Sunday, July 30, 2017

Our Scarcity or God's Abundance?

The story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand is a story that has been heard and preached countless times throughout the history of the church.  In the lectionary, in the year of Matthew for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, it is found in Matthew 14:13-21.  It bears close resemblance to the same tale as told in both Mark and Luke. This story lifts up two contrasting views of the world:  scarcity or abundance.  Which is the lens through which you look?

(The following questions are an attempt to unlock some of the concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this genre of preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available at or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions here mainly as Gospel.  The Gospel proclaims the simple message, "Here is Jesus," and here the Word is doing just that:  "Here is Jesus, the one who has compassion on the sick and injured, the one who feeds the hungry, the one who takes the little that we have and multiplies it for the sake of the world."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  It is tempting to lift up the attitude of the disciples in this story as they tell Jesus to send the hungry away to fend for themselves, and to use this occasion to scold our congregation for their lack of compassion.  There may be texts which function this way, but this is not one of them.  Jesus does not scold the disciples.  Even when they insist that they have nothing to give the hungry crowds, Jesus does not scold them, but simply says, "Bring [your loaves and fish] here to me."  The upshot is:  there is no word of Law here, no word which lifts up our need for Christ.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have two choices:  the disciples or the hungry crowd.  The Word addresses the disciples, but the Word (i.e. Jesus) also feeds the crowd.  If we choose to identify with the disciples, then we will need to deal with our lens of scarcity.  If we choose to identify with the hungry crowd, our posture may simply be one of awe and praise.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience comes in two short statements:  "You give them something to eat." and "Bring them here to me."  These two statements encompass our call to serve the hungry and the method by which we do that: we bring our gifts to Jesus and let Jesus multiply them.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Taking the view of the disciples, several couplets come to mind:  scarcity/abundance; doubt/faith.  If we take the view of the crowd our couplet, of course, would be:  hungry/filled.

6.  Exegetical work:  Douglas Hare, in his commentary (Interpretation series) reminds us that this is the only miracle story which appears in all 4 gospels. (Matthew, p. 165)  In looking at the original language it is noteworthy that the vocabulary and grammar used are very close to the same, especially in the Synoptic versions.  One place where the language is nearly identical is the account of the distribution of the loaves:  "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."  One wonders if this language was so close because it was an early liturgical formula for the eucharist/love feast.

The presence of numbers in this story has always puzzled me.   Why five, and two, and twelve, and five thousand?  Fourth century bishop, Hilary of Poitiers, interprets these numbers allegorically:  "We are invited to explain things by reasoning according to types.  It was not granted to the apostles to make and administer heavenly bread for the food of eternal life.  Yet their response reflected an ordered reasoning about types:  they had only five loaves and two fish. This means that up to then they depended on five loaves -- that is, the five books of the law.  And two fish nourished them - that is, the preaching of the prophets and of John." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol 1b, p. 7-8)  "The leftover fragments of bread and fish, after the people had their fill, amounted to twelve baskets.  Thus... an abundance of divine power, reserved for the Gentiles from the ministry of eternal food, was left over for the twelve apostles." (Ibid, p. 9)  "The same number of those eating proved to be the number of those who believed. As noted in the book of Acts, out of the countless people of Israel five thousand men believed." (Ibid, p. 9).

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Steve Kuhl does a superb job of lifting up the mindset of the disciples - futility - in the face of the needs of the world.  He points out how an attitude of futility makes us of little use to the world, and finally strangers to God.  Christ, however, breaks into this futility and sets us free for fruitfulness.  See the entire analysis, archived under Year A Gospel, 2011, by going to study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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