Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Borden, OHC
Proper 13A - July 31, 2011
How intriguing it is that today's passage from Matthew seems to have Jesus wanting to be on retreat – he crosses a lake in a boat to get away from the crowd. The crowd follows him anyway. The same thing always seems to happen to Jesus when he tries to get away. Everybody comes along... Yet here we are on retreat – and what crowds are following us?
The story of the feeding the multitude, or the story of the loaves and fishes, is so important that it turns up in every Gospel. Matthew and Mark even tell the story twice... so there are six stories of feeding the multitude – each with their own particular emphasis.
Matthew does some rather abrupt editing in this particular section. In the previous passage Jesus has been in Nazareth and has just learned about the beheading of John the Baptist. When he learns of this, Jesus departs in a boat. For literalists this must present a challenge as there is no lake anywhere near Nazareth... Nonetheless, Jesus withdraws by boat to a deserted place. That's where today's passage begins.
Although we don't read the passages of the beheading of John the Baptist and Jesus feeding the multitude together, they do seem to have some synergy. I think we are meant, in some way, to have Herod in mind as Jesus feeds the multitude.
John the Baptist looses his head, as it were, in the context of a dinner party. Herod entertains lavishly and to outrageous excess. The indulgence is so extreme that the request by his own daughter to have an innocent man executed and the head brought on a platter just enhances the entertainment. That is the context of Herod feeding people.
And Jesus, in this deserted place full of people, has a very different sort of dinner party. No preparations have been made. Food has not been planned. Caterers have not been contracted. The practical-minded disciples want to send the crowd away, not because they are stingy, but because if the people don't get to the town and its market in time, they won't eat.
Jesus calmly calls on the crowd to sit. They take stock – 5 loaves of bread and two fish are on offer. That is one loaf for every 1000 men (women and children apparently eat for free...). This dinner could not be more different that the one a few paragraphs ago at Herod's palace... No violence or decadence... nothing lavish or excessive, not even much food... just people being fed.
The story is about a miracle – no doubt. But what, exactly, is the miracle?
For some, the miracle is the super-natural multiplication of the bread – sort of like Moses' burning bush which was not consumed but remained undiminished: so the bread, though eaten, miraculously is not diminished. In fact there seems to be more by the end of the meal than there was at the start. This certainly one common way to read the story.
Others argue that the story has to do with hoarding and sharing. Everyone in the crowd, no doubt, had something in their pocket – these folks weren't idiots after all. They didn't leave home with nothing. So they all shared from their modest means and the result was abundance. Some criticize this reading because it seems to do away with the miracle... everything is naturally explained. But I think getting people to act in a community-minded way is a miracle. Just look at our politics of today if you think this type of sharing was easily accomplished.
Being a good, post-modern sort of monk, I don't think we have to choose between these interpretations. I think there is truth in both of them. And I think there is still something else of a miracle in the way Matthew tells this particular story.
Jesus gives a simple command to the disciples. When they suggest he send the crowd away, he says no. Jesus says to the disciples: “You feed them”. And, with a little negotiation, the disciples obey. A very important miracle is lurking in this little exchange. The disciples have established quite clearly that they can not possibly feed this crowd – its not a case of doubt, but of reality. Five loaves, even five modern Bread Alone Bakery pound loaves (let alone the smaller flat breads that would have been available then) could not really adequately feed the disciples, let alone the crowd.
You feed them... and in the face of all logic and reason, the disciples obey. Without God's help they can not succeed. Nobody begins to build a tower without estimating the cost... Nobody starts a war until they get a good estimate on the size of the opposing army... The disciples have done their homework. They set out knowing they can not, on their own, succeed.
That is the miracle of discipleship... the miracle of faith... In faith, we, just a handful of middle-aged and older monks, can build the Kingdom of God. We can do it with God's help.
This, for example, is the miracle of the Holy Cross School being built in South Africa even as we speak. Our tiny little school is the educational equivalent of five loaves and two fish in the face of thousands and tens of thousands in need. In a logical world, it can only fail. In a God's world it can only succeed.
Can a dozen or so monks in a quaint monastery in the mid-Hudson valley change the world? We don't have the energy, the money, the influence... And Jesus calmly says “change the world.” We need the miracle of discipleship... the miracle of faith.
We also heard part of the story of Jacob from the book of Genesis. The story of Jacob fascinates me because Jacob is really, as my friends in the city would say, a schmuck. He has lied and cheated his way into power through a terrible conspiracy with his mother. He deceives his father and defrauds his brother. He seems like the last sort of person on earth that God would want to work with...
And yet here he is in the passage we heard, fearfully returning to face his brother Esau. He sends his wives and children on ahead for safety sake and remains by himself. Jacob then spends the night wrestling with a man – an unidentified man. By dawn, neither has prevailed. So the stranger uses some extra bit of force and puts Jacob's hip out of joint. Yet Jacob holds firm to the stranger, demanding a blessing. We never learn the stranger's name, though Jacob says he has seen God face to face in the encounter.
Charles Wesley wrote a most wonderful hymn – Wrestling Jacob, based on this scripture passage. Its familiar first lines are “Come, O Though Traveler Unknown. Whom still I hold but can not see.”
The final stanza didn't make it into our modern hymnody... we don't seem to have space in our lives for hymns with 18 or 20 verses... but here it is: “Lame as I am, I take the prey, Hell, earth, and sin with ease o'ercome, I leap for joy, pursue my way, and as a bounding hart fly home, Thro' all eternity to prove thy nature, and thy name is love.”
In my own way, I'm like Jacob: Weak, sinful, inadequate. Surely God can find a better servant than me. In our own ways, we are like the Disciples: we don't have the resources or the means to get the job done.
And yet Jacob is who God chose to wrestle with. And the Disciples are who Jesus calls on. And, to paraphrase Charles Wesley, lame as we are, we accept the call – our helplessness and weakness answered by God's strength and love.