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by Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC, 6 August 2023
The miraculous story from Matthew’s gospel is one of the best-known in the New Testament, in fact Mark, Luke, and John repeat their own versions of the story. Fishes and loaves. What an image: being able to take a small quantity of very simple food and to nourish 10,000 people. (This story is usually called “Feeding the 5,000,” but they forget to count the women and children, so I’m rounding up.)
Over the years, this story has yielded many different interpretations. One way to look at it is that it happened exactly the way the gospel writer recorded it: that Jesus took two fish and five loaves and magically multiplied them sufficiently so that every one of the people present had enough to eat their fill.
Another way to interpret it is less physical and more spiritual: that what nourished the 10,000 was not having a full belly, but rather having a spirit that was topped off by a meal with Jesus. It wasn’t so much that Jesus increased the volume of food there. Rather, he qualitatively increased the food, enabling it to meet the spiritual needs of the people.
A third interpretation has to do with the sacramental value of the meal. You probably know that in the Protestant tradition, we celebrate two sacraments: communion and baptism. But I would argue that this story of fishes and loaves provides scriptural rationale for opening the door for the third Protestant sacrament: the potluck supper. (I’m only half kidding; I really think that we can come to know each other and God through a common meal shared with those we journey with.) Do you remember what it was like to eat together at church after Covid began to decline? It was joyous! And we’ll do that next Sunday following our outdoor worship.
The fourth way of interpreting this wonderful story is that it shows that God is active here on earth sharing abundance. Just as God provided manna to the Hebrew people wandering in the desert, God also provides sustenance through the ministry of Jesus. Unlike the second interpretation – the spiritual nurture – this fourth way of looking at the miracle is about God helping to meet our most basic needs as animals: we have got to eat. It’s no accident that the two recognized sacraments both involve basic hygiene and nutrition functions: bathing and eating. It’s just a part of who we are as embodied beings. And it can be a wonderful part of who we are and who God created us to be.
The Psalmist writes, that “the Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” And an integral part of God’s compassion is providing enough food to go around. It is we who are responsible for distribution of what God has entrusted to us.
It’s interesting to try and imagine Jesus’ thinking in this story. What is it that is driving Jesus? Is it pity? hospitality? simple generosity? The dominant motive of Jesus is a force that emanates deep in the gut: compassion. The Latin roots of the word mean “to suffer with:” cum + patior. But the Greek word is splagchnizomai (splag-knidz-o-my) which is a feeling so deep it grows out of your belly. It’s the same compassion that God shows to all people.
God – and Jesus – didn’t just provide enough: they provided abundantly. That is the reason there 12 baskets of leftovers after feeding all those hungry people. And God continues to provide for humanity abundantly.
What kind of miracle would it be if we could use God’s abundant gifts to eradicate world hunger? That might sound even more miraculous than feeding the 10,000 with two fish and five loaves.
As Christians, in a very tangible sense, we acknowledge that whatever we have is not even ours to begin with: it’s God’s. All we have is given to us as a gift, entrusted to us as stewards. Whatever wealth we have on hand now is only ours in the short term. Do you remember that old song, “We give you but your own, whate’r the gift may be, all that we have is yours alone, we give it gratefully?” That’s not idle chatter; it’s real. What kind of miracle would it be if we could use God’s abundant gifts to eradicate world hunger?
Peter Singer writes, “In the world as it is now, I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening. That’s right: I’m saying that you shouldn’t buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate the house or get that pricey new suit. After all, a $1,000 suit could save five children’s lives. ... Again, the formula is simple: whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.”
Okay, that’s a pretty radical suggestion. But I have a concern with this, and it’s a problem of enormous proportion in every church I know: we want to do charity, not justice.
Charity is giving something you have to someone who needs it. Charity makes me feel good, and it might meet the other’s need in the short term. But, ultimately, the answer is not about me and my feelings. It’s about God’s world and God’s children.
What happens when compassion – not pity – comes into the equation? When that gut-wrenching, suffering-with, feeling grows inside us? When we respond not as somebody who is one step above another, but shoulder to shoulder with those who are suffering? We’re more apt to respond with justice, rather than with charity.
We’ve moved beyond the need for band-aids: we need major surgery: systemic solutions to answer world hunger. And we have the ability and the resources to do it.
I would like every person here to write down this web address: bread.org That’s the website for Bread for the World, which is a Christian-based citizen’s group lobbying Congress to help make systemic changes to end world hunger. It’s also a great resource for information on hunger here in the U.S. and around the world.
So, what can we do? How can we be good stewards of all we’ve been given?
We can start with prayer. Not just prayer for more food for those who need it, but by confessing our own overconsumption. We can pray to help discern our true needs from our wants. The next time you say the Lord’s Prayer, take the “give us this day our daily bread” part seriously.
We can share what we have through the UCC’s One Great Hour of Sharing offering, which comes around every spring.
We can put pressure on our elected representatives not only to do our fair share, but to help put into place sustainable structures and systems that provide food for all.
As we come to the communion table together, let each of us, as we taste the bread, think of those who don’t have that privilege today. And let us rededicate ourselves, as stewards of God’s world, to help create a miracle in our midst.
What kind of miracle would it be if we could use God’s abundant gifts to eradicate world hunger?
 Psalm 145.9
 NYT, 5 September 1999.