St Andrew’s, Edwardsville —Matthew 14:13–21, Isaiah 55:1–5, Psalm 145: 8-9, 15-22
Not enough jobs, so we look for the economy to keep producing more. Not enough Personal Protective Equipment for healthcare personnel, so governors scheme covertly to raid the supplies of other countries before the neighboring state gets to them first. Not enough COVID-19 tests, so public officials talk about rationing and triage.
For multiple reasons, as members of the larger context of secular society, our default mentality is one of scarcity. Resources are always finite, and possession of them is always a zero-sum game. At the international level, wars get fought over access to finite energy resources. I’ve lived the majority of my adult life on the west coast, so I’m more than familiar with anxiety over the supply of water, and conflict over how the available water gets allocated. And, of course, human societies have fought one another over land since time out of mind. We are also well-conditioned to consider money a scarce commodity. Every public and private non-profit institution—local governments, schools, churches—and many commercial businesses as well, all seem to be constantly on the edge financially.
As people of faith, as disciples of Jesus, it’s extremely tempting to import this mentality into how we think of God and his dealings with us. We assume that God doles out just enough sustaining grace—just enough assistance, just enough help, just enough provision—for us to get by, but no more, because … you know … he doesn’t want to run out!
The miracle of the feeding of the multitude challenges our assumptions and invites us to think otherwise. This is one of only a very few incidents that is narrated in all four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Today we heard Matthew’s version. Jesus, you know, tended to draw a crowd wherever he went, including, it seems, when he decided to head out to the boonies, to a location very far off the beaten path. These were spontaneous gatherings for the most part, so there was not very much by way of logistical support. On this occasion, Jesus spent an extended time doing some teaching, and the people gave him their rapt attention. Before anybody realized it, the time was heading toward evening, and the disciples got themselves into a mild panic about a few thousand hungry people who could at any moment become “hangry” people, and they didn’t want to deal with the consequences. So they started urging Jesus to cut it short and send the crowd away before things got out of hand.
Now, I can see Jesus doing this with a twinkle in his eye and a suppressed grin, but he responds to their apostolic anxiety with, “You give them something to eat.” To which they respond—somewhat apoplectically, I would imagine—“Say what? We’ve got a grand total of five small loves of bread and two whole tilapias. So tell us how this is going to work.” To which Jesus replies, “I’m on it.” And he just proceeds to start divvying-up the bread and the fish, and handing the pieces to the disciples to start passing around. He just keeps on doing this, and somehow there’s always another piece to break off until, before it runs out, the several thousand people who were gathered there in the countryside had all had enough to eat. They were satisfied—stuffed, actually, according the Greek verb that Matthew uses to relate the story. Stuffed.
But wait, there’s more. After everybody had eaten their fill, Matthew tells us that the disciples “took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over.” The baskets are not described, but I’ve always imagined them as bushel baskets with handles, about the size of a typical laundry basket. That’s a fair amount of bread scraps! The volume of the leftovers it itself a sign of the abundance embedded into the miracle itself.
This theme of abundance also turns up in this morning’s first reading from Isaiah: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” We’ve got so much water and wine and milk that we’re not even charging for it. No shortage of anything here! No fear of running out here! Just come and enjoy what you need. Satiate yourself. Stuff yourself!
Then there’s today’s selection from the Psalms, where we get words from the familiar table grace: “The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season. You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature.” Curiously, the words “satisfy” in the Psalm translates the Hebrew word that’s the equivalent of the same Greek word that I told you has the connotation of “stuffed.” “You open wide your hand and stuff every living creature.” God’s provision is not stingy or rationed or triaged or meted out in modest amounts. Rather, it is replete with abundance. The inherent nature of God’s provision is that it is generous and full and overflowing. We may not experience it that way this side of the completion of our redemption; it is, to use a fancy theological term, an eschatological affirmation. In the celestial banquet, at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, we will know the abundance of God’s provision.
In the meantime, however, we have available to us a foretaste, a sneak preview of the fullness of joy that awaits us. We call it the Holy Eucharist. Allow me to draw your attention to four simple verbs that we find in Matthew’s narration of the feeding miracle: take, bless, break, and give. Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, he blessed them, he broke them, and he gave them to satisfy the hunger of the crowd.
The four verbs represent the essential action of the Eucharist. We take bread and wine, and set aside this bread and this wine for special, consecrated use. Then we bless it, at some length, in the Eucharistic Prayer. Next, we break the bread, symbolizing the broken body of Jesus on the cross, and the reality that bread cannot be shared and eaten unless it is first broken. Finally, the presider, standing very much in the place of Christ, the true host of the banquet, gives the bread to the people—“the Gifts of God for the People of God.”
In the last generation, most churches in the western rite moved their liturgical furniture around such that the presider can stand facing the congregation, in the position of a host at a banquet. The celebrant in this posture is understood to be an alter Christus—“another Christ,” or in persona Christi—“in the person of Christ.” This accentuates the character of the Eucharist as a foretaste—a premonition—of the sheer abundance of the messianic banquet. It’s a meal at which the food can never run out, because, as many pieces as the host may be broken into, as much as the wine may need to be diluted by water, everyone gets the same amount of the risen life of Christ. Even if we get merely a crumb of bread—or, under non-virus circumstances, a mere drop of wine—we are satisfied, we are stuffed.
My friends, God doesn’t participate in the scarcity economy. His love, and everything that goes with it, is lavishly generous. There’s plenty for everybody, and it won’t run out!
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.