Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Loaves and the Fishes

“And they all ate and were satisfied” (Mt 15:37).

Matthew 15:32-39 is a story beloved by many. Having been with the crowd for three days, Jesus has compassion on them because they have had nothing to eat. Not wanting them to faint on the way home, Jesus calls His disciples to Him, and they balk at the idea of somehow feeding these thousands of people in the desert. Rather than being put-off by their no-can-do attitude, Jesus asks them to bring what little food they have. After giving thanks for the seven loaves and a few small fish, Jesus breaks them, gives them to the disciples, and has them distribute the pieces to the crowd. They all eat and are satisfied, and seven basketfuls are taken up of what remains. Having fed them, Jesus sends the crowd on their way and continues His journey with the disciples.

This story has always fascinated me. I wonder to myself, What made Jesus worry about people being hungry after three days? Surely, not having food must have been an ongoing problem, so why is Jesus only mentioning it now? While the text might intend the three days to be a symbolic mirror of Jesus’ three days between death and resurrection, and the breaking of the loaves and fish to foreshadow the Last Supper and the breaking of His Body and Blood, it has just never seemed obvious to me.

I think of the three days in the desert with no food and I think, Wow, you must really have wanted to be with Jesus. You stuck it out the whole time He was there, and you probably would have stuck it out indefinitely. I don’t know if I would have had that kind of stamina.

A good part of our faith life is spent sticking it out with Jesus. Long periods in the desert, in dryness, without any nourishment. Long periods of life are spent just hanging on, just keeping on going. Jesus was doing some miraculous stuff in that desert, but not for everyone. Of all the thousands of people who came for miracles, who brought people for miracles, who came to see miracles, there was no one who couldn’t have had their fill in the first hour, the first minute, the first day. “Well, I’ve seen a miracle;” “I’m cured now, bye.” But the crowd stayed for three days, and left because Jesus sent them away.

The really amazing part is that Jesus notices you’re there, hanging around, for all this time. His days are taken up with healing people, making the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and countless other miracles. Jesus is incredibly busy doing really important stuff. But He still notices the crowd, He still notices that people have been there this whole time, He still notices that they must be hungry because they’ve brought no food. In the midst of all that God is and all that God is doing, God sees that we’re sticking it out. Even if all we’re doing is hanging on, God sees it. Sometimes it’s all you can do, and Jesus knows that. Jesus notices. Whatever is it that’s going on in our lives, it is not beneath God to care about it.

“And they all ate and were satisfied.”

It’s impossible to not see the miracle that Jesus performs in this story. Even if you believe there are many other, scientific reasons that the blind may have started seeing, the lame walking, and the deaf hearing, there’s no other way the loaves and the fish could have multiplied other than that God did it.

Jesus has to coax it out of the disciples. At first, they don’t believe He’s even suggesting feeding all these people. Jesus has to ask them how much food they have with them for the disciples to bring it forward. This is their second multiplying-of-the food miracle (Mt 14:13-21), and they still don’t see it coming. Finally they bring Him what little they have, and Jesus gives thanks and uses it to feed thousands of people.

God takes our small, humble, human gifts and in His power makes them bigger than they ever could be. There’s nothing you could ever bring to God that’s too small for Him to work miracles with. God can make even the smallest of things be enough. And not just enough, but abundant. Jesus feeds the crowd and there are basketfuls of excess. Basketfuls. God’s love is so powerful, God’s power is so abundant, that He gives us more than we could ever need.

It’s easy to feel like you don’t have anything worth giving to God. It’s easy to feel that you are small, and insignificant, like grass that withers away and is thrown into the furnace. What is a human life to God? What could you ever hope to have, or be, that is worthy of giving Him? Everyone has moments when they believe that, and if you struggle with depression you just have more of them. What do I have, what am I, that I could possibly offer God?

Nothing, and everything. You are already God’s, so you have nothing to give Him. But you can give Him your whole self, even the not-so-fantastic bits, because you have yourself to give the One to Whom you belong: that’s what love does. Before God’s awesome power and love, of course you feel small and worthless – but God made you for His purposes and delights in you, for you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Of course you feel that what you have to give God isn’t enough – but God will make it enough. By ourselves, we are small and of little account – but just because God limits Godself does not mean that God is limited. In God, we are made so much more that we could ever hope or ask or imagine.

“And they all ate and were satisfied.”

In Matthew’s story, the crowd doesn’t have to do anything to receive Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and the fish. They just have to be there. In fact, they are there already to receive something freely from Jesus because they are there to witness or receive miracles. They have come to watch the lame walking and to walk; the blind seeing and to see; the deaf hearing and to hear. Jesus gives them this miracle not because of anything they’ve done for him, but simply because they are hungry and He wants them not to be.

So often we think of miracles as the result of prayer, or of faith, or of something we’ve done to be worthy of God’s favor. “God healed me because I have so much faith;” “God gave me a vision because my contemplative prayer life is so regular;” “I saw Mary’s face on a piece of toast because I am so virtuous.” But that isn’t necessarily true. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gives the crowd a miracle because he feels like it – not because they asked Him, not because they convinced Him, and not because they did anything for Him either before or in return.

Obviously these people had faith: they were out in the desert for three days. But the miracle is not dependant on their faith, it’s dependant on Jesus. The English translation of the text says that he “[had] compassion on the crowd” (15:32). When we talk about compassion we don’t just mean that God understands or knows what you are feeling, but that God is feeling it too. I had a conversation recently where someone much wiser than I am suggested that God feels what you are feeling, that God feels sad when you feel sad, that God feels happy when you feel happy, that God feels betrayed when you feel betrayed. I’ve always believed – always known somewhere deep inside me, even when the darkness has swallowed me whole – that God is with me, that God is beside me, that I am not alone. But I’ve never thought about God feeling what I’m feeling while He’s down there with me. It’s difficult to get my head around it. That God’s compassion doesn’t just mean He feels bad for us and wants to help us, but that He feels bad. In the desert, Jesus fed the crowd because Jesus was hungry.

“And they all ate and were satisfied.”

This doesn’t mean that we should sit complacently by the wayside waiting for a miracle whenever God feels like giving us one. Jesus actively involves the disciples: He could have handed out the loaves and fish Himself, the fruits of His miracle, but instead He has the disciples do it. The disciples don’t even think it’s possible for Jesus to feed the crowd, they cannot conceived of it, and yet God calls on them to be a part of His plan, a part of His miracle. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that there are times – perhaps many times – in our lives where God speaks to us or asks us to do something or tries to give us a message and we just completely fail to get it. We don’t hear it. We don’t understand it. And when we do hear it, it can be confusing and seem impossible. But we are called to hand out the loaves and the fishes, to use our small gifts for God, regardless of what we might think about it. We might think we’re too small, but we have to have faith that God will make us be enough.

The crowd trusts that Jesus will take care of them, without hesitation and without fear. There is never any question. No one even brought any food. They went out into the desert to be with Jesus and didn’t think about the practicalities of it, what they might need to do to plan, or how long they might be out there. They were willing to trust that it would work itself out, somehow. We are called to that kind of faith, that kind of trust. Trusting God completely, enough to let go, enough to follow Him out into the desert, is its own miracle. When I pray for a miracle, and God says no, not today, I have to trust that God has a plan, that He knows what He’s doing, that He will take care of me, that I am not forgotten even in the midst of all the big works that He is doing. For we are small and of little account, and we are also infinitely precious in the sight of the Lord.

The crowd that comes to see Jesus is with Him for three days before He feeds them. Sometimes, you have to wait for a miracle, to be patient. You have to be willing to stick it out, to hang around, to keep going. Jesus is sticking by you and you have to stick by Him, even when it’s difficult, especially when it’s difficult. God will provide, but it will be in God’s own way and in God’s own time. God will provide, and do so abundantly.

“And they all ate and were satisfied.”

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