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.


Jesus talks to the Samaritan Woman

Given by David Teall
24th February, 2008
John Chapter 4

DavidTeallFor a few years after we retired my wife, Pat, and I lived on board a sailing boat in the Mediterranean. I well remember an occasion when, after a short sail from a neighbouring island, we moored in a deserted bay on the northern side of the island of Meganisi in Western Greece. We were low on food and decided that there was just about time to walk up the hill to a nearby village before the shops shut for their afternoon siesta.

As we left our boat it was about noon. The sky was a deep Mediterranean blue with not a cloud to be seen and there was not a breath of wind. It was hot – very hot indeed. As we struggled up the hill we zig-zagged from one side of the road to the other to keep wherever possible in the minimal amount of shade cast by the occasional olive tree. Every few hundred metres we stopped under a tree to catch our breath, wipe the sweat from our eyes and take another sip from the bottles of water that we had taken with us for the journey. By the time we reached the village we were feeling extremely hot and bothered and needed a sit down and yet another drink before we felt able to face doing the shopping. Walking up hill under the Mediterranean noon-day sun is definitely something to be avoided if at all possible.

Our walk to the village and back was no more than three miles. When Jesus arrived at Jacob’s Well, he and his disciples had walked many times further than that. They had been in Jerusalem for the Passover and were now on their way back to Galilee, a distance of at least 80 miles. That’s about as far as from here to London. Jacob’s Well was in a mountainous area of Samaria about half way along the route. If you imagine yourself walking from here to London, that’s somewhere around Bedford! No wonder John tells us that Jesus was ‘tired out by his journey’. Picture the scene in your mind: Jesus sitting by the well, very probably in the shade of an Olive tree, taking a well-earned rest after maybe six hours of hard walking along a mountainous path. Can you understand his tiredness? Can you appreciate his need to sit down for awhile? Of course you can. It is a very normal part of being human that we have all experienced and all understand. Jesus the man – I shall return to that.

When we set off up the hill to the village in Greece we took the longer route that skirted around the hill rather then the direct route that went straight over the top. We were approaching sixty years of age and knew our limitations! By contrast, Jesus was in his early thirties and was no doubt, a very fit man. He chose to go the shortest route from Judea to Galilee which took him through the mountainous lands of Samaria. The alternative route up the Jordan Valley would have been at least 40 miles further. At the time of Jesus there had been friction between the Jews and the Samaritans for hundreds of years. There are several disputed stories about their origins but the Biblical evidence comes from the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 17. From this text we learn that, in about 722 BC, the King of Assyria captured Samaria, deported most of the Israelites and brought in many settlers from foreign lands. Other versions of the story suggest that some of the Jews who escaped deportation to Assyria remained and inter-married with the tribes who were brought in. Whether this is true or not, aided by a priest appointed by the King, the Samaritans developed a religion based on the first five books of the Old Testament and they claimed that they were the true successors of the Law of Moses, not the Jews.

Around 250 BC the Samaritans rebuilt Shechem (Sychar) and built a temple to Yahweh on Mount Gerizim, not far from the Well of Jacob. This temple stood until it was destroyed by the Jews in 128 BC. However, the ‘Samaritan problem’ did not go away. In 6 AD, when Jesus was a young child, some Samaritans crept into the Jerusalem Temple and scattered human bones in it, an act of desecration. The repercussions of this outrage rumbled on throughout the life of Jesus until eventually, a few years after his crucifixion, Pontius Pilate ordered a massacre of Samaritans on Mount Gerizim. What we now refer to as ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, now thankfully behind us, were very short-lived by comparison with the Samaritan Problem’.

This then is the background to the seemingly simple picture of Jesus sitting by a well talking to a local woman. According to the received wisdom of the time there were two very good reasons why he should not have engaged her in conversation: first she was a woman and secondly, she was a Samaritan. But Jesus, whose willingness to engage with those whom others considered to be outcasts had frequently got him into trouble, had no time for racial or sexual discrimination and so, whilst the disciples were shopping for food, they talked.

No doubt we only have an abridged report of what was said from John, but what a conversation it was! What is it that we are taught about making conversation with strangers: avoid talking about relationships, religion or politics. And what did Jesus talk to the Samaritan woman about? Relationships, religion and politics! There are several gems within the conversation which I could expand upon but they are all eclipsed by what is arguably the most dramatic scene described in the New Testament: Jesus volunteers the information that he is the Messiah: ‘I am he,’ he said ‘the one who is speaking to you.’

There are other accounts in the New Testament where we learn from Jesus that he is the Messiah, but none as direct as this. In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus affirms Peter’s statement that he is the Messiah and the Son of God, but he does not utter the words himself. Later in the same three gospels, Jesus tells the High Priest that he is the Messiah, but only in response to a question. In his conversation with the Samaritan woman he volunteered the information at a point when he could easily have remained silent. What can we learn from this remarkable decision?

Jesus was on a mission. He was on earth to establish a new covenant between God and his people: all his people; not just the Jews. What better way to deliver that message than to reveal his true identity to someone as far removed from the Jewish leaders of the time as possible: a Samaritan woman? This was, in the modern idiom, breaking news of the most spectacular order. If they had had today’s technology there would have been helicopters jostling for position over head and television satellite vans backed up on the road all the way to Jerusalem!

We started this story with a vivid picture of the humanity of Jesus sitting down in the shade for a well-earned rest. Through his conversation with the Samaritan woman we are brought face to face with his divinity. He is able to tell her ‘everything that she has ever done’; he speaks with authority on the nature of worship and he reveals that he is the Messiah – God’s chosen one. Here, by Jacob’s well, the Samaritan woman, an outsider, someone the disciples would have preferred to ignore, met the man who is God whom we now worship. She believed in him and it changed her life. What a powerful and irresistible image that is. Try to keep it with you throughout the rest of today.

Along with that vision, one final question to leave you with: who is the modern equivalent of the Samaritan Woman? Who is the ‘outsider’ that we feel can never share a part of God’s Kingdom, but whom Jesus wants us to include? Could it be members of other faiths perhaps? Or, within our own Church, could it be Women Bishops or Gay Clergy? Or even closer to home, could it be someone who simply lives in a different part of the village, or who wears very different types of clothes? Such questions can be very difficult to answer as Jesus never said that we should condone the breaking of God’s law: His passionate over-turning of the tables in the temple is testament to that. However, by revealing his true identity to the Samaritan woman, Jesus challenged the prejudices of his time and of his disciples in particular and forced them to re-evaluate what was and was not against God’s law. His encounter at Jacob’s Well challenges us no less today. Let us go out into the world this week more firmly resolved to confront our prejudices and to open our hearts to all of God’s people.