Supper, the Eucharist and the Messianic Banquet. Both make fascinating reading, but this morning I would like to tease out what to me is at the centre of the story by looking at it from the point of view of the boy mentioned in John’s account of the story.

All four Gospel writers tell us that there were five loaves and two fish but only John tells us where they came from: ‘there is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.’ We don’t know anything else about him, but we do know that that boy gave up what he had in order that the multitude could be fed. Let us think about that a little more. How many people would five loaves and two fishes feed under normal circumstances? It depends rather upon the size of the loaves which we don’t know, but they were likely to be rather closer to the size of what we would call a bun rather than that of a Mighty White Sliced Loaf! We know a little more about the fish as some of the gospel writers do tell us that they were small. So, how many would this packed lunch have fed? Five people perhaps? That would be a bun each and less than half a fish. Maybe if the loaves were a little bigger it could have been stretched to 10 but more than that and the ration would be getting a little meagre. That would suggest that Jesus miraculously produced the food for at least 4990 people from thin air. If he could do that, it is reasonable to suggest that he could equally well have produced the food for the full 5000 from thin air – but that is not what happened. For the miracle to occur, Jesus asked someone, in this case the boy, to give up what he had for the benefit of those who had nothing. That, for me, is the key to this story.

Put yourself, if you would, in the place of that boy as he saw Andrew, a big, burley fisherman, striding through the crowds looking for food. You’ve got these five barley loaves and two fish but no-one else around you seems to have got anything to eat at all and there are thousands of them! What are you going to do? What thoughts are racing through your mind as Andrew gets nearer and nearer? ‘I’m hungry. I’ve been out in the desert for hours. I’ve no idea how long it will take me to get home. I need this food for myself. I thought ahead and brought it with me. If other people didn’t think, that’s their lookout. I’m keeping it for myself.’ Might you have thought in that way, at least for a while?

But wait! Maybe you were not just carrying the food for yourself: ‘this food is not just for me’ you rationalise, ‘it’s for my family and friends and neighbours. I have a responsibility to keep it for them. I’m not going to give it to Andrew to share with all these people who I don’t even know!’ Might that have been your reaction?

Or perhaps you had neither of these responses. Perhaps you heard Jesus talking to the crowds a few months ago: ‘Blessed are the merciful’ you remember him saying. ‘Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.’ ‘In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.’ Inspired by the wisdom and authority of this itinerant preacher from Galilee you were determined to live your life according to his word and so handed over the loaves and fishes to Andrew without giving it a second thought.

We shall never know what thoughts went through the mind of that boy as he clutched his parcel of food on the mountain side 2000 years ago, but we do know what goes through our mind when we see an appeal on television or pick up the Christian Aid envelope that drops out of the Gazette onto the floor. How does our response to the needs of others compare with the possible responses I have suggested of the boy on the mountain?

I suspect that we all like to feel that we do better than the totally selfish response of wanting to keep everything for ourselves. I suspect also that few of us would claim to follow the teaching of Jesus entirely in both our thoughts and our actions without a second thought. Such devotion is beyond all but a very few whom we rightly revere as Saints.

That leaves most of us, to some extent or another, occupying the middle ground of willingly extending our help to family, friends and near-neighbours but still hesitant when asked to extend it yet further. Jesus was well aware of this human failing and tackled it head on in another of his well-known parables – The Good Samaritan. In that story he made it clear that we are all neighbours and that we must help anyone who is in need; not just those with whom we live in close proximity. So how can we use the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand to help us to extend our horizons further and care for all our brothers and sisters in this great global village in which we now live?  I suggest that we remember that for a miracle to happen, someone has to give up something of what they have for the benefit of those who have not – and that someone is me and you.

Sometimes the cause and effect are easy to see. The response to the Asian Tsunami a few years ago saw millions of people in the west give up a little of what they had and the miracle in terms of relief for the suffering happened before our eyes. In other cases the cause and effect is not so clear.

Every time we go shopping we make decisions that will affect our neighbours somewhere in the world. We may choose to buy food that has been flown in from the far corners of the earth or we may choose produce that has been produced here in the UK. We may choose Fairtrade products or we may go simply for the cheapest. When we make those decisions let us remember that for a miracle to happen, someone has to give up something of what they have for the benefit of those who have not.

Governments too, on our behalf, make decisions that have huge effects on our global neighbours. Encouraging farmers to grow oil-seed rape or use maize for the manufacture of bio fuel in order to keep down the cost of fuel has reduced the quantity of basic staple foods being grown and pushed up their cost to the detriment of the poor. The amount of maize needed to produce just one tank of fuel for a typical family car would feed a family of four in the third world for three months! Using fertile land to grow bio fuel in a world where millions are starving is not the answer to soaring fuel prices. Being prepared to give up some of our use of fuel for the benefit of others is the way for the miracle to happen.

We who live in relative luxury in the western world must take on board the fact that the day-to-day decisions we make have a radical effect on the lives of the poor throughout the world. To “Make Poverty History” will indeed take a miracle: but for that miracle to happen, we must follow the example of that small boy on the mountainside and be prepared to give up something of what we have for the benefit of those who have not.