Sermon in Ankara for Trinity VIII (2nd August 2020) - The Revd Patrick Irwin
Today’s Gospel reading is Matthew’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. The passage begins with Jesus hearing of the death of John the Baptist and going away to be on his own. There is an interesting contrast between the two feasts described in this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. In the first King Herod hosts his birthday party, but despite the splendour of the occasion, he is a man afraid. He is afraid of the crowd and of what his guests might think of him. By contrast Jesus has compassion on the crowd, heals those who are sick, and eventually feeds them.
Matthew emphasises Jesus’ compassion. He had wanted some time to himself after hearing of his cousin John’s death, but he gives up his attempt to be alone and helps the crowd. His help is given in different ways. He heals the sick instantly, but provides food through his disciples.
When the disciples point out to Jesus that it is getting late and it would be wise to send the crowd away to the local villages to buy their supper, an eminently reasonable suggestion, Jesus replies by telling the disciples to feed them themselves. The disciples point out that they only have five loaves and two fish, doubtless assuming that Jesus will realise that they do not have enough to feed the crowd, but he tells them to bring the loaves and fish to him. In the end there is enough food for all to eat, and the disciples filled twelve baskets with the food that is left over. Twelve is a significant number, the number of the tribes of Israel, but we may equally picture the twelve Apostles walking around and picking up pieces of bread until all their baskets are full.
The story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand reminds us of the generosity of God. As with the wine at the marriage feast of Cana he does not provide the bare minimum, but gives more than enough. Yet it is worth noting that the work is done by the disciples. They have an important role to play in serving the meal and in clearing up afterwards. Christian disciples are still called to play their part in providing the resources by which Christ’s compassion for the world can be shown. Contemporary charitable activities, in which the hungry are fed in the name of God, have a direct link to Jesus’ disciples distributing bread and fish on a Galilean hillside.
The words used to describe Jesus as he takes, blesses, and breaks the bread are reminiscent of what he will do at the Last Supper and indeed of what Christian priests have been doing at the Eucharist ever since. The words remind us that Jesus is the true bread who gives himself to us. Just as the disciples distribute the bread and fish blessed by Jesus to satisfy the hungry crowd, so Christian believers continue to distribute the True Bread of Christ in Word and Sacrament to satisfy the world’s spiritual needs.
There may seem to be a clash between Christ’s Feeding of the Five Thousand and his refusal to be tempted to turn stones into bread. After all, the devil tempted him to produce food for himself and others and he refused to do so. The temptation was to do something that would bring glory to himself, even if others would be fed in the process. In the miracle story, however, Jesus is not providing bread to bring himself glory. We may even wonder how many of the members of the crowd realised that a miracle was taking place as they were served food by Jesus’ disciples. They may simply have been grateful for the food handed to them by the disciples and thought no more about it. Jesus’ behaviour in taking, blessing and breaking the bread would have been little different from a Jew’s normal behaviour at a meal at home.
The Russian novelist Feodor Dostoevsky memorably reflected on this temptation to turn stones into bread in the Grand Inquisitor chapter of his novel The Brothers Karamazov. In Ivan’s story of the Grand Inquisitor arresting Christ in sixteenth century Seville the inquisitor tells Christ that if he turned stones into bread mankind would run after him like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though always trembling in case he should withdraw his hand and deny them his bread. Yet if someone else was to capture a man’s conscience then he would throw away the bread and follow the one who had captured his conscience.
The Inquisitor holds that people will not think about virtue unless they are fed, and that for the sake of bread people are willing to be enslaved. We may recall the complaints of the Israelites in the wilderness that they have been deprived of the bread that they used to enjoy in captivity in Egypt. The Roman emperors bought the subservience of the population of Rome with “bread and circuses”, food and entertainment, and many governments have done the same since then. Yet the Inquisitor goes on to make the observation that the secret of man’s being is not only to live, but to have something for which to live. History bears out both of the Inquisitor’s points. People will riot when they do not have enough daily bread on which to live, but the same people are willing to die to fight perceived injustice.
Jesus did not yield to the temptation to win people’s loyalty by providing bread, and he does not do so now. He chooses instead to work through his disciples. They distribute his gift of life-giving bread without fanfare or compulsion, but in obedience to the Lord’s commands. “You give them something to eat,” and “Do this in remembrance of me”. We have our role to play in providing for mankind’s spiritual and material needs. Indeed the two commands of Jesus rather elegantly remind us that we are called to succour our fellow humans in body and soul. Christ fed the Five Thousand and instituted the Eucharist, but in both cases he relies on his followers to reveal his generosity to the world.