Readings: Matthew 14:14-22; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, Ezekiel 34:11-23, 2 Kings 40-44, Psalm 23.
All four gospels tell the story—or actually, the stories about how Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes, and fed multitudes. The Orthodox Church gives the same weight to this action of Jesus, since we read not only the version from Matthew 14:14-22 this Sunday, but also that of Mark 6:30-45 on the 15th Thursday after Pentecost, Mark 8:1-10 on the 16th Friday after Pentecost, and Luke 9:7-18 on the 21st Thursday after Pentecost. (John also tells the story in chapter 6 of his gospel!) Why are these stories so important for the Christian family? After all, Jesus is not the only one to have performed such a miracle—Elisha also multiplied loaves, making 20 loaves sufficient by his prayers to feed 100 men (2 Kings 4:40 -44). In fact, John’s version of the story of Jesus’ feeding seems to deliberately recall the prophet’s action, by pointing out that Jesus, like Elisha, was dealing with barley loaves (John 6:9). And at the end of his telling, John the evangelist comments that the common people recognized the parallel, and said about Jesus, “surely this is the prophet who was to come into the world!”
Of course, Jesus’ miracle is greater! He makes 5 loaves and 2 fish sufficient to feed 5,000 men PLUS all their women and children. But surely that is not the only contrast. For Jesus, though prophet, priest and king, is not simply a BIGGER and more spectacular prophet that Elisha, There is not simply a quantitative difference but a qualitative difference—Only one is holy! Only one is the Lord. So, then, why is this miracle so very important?
The answer is in the details. Here is Matthew’s version of the feeding:
At that time, when Jesus went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to Him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to Him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And He said, “Bring them here to Me.” Then He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass; and taking the five loaves and the two fish He looked up to Heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. Then Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He dismissed the crowds.
Jesus has had compassion on the throng, and healed them. What he does for them at the end of a long day is consonant with his compassion—he feeds them so that that “all ate and were satisfied.” Here is a Lord who does not simply care to instruct, or even to heal souls and minds, but to heal and nurture bodies. Our Lord knows, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann put it, that Man is a hungry animal. Our physical hunger is a reflection of our hunger for God. God has made us material beings, and has created the world so that it will satisfy us, and also so that we will, like Jesus, bless it. In the beginning there was no emnity between man and the rest of creation, for human beings were meant to see God “shine in all that’s fair”—as a western hymn puts it. The sin of our ancestors was not that they made provision for the body, but they ate in the wrong time, and with the wrong motive: they wanted to displace God, rather than honour God with their bodies, and with the fruit of creation.
This is a very good passage for us to remember as we come to the end of the Dormition fast. Sometimes it is easy to forget that the purpose of the fast is not to suggest that physical things are evil, or unimportant—the purpose is to show our total dependence upon the God who gives such wonders. Here, the people find themselves dependent upon Jesus. The disciples would have sent them off to fend for themselves, but Jesus has a different lesson to teach them. He sets them on the green grass, like the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23, who feeds his flock on green pastures, and he distributes the blessed food to them by means of his disciples. He is, if you like, creating a new family. His disciples serve, as older family members serve their young, and the group eats together, enjoying the bounty. In case we miss the significance, Jesus calls on his disciples to collect the remnants—nothing is to be lost. And, we are told, 12 baskets are left over—12, the number of the tribes of Israel, just as there also were 12 disciples. Israel is being reconstituted around Jesus, with the disciples standing in for the family-heads, and the people being served by them! They are not to lord it over their family-members, but to serve, just as Jesus has served.
In this scene, then, we have reminders about God’s care for the physical creation, God’s knowledge of our physical needs, God’s creation of a new family gathered around the Lord, and served by the apostles. In their dependence upon the Lord and their being in the company of the apostles, this new family shows its unity. Gathered by the compassion of Jesus, they receive what they need for both body and soul! And they see, with the disciples, a new way of leading. Like the compassionate Lord, the twelve SERVE them, rather than taking their place as kings.
There, in the sight of ordinary men, women and children in the Holy Land, the prophetic promises were being fulfilled. God had promised that the time would come when he would seek his people, like a Shepherd seeking lost sheep, and when he would put a new Messiah, an anointed one even greater than David, in their midst to lead them:
For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the fountains, and in all the inhabited places of the country.
I will feed them with good pasture, and upon the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on fat pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice…. And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. (Eze 34:11-23 RSV)
So, then, the time would come when God would gather his flock, heal them, strengthen them, and feed them, and would put over them one shepherd, an anointed NEW David, Jesus our Lord. Here, in Matthew’s gospel, we see this fulfilled—Jesus heals, instructs and feeds, and sets over the flock twelve good under-shepherds to serve rather than to abuse them. Finally, he watches as twelve baskets of left-overs are collected, reminding us of the people of Israel and the abundant bounty of God. For a brief, idyllic moment, we see a picture of the new kingdom, everyone around the Lord, while they are being nurtured, fed, and healed.
Of course, everything was not idyllic in every situation. The early Church knew its moments of discord and lack of faith: we are grateful that the NT writings don’t air-brush this, but show us the knitty gritty, so that we can have hope in our own day.* So it is that 1 Cor 1:10-17 exposes the problems of the Corinthian church:
Brethren, I appeal to you, by the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissension among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispos and Gaius; lest anyone should say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the Gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
The apostle Paul begs his new family to remember who they are and whose they are. They are to be completely united. The Greek is even stronger than our English, where we hear, “I appeal to you that all of you agree.’ It says, quite, literally, ‘that all of you say the same thing.” The agreement was to be perfect unity in belief, as they declared, without any differences, the creed and the kind of living that must follow from it. After all, if there is ONE LORD, there must be ONE people. The quarrelling among the Corinthians appears to have included disagreements as to who was the true leader—Paul, Apollos, Peter (here called by his Aramaic name, Cephas). It also appears that they disagreed about morals, for Paul goes on to chastise them for tolerating a man in their midst who was committing incest. And it looks as though there was arrogance, for they were not making room for each other in love. The apostle takes them back to the beginning, to the cross of Christ. How could they possibly be boasting about WHO had baptized them, when baptism was a sign of dying to the world, and dying with Christ? Had they forgotten the compassion of the Christ who healed and fed, and who used his disciples to further that ministry? Had they forgotten the wonder of eating together, and being a family together, provided for by God? Evidently, for later in his letter, he must chastise them for not discerning this when they received the holy mysteries. They were keeping to the form, but forgetting the mysterious presence of the Lord among them!
The basis of their identity as a family is that shocking sign of the CROSS— that great passion of the Lord, into which the mother of the family, the Theotokos, had also entered. There, we are told elsewhere by Saint Paul, “the One who knew no sin was made sin so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Our pure lady knew this sorrow, this humility, this being made nothing for the sake of others, as well. She had caught a glimmering of it when forced to flee to Egypt, when afraid that her twelve-year-old son was lost, and she found him in the temple, when worried that the cares of his ministry would destroy her young man, now going among the people. And, the sword truly pierced her heart at the cross, when she was powerless to bear Him, for truly, he was bearing her—and all of us! The Theotokos had been given into the hands of the beloved disciple, John, another sign of the new make-up of this godly-constructed family. And, in honor of her, the disciples lingered at her own bedside, being assured that in their mother, taken bodily to Christ after her death, they saw the glory promised to us all! We, part of the family of Christ, we, who honor his godly mother, also will appear in glory with him, in our own turn! But the glory comes from the humility. It comes from counting others better than ourselves. It comes from being prepared to suffer for others, just as our Lord Jesus (and his holy Mother, too!) suffered. St. Paul puts it this way, “If we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.” (Rom 8:17-18)
Our message, then, is not one of eloquent wisdom, but of what St. Paul called “the foolishness of the cross.” It is a message of the loving compassion of our God who took on all that it is to be human, going even to the death of a shameful criminal, so that he might raise us up with him. Elisha helped out the men who were hungry, who were working alongside of him. Jesus not only fed the crowds, but became for all the bread of life! And so, as we come to the end of the Fast of his Holy Mother, let us pray that we will learn his humility, and her patience, as we live in this new human race, this family that God is forming around Christ. God has, through Christ, given to us the Holy Spirit as an adornment, so that we might see his glory. And we see a great sign of that glory in our Mother, the Theotokos, whom we commemorate this day:
In the Immaterial Spirit,
the whole world hath been mystically adorned
upon thy glorious memory;
and it doth cry to thee joyously:
Rejoice, O Virgin, thou boast of the Christian race.