In the verses immediately before the gospel lesson for today, King Herod serves a meal. He serves it to his political friends and cronies, probably with them reclining in one of his grand palaces. He would have given them extravagant food: spiced wine, meat, honey, sweet fruit like dates and figs and pomegranates. He provided an exotic dancer for their entertainment: His daughter in law who danced with such allure that Herod offered her anything she wanted. (Does this not sound a little creepy to you?) Prompted by her mother, Herodias, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, here, in this banquet hall.
Now, John the Baptist had criticized Herod and Herodias. So Herod sent a guard, who cut off John the Baptist’s head, with the result that, instead of the sorbet for dessert, his head was brought in on a serving plate.
Lurid vengeance. The message was clear. Anyone who criticized King Herod or Herodias would be rewarded with lurid vengeance. Everyone was to keep in line.
In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus hears about John the Baptist and decides to take some time away alone. John was important to him, instrumental in his baptism. Some scholars suggest that John was a kind of mentor to Jesus in the early days.
Jesus does get some time alone eventually, but first, a crowd comes. Jesus has compassion for them, and he ends up serving them a meal.
Instead of entertaining his own political allies and cronies, Jesus has his followers serve others. Instead of having his guests recline in a palace, he has them sit down on the grass. Instead of giving them extravagant food, he shares bread and fish. Instead of providing exotic dancing for their entertainment, he teaches them all day. Instead of wielding his power and control through lurid vengeance, well, here is what happened.
Toward the end of the day, Jesus’ disciples come to him and say “It’s getting late, send these people to the villages to buy something to eat.” I think the disciples make an assumption here. They assume the crowd has the money to go out to O’Charley’s after listening to the preacher. In fact, most of these folks have been either sick or have been caring for someone who is sick. It is unlikely that they have enough money to go out to O’Charley’s after church. So Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.”
That phrase echoes in my mind when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We say, “give us this day our daily bread.” Notice, it does not say “Give me this day my daily bread.” Or “Give me and my family this day for me and my family’s daily bread.” No. It says “Us,” the human race. People.
In this day and age, for the first time in human history, we have been able to feed everybody. It’s not simple, it’s not easy. But everyone says that if we wanted to do it, we could. When we pray “Give us this day. . .” I hear Jesus saying, “You give them something to eat.”
The disciples respond, “All we have are five loaves and two fishes.” There is a question behind this response that I think we all ask. That question is, “Is it enough?” Are five loaves and two fishes enough to feed five thousand men, plus another ten thousand or so women and children?
It’s a question we ask. “Do I have enough? Do I have enough to pay the bills, to pay the rent, to provide for myself and my family the way I want to?” We look at someone else who has more money and we say to ourselves, “‘They have more than I do, therefore I do not have enough.” We say to ourselves “I do not have enough time. I have, like, five minutes in the morning.” We say, “Do I have enough spirit? Do I have enough spirit to get into heaven? Do I have enough spirit to keep on going?” Is it enough?”
And of course, the question of having enough to pay the bills is important. Having enough time is important. Does Herod leave enough resources for the people to live on? Those questions are important.
But notice the first question. The first question stands behind Jesus’s response to the disciples. Jesus says, “Bring it to me. Bring what you have to me.” Behind that statement stands the first question: “What do you have?”
Disciples bring what they have, the bread and fish, to Jesus. Notice what Jesus does not do. Jesus does not say, “Oh, that’s right. You don’t have enough, do you. We’ll just have to let these people fend for themselves as best they can because we don’t have enough. We’ll just have to provide for our own, for ourselves because we don’t have enough for anybody else. It’s too bad.” No. Jesus does not complain about not having enough.
What does Jesus do? He blesses what he has. He honors the gift of God that he has. He gives thanks for what he has.
Do you have a roof over your head right now? “Thank you, God, for the roof over my head right now. How can I use that roof to serve you?” “Thank you, God for the plate of food on the table before me right now. How can I use that food to strengthen your goodness in the world?”
Do you have five minutes? “Thank you God for the five minutes.” You know, when I used to work for Hospice, I knew people who had a week to live. Out of that week, they might have a half hour in the morning and a half hour in the afternoon when they were pain free and clear minded enough to converse with their families. And believe me, they made that time count. They would sit holding hands with their beloved, watching a cardinal hop through a sunlit patch of grass outside. A grandchild or sibling would bring in a cat or dog and they would pet that cat or dog together. Each moment was a universe of connection, an eternity of love.
“Bring what you have to me.”
And when we’re feeling low of spirit, can you say one word? Can you say “Please?” That’s a prayer. Another one word prayer, “Help.” Or two words, “Thank you.” Can you say thank you for one thing? Just one? “Thank you God for the breath in my lungs this moment.”
Jesus blesses what he has. Then he shares what he has. And a miracle happens. Fifteen thousand people are fed.
This miracle is one of the most important, if not the most important of all of Jesus’ miracles. It is the only miracle he does that appears in all four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It has many theological implications and resonances. I will just point out one here. Notice that in Matthew, (and in Mark and Luke) Jesus does this miracle as a team. He gives the bread and fish to the disciples and they distribute it to the people. Exactly when and how the bread and fish are multiplied remains a mystery.
Jesus also does miracles as a team with us.
This is the nature of God’s rule. It is a different rule from Herod’s rule, a different reality from Herod’s reality. It is Truth. Jesus’s power and Jesus’s truth are not expressed through lurid vengeance as Herod’s is. Jesus’ power is expressed in compassion, integrity, blessing what we have, sharing what we have, and trusting God to do a miracle through our hands.