“A Feast of Grace”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”
18And he said, “Bring them here to me.”
19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (NRSV)
“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
What Jesus heard was that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded by Herod. When Herod had openly taken a shine to his brother’s wife, Herodias, John did what prophets do. Speaking truth to power, he confronted Herod. And it cost John his life.
One might think John reckless for challenging a tyrant like Herod, but real prophets aren’t palm-readers making predictions. They are spiritually-grounded, visionary realists possessed by sufficient moral clarity, fearlessness, and love of neighbor to call out communities—and especially people of influence and privilege within those communities—for their selfishness and faithlessness. Prophets like St. Francis of Assisi, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King see how wrong-headedness and wrong-heartedness are hurting some people in the moment, and how, in time, they will destroy many more.
This made me wonder: Why doesn’t Jesus do the same? Why doesn’t he call out Herod for executing John—a revenge killing which isn’t called murder only because the state did it? Instead of declaring John’s death “unlawful,” Jesus scurries off “to a deserted place by himself.”
Maybe Jesus goes away to pray because, before he says anything, he has to grieve the death of someone he loved.
Maybe Jesus knows that if he confronts Herod, Herod would just kill him, and Jesus’ time has not yet come.
Maybe Jesus retreats to the wilderness to wrestle again with the temptation to do something dramatic, something to humiliate and defeat Herod. And that’s the very sort of thing old Beelzebub tried to get Jesus to do earlier—to impose his will on the world through manipulative and violent means. And Jesus knows that the kingdom of heaven does not and cannot arrive at the point of a spear. It is a gift revealed through expressions of compassion, forgiveness, and generosity.
A great crowd follows Jesus to the “deserted place.” In that wilderness of grief and of human frailty, Jesus witnesses to the kingdom of heaven with compassion, forgiveness, and generosity. He cares for those who bring to him nothing but their need.
The disciples show compassion and generosity for the crowd the best they know how. When it gets late, they say, Jesus, send them into the villages to buy food. They’re hungry, and we don’t have anything to give them.
Yes, you do, says Jesus.
Among them, the disciples have five loaves of bread and a couple of fish. They look at each other as if Jesus told a joke that wasn’t funny.
Jesus asks for their pittance of food and seats the crowd. Holding the loaves and the fish, he looks to the heavens, thanks God for what there is, and it becomes enough.
Some call it a physical miracle. If so, that’s pretty wonderful. If that’s the miracle, though, has Jesus only given in and done what he refused to do when the devil tempted him back in that first wilderness—turn stones into bread and astonish people with magic? Besides, when the people are hungry again in a few hours, then what?
Some call it a miracle of transformed hearts. Jesus takes a leap of faith and shares what little he has trusting that his actions will inspire others to do the same, whether they are people who have little to offer or people whose wealth makes them tight-fisted and greedy. A miracle like that may seem less “satisfying” than something supernatural; but it may be more nourishing because it can create ripple effects that continue to feed hungry people.
Or maybe this story, which is found in all four gospels, is not so much a report as it is a theological statement, a summation of the gospel itself: Jesus is Emmanuel, the incarnate expression of God’s abundant compassion, forgiveness, and generosity in and for the world. In Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, there is always enough.1
However one chooses to read this story, Jesus challenges all of us saying, “you give them something to eat.” The compassionate first-response to hungry, lost, broken people is not to try to “save” them. It’s not to pressure them to profess a specific belief system. The compassionate response to hungry people in deserted places is, like Jesus, to care for them and to feed them. This is especially true when, like Jesus after John’s death, we feel some sinister Herod nipping at our heels.
The story of the feeding of the five thousand illustrates that, in the face of threats and challenges, to live lovingly, compassionately, and generously is itself a kind of “cure.” Caring for and feeding others connects us to God’s presence and abundance. To reach out in generous love and compassion is to feast at God’s great banquet.
In contrast, to live fearfully and vengefully, to live as if we matter more than those around us, only increases our distance from God, from our neighbors, and from the earth. To live selfishly is to starve in the midst of God’s abundance.
Many years ago, my wife and I attended a funeral at a church in a different denomination. As part of that service, the officiant led in the celebration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. And he made it clear that only members of that particular tradition were allowed at the table. In that house of worship, only those who had previously agreed to understand communion in a certain way were welcome.
Going in, we knew that would be the case if communion were celebrated, but the actual experience unsettled us. We were practicing Christians and old friends of one member of the grieving family. And yet, while the “worthy” people lined up in the aisles, we had to keep our seats and watch. We were not allowed to receive the gift which God offers to all people through Christ.
The service wasn’t about us, so we didn’t dwell on it. Still, God’s resurrection feast was intentionally withheld from many people at time when a community had gathered to mourn the death of a loved one. Instead of feeding the crowd, the minister fenced off Christ’s table and declared it private property.
At Jonesborough Presbyterian we practice open communion. I try to make it clear that whenever this table is set, there is always room and there is always enough for everyone. Anyone can choose not to participate. That’s fine, but I want everyone to hear that the disciples who set this table have heard Jesus say to them, “They need not go away, you give them something to eat.”
Whether out there in that “deserted place” with Jesus, or here in this sanctuary thousands of miles away and thousands of years later, there is enough. There will always be enough at Christ’s table, because this, his feast of grace, is set with generous helpings of God’s eternal love.
1M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Abingdon Press, 1995. pp 325-326.