July 29, 2012



Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 29 July 2012

                                                     Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: II Kings 4:42-44
                                                    Reading from the Gospel:                          John 6: 1-21


If you followed the Gospel reading last Sunday, you would have noticed that there was a big gap in the narrative.  It was not that I missed something out of the published reading, but that whoever chose the readings for last Sunday – some ecumenical body of liturgical experts – deliberately left out seventeen verses from the sixth chapter of the Gospel that we accord to Mark, and as a result we had a very disjointed reading that had Jesus hopping in and out of boats, and crowds rushing along various seashores.  And I wonder how many of you noticed this and then went home and read the verses that were omitted.  If you did do so you would have seen that they recounted the Feeding of the Five Thousand and then Jesus walking on the water.  This week’s reading for the Gospel, not from Mark but from that according to John, supplies the missing narrative.  Now, please do not ask me why the gap was there in last week’s reading, and please do not ask me why the liturgical experts chose to use the version that is to be found in John this week, when all through the summer this year the bulk of our readings for the Gospel come from Mark.  I have no answer to those questions other than “I don’t know!”

This miracle of Jesus, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, is probably to be seen as the one that was regarded most highly by the evangelists and the early Church.  It is the only one that is recorded in all four of the canonical Gospels, and, indeed, in a slightly different form, as we saw on Wednesday morning, it is recorded by two of the evangelists twice – as the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the Feeding of the Four Thousand.  The actual number fed differs from telling to telling of the six versions.  

John writes of five thousand and the way he does so indicates that they were men and boys.  Matthew has “about five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matthew 14: 21)[1].  Mark writes that “those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men” (Mark 6: 44).  Luke writes that “there were about five thousand men” (Luke 9: 14).  In the story of the Feeding of the Four Thousand, Matthew writes that there “were four thousand men, besides women and children” (Matthew 15: 38), while Mark has it that “there were about four thousand people” (Mark 8: 9).

Clearly, for the writers of the Gospels, the story was more important than the details.  They all wanted to use the story in one way or another, and, in the case of two of them, in one way and another.  Obviously, given all the material that was available to them, they chose to use this story for their own particular reasons.

John makes no bones about why he included this story.  It describes one of the seven “signs”, as he calls them, that Jesus performed and that John recorded “so that you may come to believe (or continue to believe) that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing in him you may have life in his name” (John 20: 31).  That is John’s motivation for including the story.  What might we say about the other evangelists? 

Matthew is the Gospel most directed at Jews, and again and again he uses the words, “This was done to fulfil what was written in the Scriptures”, by which he means the Old Testament Scriptures of the Hebrews.  Oddly enough he does not do this in recounting either of the mass feedings.  But perhaps he did not have to do so because the feeding of the children of Israel in the desert for forty years was at the very heart of Jewish belief.  In the desert feedings of the Exodus there were men and women and children, as only Matthew describes of these mass feedings by Jesus.  Perhaps that is why he, and only he, includes this detail.  Of course, those fed in the desert in the time of Moses had been considerably more than four or five thousand.  According to Numbers 1: 46, the number of adult males was 603,550, excluding those of the tribe of Levi.  This suggests that the grand total may well have been in the region of two and a half million.  Later in the Exodus story when the people began to complain about their diet, the LORD told Moses that he would give the people food.  Moses protested that even if they slaughtered all their flocks there would not be enough meat for the people.  And then he added, “Are there enough fish in the sea to catch for them?” (Numbers 11: 22), and then the LORD responded, “Is the LORD’s power limited? Now you will see whether my word will come true or not!”  At the Feeding of the Five Thousand Jesus had the use of two fish, and at the Feeding of the Four Thousand he had a few fish, according to Matthew.  So, although Moses could not produce sufficient bread and fish for the crowds of his day, Jesus was able to do so for the crowds of his day.  Thus Jesus more than fulfilled the Law, as represented by Moses.  Add to that the story from II Kings, which was our reading this morning from the Hebrew Scriptures, of how Elisha fed a crowd of one hundred with twenty loaves that he had been given, and how Jesus worked with either five or seven loaves fed crowds numbered in the thosands, we might say that Jesus also fulfilled the Prophets, as represented by Elisha.  That Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets is a constant theme of Matthew’s Gospel and nowhere is this better highlighted than in these stories of mass feedings. 

Mark’s approach to the entire story of Jesus is very different from those of the other evangelists.  He does not tell us the story of the Annunciation or of the Nativity of Jesus.  He does not even have an account of the Resurrection – somebody added that to his original text.  What Mark does is simply tell the story of the public ministry of Jesus and then he leaves it for his audience, including us, to draw our own conclusions about Jesus.  His Gospel has frequently been called the Gospel of the Secret Messiah.  The other evangelists tell us who they think Jesus is, but Mark makes us work that out for ourselves.  He makes no, or very few, direct allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures. He expected his readership in his day to be familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures and for them to make their own parallels.  After reading his narrative, Mark expects his readers to say, “This I believe!”  For Mark, the faith of the believer must be his or her own faith, based on an encounter with Jesus.  We are not asked to believe because of the experience of someone else or because someone else told us to believe and what to believe.  Mark expects us to believe in Jesus as Saviour and Messiah because we have encountered him in our own experience.  We might identify him with those who argue that we are called to be children of Good, not grandchildren. 

Luke is writing his version of the Gospel for a very different audience, indeed it is an audience of just one, a man named Theophilus – Friend of God.  That is a Greek name and so we may assume that Luke wrote his version of the Gospel story in a context familiar to someone whose language, culture and experience was essentially Greek.  It is possible to find parallels, comparisons and contrasts between the narrative of the life of Jesus that we find in Luke’s account and the culture, religious and secular, of the Greek and wider Gentile societies of the ancient world.  This is neither the time nor the place to undertake such an exercise, but we should look at the Feeding of the Five Thousand against a background of Greek and Gentile culture if we really want to understand what Luke is striving to do in his account.

In the experience of Theophilus, it would have been the practice to take offerings to a sacred site, often in a deserted place, with which to feed the gods, or so it was foolishly thought.  Such practices still prevail in some pagan lands of this world.  The hope was that somehow the gods would reward the worshipper.  But Luke’s story is not of people taking food to the gods but of the Son of God providing food for the people.  And not only that, but the Greek word that Luke uses to describe the fish that Jesus gives the people is ιχθυς (ichthus), which just happens to be made up of the initial letters of the Greek words for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.[2]   Perhaps it is just a co-incidence, but it is a happy co-incidence.  It might well be said that in giving the people fish, Jesus is giving himself, which is what Luke is seeking to persuade Theophilus that Jesus was doing.

Four different writers using the same story, or approximately the same story, to make four quite different points.  We can work out why they told the story, but why did Jesus perform this sign – to use John’s word?  Perhaps the answer is to be found in the words that Matthew records Jesus as saying at the Feeding of the Four Thousand, “I have compassion for the crowd, for they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry for they might faint on the way.” (Matthew 15: 32). 

This is a portrayal of a very Jewish Jesus, reacting in a very Jewish way, as urged by the prophet Hosea,[3] by showing compassion or loving mercy to those in physical need.  In a very real sense the Jesus we see here is behaving in the same way as another Jewish writer, Jesus’ brother James, exhorts his disciples to behave.  As James put it, “If a brother or a sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2: 15f.). 

As we read these stories of the wonderful deeds of Jesus, it is not enough to gawp and gasp and wonder, “How did he do them?”  The question should rather be, “Why did Jesus do these things?”  And the answer that we should come up with is that he did so because he had compassion for all in need and did what he could to meet the needs of the needy.  And therein lies the challenge to us as people who affirm that we are followers of Jesus.  We are all familiar with the last parable that Jesus tells, at least according to Matthew, the parable of the sheep and the goats.  It ends by Jesus affirming that if we ignore the needs, the hunger, the thirst, the homelessness, the nakedness of others, then we are ignoring Jesus himself (Matthew 25: 42-45). 

None of us probably has the resources to feed a hundred as did Elisha, let alone the four or five thousand as did Jesus, or are faced with the challenge of finding food for over six hundred thousand adult males and their families, maybe two and a half million in all, as faced Moses.  Yet few of us are totally unable to reach out to assist others, even if it is only with five Chicago rolls and two tins of sardines or a couple of jars of Solomon Gundy (to give a more accurate description of what John wrote), like that young lad had whom Andrew found in the crowd.

Kind words are all well and good, but you try to feed a family on someone’s kind words.  It can’t be done – but kind actions by others, that is a totally different story, a story somewhat like our Gospel reading this morning of what Jesus did and calls upon his followers to do.

[1] Citations are from the New Revised Standard Version (New York, Oxford University Press, 1962).

[2] John uses a different word, οψαριον (opsarion), which might better be understood as pickled fish paste.

[3] Hosea is another version of the Hebrew name, Joshua, the English for which is Jesus.

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