Proper 13, A
The feeding of the 5000 is such a familiar story for most of us that it’s hard to grasp its significance. There are two aspects of the context of this story that may help us recover our appreciation.
The first one requires a bit of historical setting on what was happening in Palestine prior to and during the lifetime of Jesus. Remember that when the Hebrews entered the land from Egypt, they were nomads who lived off their flocks. After they entered the promised land they gradually became farmers. They settled into farming villages and the land they owned was passed on to their sons.
When farmers own their own land, they can handle bad years because they always have food for their families. But what was going on in the time Jesus was growing up, was that many farmers lost their land and either moved on to the big city or became tenant farmers, also known as sharecroppers.
I’ve read that at the time Jesus was preaching, just three families owned most of the farm land in Palestine. These families decided what the farmers would grow and they wanted to grow whatever Rome wanted to buy. So the tenant farmers had to plant what they were told, and their own families often went hungry, especially in poor crop years.
Warren Carter, in commenting on this reading, noted that a lack of food was one of the ways people of that time experienced this disparity in power and wealth. “It is also one of the reasons we see so many sick people in the Gospels.”
John Dominc Crossan calls this gradual process the Romanization of Palestine. And the same process was beginning to happen to the fishing business on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus was preaching. This Romanization of Palestine inevitably led to a widening gap between the elites, who owned the resources, and the rest of the population.
The second thing to consider is how Matthew sets the context for the telling of this miracle story. We’ve heard in the last few weeks numerous parables about the Kingdom of God. It’s like a mustard seed, it’s like yeast, it’s like a pearl of great price, it’s like a net thrown into the sea, etc.
These are followed by the story of Herod’s birthday party, where all the elite gathered to feast on sumptuous food and the very best wines. They were entertained by the dancing of his step daughter Salome. When Herod promised her whatever she wanted in return, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod complied and John’s head was brought in to the dinner party on a platter.
Consider the contrast of this to the feeding of the 5000, which immediately follows. Here we have a large crowd of country people, probably mostly farmers and fishermen, who stay with Jesus into the dinner hour. Jesus takes 5 loaves and two fish, blesses them and feeds the entire crowd with basketfuls left over. Not rich food, not fancy food, but fish and bread, just enough for everyone to be fed and some left over – so say, only a small bit more than enough. No fancy wine, no killing, no body parts carried in on a platter.
Let’s remember, too, that the people surrounding Jesus were seeing and living through this Romanization of their country. And no doubt the story of Herod’s party and the death of John had spread quickly throughout the countryside. Now consider what they might have thought about this experience of dining with Jesus. The contrast to the rest of their reality is what is so striking. The feeding of the crowd is like another parable about the Kingdom of God. This is what life would be like in the Kingdom of God, not at all like life in the Empire of Rome.
I’ve always loved this story because it is a story of abundance. But what else does it say when you contrast it with what came before? Herod had everything a person could want in his world, yet he caps his party by killing John the Baptist AND bringing his head in on a platter. What kind of food is that? How does his behavior compare to the compassion and generosity shown by Jesus?
What do these passages have to say about the difference between the abundance of luxuries and the abundance of the basics? God’s abundance is about living a full and meaningful life, not a life of waste and extravagance. So how do you define what is necessary and what it luxury?
In today’s reading from Isaiah, the prophet says, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?”
Clearly bread here represents the necessities of life, which includes bread, but is not limited to that. My short list of necessities includes the following: clean air and water, shelter, enough food in enough variety to stay healthy, practical clothing, and creative opportunities – to be able to do useful work, create art, music, tools, and laughter.
You might have a different list, but I want you to make a list this week. What are the necessities of life? Are cars on the list? Cell phones? How about loving relationships, a family, a community? An easy chair? How about artificial light? How much of your money do you spend on things that are not necessities? I’m almost afraid to look, but I will look this week and I hope you will too.
Think of the families you know where both parents work full time. I’m sure some of them have to do that to make ends meet, but how many families do this because they have to have so much stuff above and beyond the necessities?
One of the curious things about luxuries, about stuff that we accumulate, is that no matter how much we have, it is usually not enough. This tends to create the push to always work for more, but the truth is that no amount of stuff is going to satisfy us. What Jesus understood is that we need love, compassion for others, meaningful relationships, satisfying work, and just enough stuff to keep us going. Having enough can be very satisfying when we have rich relationships.
Ten days ago we discovered our sewer line was plugged. We thought we were going to have to live for four or five days without sewer. Suddenly, we realized how important the sewer was for our daily life. Is it a necessity? Well, not really. People lived for millennia without them, but, Oh my, life is certainly more complicated without them in this day and age. Just one more luxury for which to be grateful!
What are the luxuries in your life? Which ones satisfy you and which ones don’t? Make a list and check it twice. Eliminate the things that do not satisfy. And then thank God for all that you are and all that you have. AMEN