Food is a powerful symbol because it is so basic a need – life is not possible without it. When we eat together, whether we are feasting on our bounty or stretching our rations, we recognize our mutual need as bodily creatures – eating together is an act of solidarity that binds us together. This is why so many traditions have rules about who eats with who. It’s why family dinners are so important. It’s why wedding parties include feasts.
Our dependence on food also makes us vulnerable – to manipulation, to suffering, to desperation; or to greed and gluttony. And, dependant as we are on food, passionate as we are about food, we are fundamentally incapable of providing it for ourselves, just as we are incapable of making the rain come or the sun shine. Our food – our life – ultimately comes from God.
It is no wonder that the whole Bible overflows with tales that revolve around food. Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of stew. Jacob’s sons travelled to Egypt because of a famine. God fed Moses and the Israelites with miraculous bread from heaven when they wandered in the wilderness. Elijah and Elisha each demonstrated their power as prophet through miraculous provision and the poetry of Isaiah is filled with a vision of a heavenly banquet at which all creation is fed without bloodshed or conflict.
Jesus’ descriptions of the kingdom echo this vision of bounty and generosity and his life was one filled with dinner parties – with Mary and Martha and Lazarus; in the home of Simon Peter’s mother; with Pharisees; with Zaccheus; with the disciples.
And today we have the story of the feeding of the multitude – the dinner party to end all dinner parties.
A crowd has followed Jesus out into the wilderness, seeking healing even as he is seeking some quiet. Moved to compassion, he cures their sick, working all day to care for them. Finally, it is evening and the disciples want to send everyone on their way to find their own dinners. They themselves have thought ahead and brought dinner with them. Jesus, however, refuses to break up the party. “They need not go away;” he says “You give them something to eat.”
It isn’t hard to imagine the disciples’ reaction to this obviously ridiculous instruction. There were 5000 men plus who knows how many women and children (women and children being notoriously difficult to count) – there is simply no possible way the disciples could have brought enough food to feed the crowd. It is no wonder their response leans towards sarcasm in the tellings of this story found in the other Gospels.
In Matthew’s account, however, they just observe that all they have is five loaves of bread and two fish – a small meal even if reserved only for themselves. But Jesus is undeterred. He takes what they have, blesses it, and gives it to the disciples so they can carry out his instruction. The disciples give everyone something to eat, just as they were told to do – and there are still 12 baskets of leftovers.
This is the only miracle to be found in all four Gospels – and is actually found twice in Matthew. Such consistency serves as evidence that this story relates a crucial memory of Jesus’ first followers, saying something critical about who they knew Jesus to be and who they knew themselves to be.
It’s not just the impressiveness of the deed – this is a man who raised the dead and gave the blind their sight walked on water and calmed the storm. Stretching dinner, even to miraculous lengths, doesn’t really compare to such feats of power. So what makes this story so unforgettable, so important? I think it is what Jesus doesn’t do, along with what he does do.
First, what Jesus does do – Jesus provides food to hungry people in the wilderness. This is a divine act, for provision comes, ultimately, from God. This miracle recalls all those stories of God’s loving provision for the Israelites and the promise of the feast to come. In this miracle, Jesus claims this power for himself and embodies the will of God for all to be fed, for all to have life.
What Jesus does not do is serve as host, leaving that privilege for the disciples, even though, presumably, Jesus could have done the whole thing without the disciples at all – made food out of nothing; served everyone in an instant. But he doesn’t.
He takes what the disciples have and blesses it, making it sufficient for the task. Then he gives it back to the disciples so that they may feed the people.
In parable after parable, the host at the feast is God but, in this act, Jesus flips things upside down again and places his followers in the host’s chair. To be a host is a great thing – it’s a sign of abundance and of power, of compassion and generousity. In allowing the disciples to host this feast of the multitude, Jesus transforms them from mere students, or even simply dear friends, into partners in the work of God. “They need not go away,” Jesus says to his concerned disciples, “You give them something to eat” And then he makes it possible for them to do just that.
How important that must have been to those first followers of Jesus, trying to sort out who they were in the absence of their teacher. This story was important not only because it revealed Jesus but because it revealed them – it reveals us. This miracle does not only recall the salvation history that went before it – it points towards the salvation history that comes after it and the role Jesus’ followers are to play.
There was a meal at which Jesus served as host; a meal in which Jesus continues to serve as host. At the last supper he shared with his friends, on the night of his arrest, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples. Take and eat, he said to them on that night, as he provided them with the bread they would need to sustain themselves as partners in the work of God, in the ongoing unfolding of the story of salvation.
Take and eat – as he provided them with the bread they would need to feed the hungry and heal the sick and free the prisoner and proclaim the Kingdom of God. Take and eat – as he transformed them, for the last time, into hosts and not simply guests.
In just a little while, we will be invited to share this meal, to be joined to one another and to Jesus and to all of Jesus’ followers from all times and in all places. We will acknowledge our dependence on the gracious generousity of God, giving our thanks and praise. And we will offer ourselves to the service of God – which is the service of God’s creation – that we may be the embodiment of God’s will for all to be fed. For Jesus does not just say “take and eat” but rather “take, eat, and give them all something to eat too”. You have all been provided for.