Proper 13 • Matthew 14:13–21 • July 31, 2011
By Henry Rowold
As happens regularly in Scripture, this pericope is so rich that it can evoke an entire series of sermons, without stretching or duplicating: Jesus withdrew from the crowd (also 12:15, and other places specify his retreat for prayer); Jesus has compassion, and heals and feeds multitudes of people; Jesus’s grace is so full it cannot be fully consumed even by “five thousand men, besides women and children.”
Part of the homiletical task is making choices, which means putting themes not chosen into a file for future use. The homiletical goal is to give such clarity and specificity to the sermon that both message and application of law and gospel will reverberate in the minds and hearts of hearers long after the preaching occasion itself is over. As applied to this homiletical exercise, the theme chosen is discipleship, which follows the theme of prior entries in the “Homiletical Helps” section.
The Lord shows a lordly majesty when he calls his disciples, expressed in a bald two-word call: follow me. This involves a claim that there is about the Lord and following the Lord something of more consequence and more value than any other pursuit, whether fishery or tax-collect-ery or any other-ery. At the same time, the claim is an invitation into being as close as any other human ever got to him who brought salvation and life to this entire world. Follow me.
Understandably, even if surprisingly, the disciples seem to have bought in. They didn’t press for details or timetables or benefits; if they did due diligence, they did it by instinctive reaction. And they left what they had been doing (or better, who they had been), and they followed.
Today’s gospel fits into the train of incidents Matthew puts together to illustrate what that following came to mean. There was clearly the chance to hear Jesus’ captivating, convicting words in his Sermon on the Mount, as well as other words along the way. There were, in addition, those times when Jesus healed what seemed broken or diseased beyond hope: leprosy (8:1–4); demons and spirits (8:16, 28–34); paralysis (9:1–6); blindness (9:27–30); withered hand (12:10–13). There was also that time Jesus rebuked and calmed winds and sea (8:23–27). To have been there, and experienced, and maybe even felt a tinge of those bursts of divine, lordly energy must have been exhilarating. Following Jesus—what a heady, overpowering bit of grace!
The description in our gospel lesson for today follows this pattern, though with a bit of a reality check toward the end. Five thousand people—actually more, because the five thousand counted only men, not the women and children with them (10,000; 12,000; 15,000?). There’s no way to tell, but families weren’t small in those days, and 15,000 counts only one wife and one child per man. The numbers don’t matter so much, though, as the notice that it was no small crowd that came to “a desolate place” (ἔρημος) without even thinking ahead to food or lodging!
The wilderness is often described as the place for wild beasts and spirits, and thus a fitting place for Jesus’s temptation (Mt 4:1–11). However, Jesus also retreats in/to the wilderness (Mk 1:35, 45; Lk 1:80), to rest (Mk 6:31) and to pray “often” (Lk 5:16). Further, the wilderness is where the shepherd goes to find and rescue the one lost sheep (Lk 15:4) . . . or the multitude of sheep “without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36).
Matthew notes that Jesus felt compassion on the crowds and healed their sick. As “compassion” (σπλαγχνίζομαι) is used of Christ, it denotes not merely a feeling of pity or even empathy, but a movement of the heart that leads to a consequent action, often healing (9:36; 15:32; 18:27).
The disciples also must have felt compassion for the crowds, for they come to the Lord suggesting that evening is no place for thousands in this wilderness place, and they suggest that the Lord should release them to go to the villages for food (lodging too?). What made the disciples’ eyes pop wide open, though, was when the Lord looked them in the eye, and said, “Feed them” (lit. you give them to eat—imperative with emphasis on you). Feed them? How were the disciples going to do that? I suspect they were wondering how even the villages were going to handle those crowds. Feed them? Incredulous! Impossible! But the Lord wasn’t smiling. He asked the disciples to bring what they could come up with, namely five loaves and two fish—not enough to feed the disciples and the Lord, much less thousands. He took them, though, and with a word of blessing, gave them back to the disciples to feed the crowds, the thousands. He did what they couldn’t.
What must have caught the disciples by surprise was likely not merely that Jesus did what he did, because he’d been doing it for chapters. What must have taken them aback was putting two lordly imperatives together: Follow me . . . feed them.
Follow me, up till now a joy. Follow me, as Jesus teaches and leads, yes . . . and as he touches and heals, yes . . . and as he brings the crowds into the wilderness, yes. But feed them? How do we follow that—not just the command, but the Lord?
The first lesson is this. The Lord uses what the disciples bring, and gives those blessed and charged loaves and fish back to the disciples to distribute, and distribute, and distribute until all eat—presumably disciples too. In a delegated way, the disciples did “feed them.” They, of course, did not multiply the loaves and fish, but they took what the Lord made of their loaves and fish, and brought the food to the crowds. Jesus brought his disciples into his compassion and into his touch of love and grace—and one step closer to the Lord himself. They weren’t just spectators, they were disciples. And the final touch of grace was in picking up the left-overs, more than the loaves and fish with which they started. The disciples are brought into not merely the task of feeding but into the surpassing love of the Lord, whose grace is not exhausted by hesitant disciples, by desolate wilderness, or by crowds in the thousands.
As big a step as this was for the disciples, it was only one step . . . that led ultimately to the call to follow when Jesus hung on the cross. That was not an easy process either, nor a quick one, but with the exception of John (who died in exile), all did eventually follow the Lord’s steps of laying down their lives for the sake of the gospel—in a sense, as an expression of the gospel. Follow me. But nowhere were the disciples closer to the Lord than when their lives were demanded and surrendered. Indeed, as the Lord promised, they themselves were still following to the place the Lord had prepared for them. In the process, though, they were still distributing the spiritual food of him who not only provided the food, but was himself the bread of life.
What an incredibly rich and captivating gospel lesson. Jesus’s ministry extends to the desolate wilderness, where many in this bewildering world live, and he feeds them/ us. Jesus takes the piddling loaves and fish that the disciples may well have written off as so inadequate as to be not worth mentioning—but the Lord takes and blesses and uses them far in excess of anything they could do or imagine. Jesus pulls incredulous disciples into his ministry, and allows them, to the level they could, to feed the crowds. Jesus’s compassion is so full that it far surpasses the needs of the crowds or disciples, with baskets of left-overs!
Discipleship is not a matter only for those who walk the pages of Scripture. At his ascension, Jesus called on disciples to make disciples, a self-replicating dynamic that spans the centuries and the nations. Thankfully, his grace has caught up with us as well, and we too are called to follow . . . in our wildernesses and places of darkness and fear; in our awareness of our inadequacies and weakness; in our fear that what we bring to the task is so trivial or tainted that it can hardly serve the Lord; in our hesitation to take the steps toward the Lord as he calls us closer to him and to his ministry. Remember the loaves and fish—they fed thousands. Remember the baskets of left-overs. Remember the Lord’s patience with those hesitant disciples. Remember the Lord, and trust him who has redeemed and called us, and is with us at every step (Mt 28:20).
These notes are admittedly fuller on the biblical material, and still in need of expanded application as specific contexts provide. So also with the focus of this homiletical study, which concentrates on the discipleship to which the Lord calls us, weak, struggling, hesitant, and fallible as we may be. Other themes raised in the study may take the sermon in other directions, namely on life in the wilderness and the Lord’s claim on the wilderness; or on the Lord’s “compassion” for both crowds and disciples; or on the crowds and the baskets of left-overs—grace sufficient for every person and situation.