Growing up, my kids used to hate watching TV with me. It was because I am good at figuring out plot twists, I would often spoil the show for them. I didn’t mean to, but often I couldn’t help myself. Part of the reason why it was easy is that all the important clues are given in the first five minutes, almost as a rule. If you pay attention at the beginning, you can usually figure things out before the end.
Today is an example of that. No spoiler alert here, it’s one of the most beloved stories in Scripture and we know it well. But I have to tell you that the clues at the beginning are missing and we really need that to understand it fully, to figure out the end.
In their infinite wisdom, those who decide on these things, chose to tidy things up, to leave out the one sentence in the portion that we heard this morning. It is the connection between the verses of this chapter. A small thing, really. But it’s the entire motivation for what comes next.
We’ve learned about, and thought of the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes as one stand-alone, amazing event. It is not. It is part of a narrative that gives us insight into Jesus and the story of salvation.
So what got left out? “Now, when Jesus heard this…” that’s it? Yes. so the sentence should read “Now, when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there on a boat to a deserted place by himself.” You might not think it makes a difference, but doesn’t it make you wonder what did Jesus hear that he reacted this way?
What he heard about was the terrible, gruesome death by beheading of his cousin, friend and mentor: John the Baptist. John who had leapt in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice; John, who foretold of Jesus’ advent, who had baptized him in the Jordan, John the prophet, had been killed by Herod in a spectacularly cynical way.
This is what makes Jesus withdraw. To escape a similar fate, maybe; to gather himself, I’m sure; to pray, most certainly. Filled with sorrow and shock, he does what any of us would do until he’s ready to face such awful reality.
But, he’s not alone in this. No, the murder of John the Baptist is a major event for everyone. As a prophet, a man of God, he was not popular with the establishment, which is why he had been jailed. Killing him was something else, over-the-top. Compare it to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, or JFK. something of that scale.
That’s the reason for the crowds. They’re not out there because it’s a nice day. They’re out there because something terrible, unimaginable, has happened and they don’t know what to do next. That explains why they have no food. They seek Jesus because they feel vulnerable, crushed, lost, and hope that he might have the answer, might be able to comfort them somehow.
When he sees them, their pain, their confusion, their anguish, Jesus is gutted. The text says: “he has compassion for them.” but the Greek word is closer to a gut-wrenching reaction. His heart goes out to them. John the Baptist’s death crystallizes and propels him into mission: there is no going back now. He is on his own.
Well, no, he has his disciples who dutifully remind him of their own inadequacies and the hazards of managing an uncontrolled crowd: they need to go home, fend for themselves, figure it out.
I wonder how long it took Jesus to take in that piece of information.
I wonder how long it took to reply: “no need, you feed them.”
I know my answer would have been out of my mouth almost before He finished speaking. Everytime I read that part of this miracle, his words leave me gutted. I imagine it was the same for the disciples. You want us to do what?
Now here’s the point where, if this were a TV show, the main character comes up with a MacGyver solution, and says: “here’s what we’re gonna do…” or maybe this is where the show got its inspiration: Jesus takes a meager offering of fish and bread, blesses and brakes it, and all are filled. We know the rest.
But Jesus is no TV hero. This is not about saving the day, it’s about saving our souls.
Do not overlook the implications of what he does: his alignment with the crowds, feeding them, healing them, comforting them, increases his visibility and popularity and makes him a wanted man. Miraculous though it is, his actions are profoundly destabilizing when added to his speaking about the Kingdom of God, he becomes a challenge to those in power.
And so it has been ever since.
Because we have power, too. Jesus didn’t ask his disciples to feed the crowd in vain. “You feed them,” is an invitation to participate in something grander than our small versions of salvation. It is a call to look out onto the crowds and, though gutted by their need, to have enough compassion, creativity and energy to do something about it. We may not know it will go a given moment, but Jesus does.
The miracle is only part of the story.
Right now, there are crowds gathering and reeling from racial injustice; there are crowds decimated by poverty; there are crowds facing unemployment and evictions and eventual homelessness. There are crowds that live in fear of deportation; crowds wallowing in loneliness and abandonment. Crowds that are hungry for a little kindness. “You take care of them,” Jesus says, and then he shows us that we are not alone in this ministry, not by a long shot. In fact, discipleship is full of possibilities, sometimes even miracles.
This story starts in sorrow and distress, but how will it end?
Spoiler alert: we already know the ending. Through Jesus we find our life among the vulnerable; we give whatever we’ve, ourselves, our souls and bodies, even if it seems inadequate; when overwhelmed, we can count on him being always by our side. Through him we are blessed to be a blessing. And what a miracle that is! Amen.