Reading Matthew 14.13–21
Preacher Revd Neil Summers
The feeding of the 5000 features in all four gospels and, like all the miracle accounts, it is interesting on a number of levels. Theologically, it seems its purpose is to show Jesus as the new Moses, repeating one of the greatest acts of the Exodus, when the Israelites were fed in superabundance with manna, the bread of heaven. The stories have so many similarities: like Moses, Jesus crosses the water into the desert. Also like Moses, he sits the people down in companies, appoints his followers to distribute the food, and feeds them with miraculous bread in such quantities that there are basketfuls left over. Perhaps a bit less familiar is another comparison from Hebrew history, for Jesus is also acting in the person of the prophet Elisha. In the Second Book of Kings, Elisha orders a disciple to feed a hundred men with twenty loaves of barley. ‘How can I set this before so many?’ asks the hapless disciple, but Elisha replies, ‘Thus says the Lord: they shall eat and have some left’. Taking these two comparisons together, this story is telling us that in recalling Moses, Jesus fulfils the Law, and in recalling Elisha, he fulfils the Prophets. The same point is made in the Transfiguration of Jesus, where Moses and Elijah appear in person with Jesus on the mountain. So Jesus is being depicted in the gospels as the fulfilment of both Hebrew law and prophecy.
Numbers are also interesting in this story: five loaves could represent the five books of the Hebrew Law, the first five books of the Bible. The twelve baskets left over surely recall the twelve tribes of Israel. The primary symbolic meaning of the bread is the word of God – the message of salvation – which was to include Gentiles as well as Jews. The rabbis had already interpreted the manna in the Exodus story as a symbol of God’s word, sent to ‘feed’ human beings. It was an interpretation also suggested by a passage in the Book of Deuteronomy, where Moses tells the people that God had fed them with manna in the desert in order to make them understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God, words repeated by Jesus, you will recall, during his temptation in the desert.
The fish is a bit more puzzling in terms of connections with Hebrew history. There is one possible link in the Book of Numbers, when Moses questions God’s promise to feed the people by asking, ‘Are there enough fish in the sea to catch for them?’ But that may be a bit tenuous. It is worth noting, though, that the fish was an early Christian symbol. Also, bread and fish appeared in Christian art from at least the early part of the second century as symbols of the Eucharist, though there is no evidence the Eucharist was ever celebrated with fish as well as bread – good news for us vegetarians! The Gospel of Luke tells us Jesus ate fish with his disciples after the resurrection. Also, of course, several disciples were fishermen, and Jesus’ ministry took place in an area where fish was a staple of life, rather like we might refer to bread as the ‘staff of life’.
Well, that’s some of the history and symbolism. Now to more recent times. Several decades ago, George MacLeod, the Founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, said, ‘The great community problem of our modern world is how to share bread.’ His words are no less true now than they were then – more so, for we know that the gap between the rich of the earth, among whom we must count ourselves, and the earth’s poor, after thirty post-war years of narrowing, has been followed by nearly forty years in which it has got wider – so wide that there has never been a time in human history when it was so great, or affected so many people.
Today’s gospel is a vivid reminder that the problem of how to share bread is not a new one. Matthew’s version says that everyone ate, and had enough, and were filled, even. The reality today is that we, the wealthy and powerful of the world, having bread, decide who will get to eat it. And the poor are still hungry. Of course, you and I don’t necessarily feel like the wealthy and powerful of the world, especially in a time of continuing financial austerity. Though Britain is part of the group of the world’s wealthiest nations, the fallout from the credit crunch and the global financial crisis may still be making us feel anxious, vulnerable, defensive of what we have. And it’s not surprising that some of this anxiety gets projected onto food. After all, food is central to all our lives; no matter how rich or poor we are, we all need to eat.
But food has become an extraordinarily complex and emotive subject, full of contradictions. Cookery books dominate the bestseller lists, huge amounts of TV airtime are given over to cookery. We’ve moved along way from the old days of Fanny Craddock telling us how to make doughnuts! Now, it is all so highly competitive and sophisticated, with gourmet cooking, fine dining, celebrity chefs worth millions, and the interesting term, ‘food pornography’ which has entered our dictionary. And yet at the same time, many people do not know how to cook at all. As a nation we eat out, or takeaway, far more than any generation before us. Obesity, especially childhood obesity, is turning into a serious national epidemic, while children even in parts of our wealthy country are suffering from malnutrition. We are confused about what constitutes healthy eating, by the labelling on the food we buy, and because the advice of experts keeps changing. The emotional and psychological meanings of food are even more of a minefield: dieting, eating disorders, what should we feed our kids as good parents, the role of food and meals in family and community life, the values of hospitality. And that’s before we even start on the big questions of sustainable agriculture, factory farming, climate change, energy use, resource shortages and conflicts, trade rules and global hunger. The bottom line of almost every major global problem has got food in it somewhere.
And bread, of course, as well as being a real thing in itself, can also stand as a symbol for other things – for basics like home, health, work, hope, peace, justice – those things Jesus often spoke of – that need to be in place in order for human beings to flourish, all so sorely needed right now in a world where conflict, hunger and poverty are all too common. I think we can well imagine how Jesus would have responded to rich countries which seem to lack any kind of will to lift the heavy loads they have placed on the backs of the poorest of the world.
We go to great lengths, don’t we, to protect our right to control who will get bread? We protect our interests, shares, bonuses and boundaries, our freedom in the markets of the globe at every level. And sometimes, it’s hard to see that the church does anything more than mirror the world. We, having bread, decide who we will permit to share it – and not only to share it, but to break it and distribute it, though we are not always so interested in those who make it or bake it. And, of course, the church’s ultimate sanction, historically, has been to ban from communion members it considers not up to the mark, withholding access to the bread that, in itself, has the intention of reconciling, making whole and sustaining life. Isn’t it a scandal that the bread of life which Jesus offers from the heart of a generous God has so often been a chief source of division and rejection in the church?
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is the great New Testament song of liberation. She anticipates a transformed social order, in which the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent away with empty hands. Mary is the prophet of the poor. We cannot – must not – divorce the spiritual realm from economic and political realities. This Eucharist is, at one level, a radical act, and we can’t be too precious about it. The prophet Amos warned of God saying, ‘I hate your religious festivals; stop your noisy songs; instead, let justice roll like a river, and righteousness like a stream that never runs dry.’ A salutary word about what we do here today. If we get so caught up in the perfection of our own remembrance, or the beauty of our ceremonies and prayers, or merely our own nourishment, so that we forget that people are still hungry, and that we are embodied with them in Christ’s body, then we rather miss the point of Jesus as the bread of life. The bread was broken to be shared. As Bob Geldof and co. sang a few years back, ‘Feed the world’. God grant us grace to do just that.