Eucharist – 8th Sunday after Trinity 2nd August
2nd August 2020 – eighth Sunday after Trinity
My first reaction to this morning’s Gospel reading was to say “Oh no! not another of those Sunday School favourites everyone’s heard a million times before! What on earth can I possibly find in this that might be of interest?” So I looked again: and found the first line on the sheet says “Now, when Jesus heard this…” Well, what? What did he hear, and when did he hear it, that it set him off on his own to some deserted place, and that all this famous stuff might happen?
This is where we need to get our Bibles out. Matthew chapter 14 (of which the “feeding of the five thousand” is the middle bit) starts with an equally famous story: the death of John the Baptist, and how Jesus heard of it. John has been in prison for some time, probably, and in those days (and still in many places today) if you were in prison you couldn’t earn a living, and therefore nothing to eat. If you had friends or relations who desired your survival, they might bring you food, in due season (as it says in our psalm), plus keeping you in touch with the outside world. People in “Covid” isolation today might have sympathy with that, I think. Anyhow, no-one knows how long John will languish, until, suddenly, he is killed; the followers who have kept caring for and about him for so long are shocked, and (once the body is buried) rush off to tell John’s cousin, and (in a way) protege, Jesus of Nazareth.
How must he feel? Someone who has all his life gone before him and prepared not only his way but his person, is suddenly gone – not there to rely on, refer to, or ask any more. Bereft of his fore-runner, he wants to be alone. Who wouldn’t? It would be nice to think that he prayed – and we don’t know he didn’t – but I suspect at least for the moment he’s numb from the shock: people do tend to pause and gather themselves, first, before action. But John’s execution is Big News, and news travels fast: so “when the crowds heard it” (which echoes line 1) they follow him. Jesus stops feeling sorry for himself, perhaps, when so many turn to him in their own shock and bereavement; he has lost a fore-runner, but gained many followers. That, I think, is an important change in Jesus’s understanding of his ministry: no more supervision, or spiritual direction, but fully responsible, accountable, “professional”, practice.
Whether or not that’s the case, it’s interesting that the first thing He does for new followers is feed them: not be fed by them, as John’s was in prison. His earlier disciples (like John’s) are free to fend for themselves, and suggest that thousands might all do the same. But Jesus, knowing their need of him, instructs his servants to feed them themselves. Their resources might consist only of one, given-away, packed lunch, but it’s all they have: and, knowing it’s just not going to go round, they offer it all to Jesus. If they had simply obeyed orders, and tried to share out the crumbs, no-one would have been satisfied. Only when the whole lunch is given away, and nothing kept back, is it blessed for (all-)human consumption. The miracle is not that of feeding but the pattern of growth into ministry we all follow.