So, what’s going on in chapter 14 of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus feeds the 5000? Actually, one thing to note right away is that we often call the event “Jesus feeding the 5000,” but that number doesn’t include women and children, so the actual number of people he fed is much larger. And, it’s enlightening to look at this event in more detail (Matthew 14:13-21).
First, it occurs directly after Jesus hears that John the Baptist had been killed by Herod Antipas. Upon hearing of this, Jesus gets in a boat to go to a desolate place by himself. It seems he wants to be alone for awhile to mourn John’s death. We’re often the same way; wanting to be alone when we’re sad or upset, just to get away from everyone for a while.
But, Jesus can’t be alone. The crowds follow him on foot so that when he gets to the desolate place, intending to be alone, the crowd is there waiting for him. His plans are thwarted. Yet, he didn’t get upset or send the people away. Instead, “he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” You see, our God is a giving God; he’s always giving us himself. He has compassion on this crowd of sinners, and he has compassion on you. That’s why we go to worship at church, because we are sinners in need of Christ’s compassion and gifts.
Then, when it gets to the evening, Jesus’ disciples suggest to him that he should send the people away so that they could go to the villages and buy themselves food. The disciples think that Jesus is done giving, and now its time for the people to go fend for themselves. But, again, Jesus doesn’t send the people away. God isn’t done giving. Instead, Jesus says to his disciples, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Jesus’ disciples are called to continue his ministry of love and mercy. Jesus has given freely to the people; now his disciples are to do the same. They are to show the same love and care that Jesus shows; they are to be his instruments of care.
But, the disciples protest. They say, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” Don’t we often have similar protests when trying to do the things we know God would have us do? We don’t have enough. We’re not good enough. There’s not enough time. There’s no way we could possibly do it. But, Jesus doesn’t let our limitations limit him. He tells his disciples to bring him what they have, because that will be enough.
So Jesus takes what they have, blesses it, and then breaks the loaves to give to the disciples who then give them to the crowds. “And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over.” Jesus’ blessing multiplied what the disciples had brought him in order to carry out his own command to bless the people by feeding them. Jesus made sure that his disciples could carry out his commission to them by giving them what they needed to do so. God fulfills His own mandates.
Do you start to see the connection with our own time here? Jesus’ great commission to us, his Church (hence, his disciples), is to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching. And he equips us to do this. He empowers us with the Holy Spirit to teach and make disciples. We bring to him our weakness and insufficiencies, and he blesses us and gives us his strength and abundance so that we may bring His Gospel to all people. There’s an old saying regarding pastors as well: “God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called.”
There are a couple of other things in this text as well that are relevant for our time. First, do you see Jesus acting through his disciples? He could have fed everyone directly, immediately. He is God, after all, and he can multiply the bread and the fish. Yet, he chooses to feed everyone through his disciples, that is mediately – through his chosen means of grace.
In a similar way, he gives us his Gospel through means. That is to say, he gives us himself through means he has chosen, rather than directly or immediately. So, he comes to us through the Gospel preached by sinful, fallen men. Yet, the Gospel “is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
And he comes to us through the humble bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper; which, like the bread in Matthew 14 is broken, blessed by the words of Christ, and distributed to us for our blessing. Yet it’s not just plain bread, but the very body and blood of Christ which is given to us for our salvation.
And he comes to us through the simple waters of Baptism, which – however – is not simply water, but the very blessing of God whereby He buries us with Christ and raises us to new life with him. In Baptism we are given God’s name and connected with Christ’s death and resurrection and made the children of God through the faith which believes this.
The point is that Christ comes to us through created means. He blesses us – his created, embodied creatures – through means we can hear, touch, and taste. Our God engages all our senses in order to bring us to faith and keep us in faith. Since He created us as people with a body and a soul, He blesses both of our natures, because He is redeeming both of our natures from captivity to sin, death, and the devil. And ultimately, we will receive the full restoration at the resurrection.
And, like you see in Matthew 14, our God never gets tired of caring for us. We can’t wear him out through too much prayer. So, keep coming to him with your concerns and sorrows, even if you don’t know how or what to pray for, because he has promised that you have the Holy Spirit speaking for you when you cannot (Romans 8:26). Keep relying on God’s grace and mercy. Prayer is your opportunity to bring him your pains and thoughts and worries and thanks. Then, go to His means of grace to receive His grace and mercy and love. It’s like two one-way streets: you go to the Lord in prayer; He continually comes to you in the preached Gospel and the Lord’s Supper.
And the Lord is always inviting you to Him. He never sends you away. You hear it in the Gospel reading for today and you hear it in Isaiah, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1-5). The Lord gives freely. You hear it in the Psalm, “His steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1-9).
This is a steadfast love which is made manifest in Jesus Christ. The miracle in his feeding of the 5000 is not that he somehow got everyone to share what they had brought. The people had nothing. The disciples just had five loaves and two fish. It’s not as if the people provided the food or that it was within their or the disciples’ power to accomplish this immense task. It was Jesus Christ who did it all. He blessed what they had and multiplied it. He is the Lord God who speaks and creates. He is our Creator in the flesh. He fed the people through what he had created, blessing through His means of grace. He gives himself to sinners.
And He continues in our own time to work through His means of grace of the Gospel and Sacraments to bring to us sinners His love, care, and forgiveness. He also works through His creation to bless His creation. He works through His Church to bring us these means of grace and to gather us together as His people. He works through parents to care for children. He works through husbands to love their wives as Christ loves his Church; a sacrificial, all-forgiving love. He works through wives to love their husbands as the Church loves Christ; an honoring, respectful love. He works through government to keep order in the world. He works through farmers, teachers, doctors, electrician, plumbers, garbage collectors, and all other God-pleasing vocations to keep this world in its proper order and function.
And most importantly, God works through Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the very Word of God made flesh. Jesus came to die for your sins and to rise to defeat eternal death, freeing you from captivity and making you God’s people instead. And he is returning to resurrect you and bring you and all the Church into the promised land of this restored creation where you will eat and drink freely. He is the promised one spoken of in the Old and New Testaments, and he has had compassion on you and has not sent you away, but rather called you to himself. Amen.
(Image – note that the altar has an image of Jesus feeding the people: Maître-autel de l’église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Baguer-Morvan; by GO69 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16960592 )