Are you a feeder too?
Are you a feeder too? Amen.
Are you a feeder too? My mother was, even though money was always short there was never a time when she couldn’t feed an extra mouth or two. In the 1950’s there were many people who struggled to feed their family.
In the world of the first-century Roman Empire there were massive inequalities about access to food. Many people knew food insecurity, as do those people today who rely on food banks, those depending on deliveries during the lockdown, or those struggling on a daily and seasonal basis for adequate food and nutrition.
The Roman Empire was very ordered in its social structure, with a small group of ruling elites who enjoyed an abundant variety of good quality food. But most of the population lived around, at, or below subsistence level with inadequate calories and nutrition. The petition in the Lord’s Prayer that God will supply daily bread reflects this situation then as now.
Food was power and the rich controlled resources. Lack of food was one of the ways many people experienced the injustices of inequality. It is also one of the reasons we see so many sick people in the gospels. Diseases of deprivation caused by inadequate nutrition and diseases of contagion, or inadequate immunity were rife.
Biblical tradition explicitly identifies God’s will that hungry people should be fed. God provides food for the wilderness, Ezekiel condemns Israel’s leaders or “shepherds” for failing to feed the sheep/people, and Isaiah declares God’s will is that people share their bread with the hungry.
In Matthew, Jesus endorses the merciful practice of charity that redistributes resources to those in need. He defends the practice of providing food as a way of honouring the Sabbath. He also declares that the nations will be judged in part on whether they have provided food for the hungry.
Traditions concerned with the establishment of God’s Kingdom in all its fullness, depict this coming age, in terms of abundant food and feasting for all. Ezekiel sees an age when “the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. This age of secure and nutritional food supply comes when God breaks the self-satisfying rule of imperial powers.
Isaiah anticipates an age when “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. One of the reasons that the new age is often represented in terms of abundant food is the absence of such food in the present.
Jesus’ action, here in Matthew, highlights and confronts this injustice of the Roman world with an action that demonstrates God’s will to feed hungry people and anticipates the coming age when God will supply abundant food.
Matthew’s scene is set in a “deserted place” or a “wilderness place.” Jesus removes himself from the destructive reach of the Roman ally, Herod, to demonstrate a different use of power reflecting God’s empire.
Crowds join Jesus in this deserted place. Jesus’ initial response is one of compassionate power expressed in healing. The disciples approach and, stating the obvious about it being a deserted place, instruct Jesus to send the crowds away to the villages to buy food. Jesus countermands them with a challenge for the disciples to feed the crowd.
They produce the five loaves and two fish. Jesus takes control and hosts the meal. He blesses the food and gives it to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. The language of “taking,” “loaves,” “blessed,” “broke” “gave to disciples”, “ate,” and “all” appear at the last supper but this is not a last supper because there is no cup! But the two are linked by the use of food in the spreading of divine blessing.
Jesus enacts God’s will that hungry people be fed. He anticipates the abundant blessing of good food described by Ezekiel and Isaiah in the time when God’s empire is established in full. And he echoes the miracles of Elijah in multiplying the oatmeal and oil of the widow of Zarephath, and of Elisha in multiplying the widow’s oil and in feeding one hundred people.
God intervenes in this scene to multiply the limited resources so that there is abundant food. Not only is the crowd of five thousand men plus women and children fed, there are leftovers, “twelve baskets full.” Jesus demonstrates his lordship over these food resources just as he demonstrates his authority over disease, sin, Sabbath, people’s lives, and the sea.
We should not miss the connection between this feeding in a wilderness place and that of the previous scene, Herod’s birthday party. There in the context of the celebration of power, wealth, alliances, and status, are collisions of the ruler and the prophet, the powerful and the poor, Roman imperial rule, power and the purposes of God. As a result, John loses his head, served up grotesquely on a platter like another dish for the party. Imperial power is dangerous for nay-saying prophets. Jesus hosts not a death-bringing meal of tyranny, but a life-giving feast embodying the gracious abundance of God.
Breaking bread together is a communal and sacramental act that echoes through scriptures and through the centuries. Sharing a meal is a primary means of creating and maintaining community. When Christians gather to break bread together, we remember and repeat Jesus' words and actions. In this sacred meal Christ satisfies our deepest hungers, heals our brokenness, binds us together as if one body, and strengthens us for service in the world. May we rekindle those memories very soon? Amen.
The Rev'd Maureen Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 02/08/2020