This account of the feeding of the multitude occurs in all four Gospels, each with its own emphasis. In today's Gospel it helps us to understand the impact of this event by contrasting it with what has just occurred. Matthew precedes this account with the sordid story of the beheading of John the Baptist at the conclusion of a birthday party for Herod Antipas. There was plenty to eat and drink at that event, and there was an erotic dancer who pleased Herod so much that he stupidly promised to do whatever she asked. She got what she asked for, John the Baptist's head on a platter. The contrast between this horrid event and Jesus' meal on the meadow is stunning.
Jesus has left for Galilee partly to insure his safety for the moment. It was not a safe time to be in the city with prophets being beheaded. When it's your own cousin, you know you could be next! So Jesus and his disciples go back home to Galilee, where it is relatively safe, and where he can grieve over John's death.
And here another feeding event takes place, only with different dynamics. Unlike Herod's little bash, at this one there is healing instead of debauchery. People's souls are fed by Jesus' words, and no one has to fear that the party may result in their being murdered. Another contrast is that, while Herod's party probably included abundant food and drink, this event does not focus on tables laden with food. It's not even a good church potluck, though some have claimed the point of the story is that everyone held back until they saw the disciples sharing what little they had. At that point everybody pitched in their meager rations, and there was enough for all.
Well, that may be true, but it is not the point of the Gospel!
What this passage is about is, again, the irony that out of scarcity can come the abundance of God's grace. This is a compelling message for people who have little and struggle with not enough in our world of over abundant living. Jesus has compassion on the people because of their scarce resources. Instead of letting scarcity determine the mission he simply says to the disciples, "You give them something to eat."
Churches often get caught in this scarcity trap. One hears people saying, "If we just had more whatever, we could do this." You never hear Jesus say that. Whatever is present is enough, whether it be food or faith equivalent to a grain of mustard seed! Wherever Jesus is present there is always enough.
And so in places we've never heard of the Bible is studied; in places where perhaps only one or two people have a copy of the Bible, the faith is taught. The faith is taught where there are no colorful Sunday school materials and people are brought into the Body of Christ even though there is no building for worship. These things do not depend on resources because Jesus and the Gospel story are the only resources needed.
Notice in this account how the disciples respond quickly to what Jesus asks of them. They don't quibble, whine, or walk away. The compassion of Christ is so intense that they can do nothing more than show it, and in doing what they are asked to do they discover, as one writer put it, "compassion beyond their wildest dreams."
This miracle happens continually in the church. There is never enough, and yet the things that God asks us to do, to care for the marginalized, the poor, the despondent, these things are going on in a context of scarcity. In one East African country the church offers community development to towns that have no government or structure. Church people help the residents develop safe water and sanitation with hand dug wells, ventilated improved pit latrines, basic health teaching about washing and letting things dry in the air, and teaching oral rehydration techniques to mothers. These things do not cost much, nor are they beyond the reach of subsistence people who live off the land. Yet the quality of life improves, and frequently before long these people ask the church to come and teach the Gospel. This is a sustainable method of compassion and care, very much based on Jesus' work. In contrast, there are international relief agencies that build complicated water systems which are constantly becoming contaminated and breaking down, clinics, which depend on paid staff and expensive equipment and complex administration, and require large donations to keep them going. This is a resource devouring method that usually results in increasing costs and less sustainable living.
Certainly the teaching for us is to rely less on resources and more on the compassion of Christ in our work. Size does not matter, whether it is budgets or buildings. The people of God are capable of giving the care God asks us to give. We can show the compassion of Christ without expending large amount of resources.
But there is another facet to this Galilean scene. It is obvious that this account contains Eucharistic images. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it and breaks it, and it is the bread that is distributed to the people. This orderly event, making the people sit down, reverently offering and praying over the food, and then breaking and distributing it, is another contrast with Herod's bacchanal. Which gathering would have fed your soul? And in your own fear about whether you have enough, where would you most likely feel honored and cared for? In Herod's house, or on the shore of a lake seated on the ground?
Everyone on the lakeshore that day had something in common: they were in a precarious position. Many were sick with the horrible diseases of the time. There were always threats of rebellion and violence, even in the relative calm of Galilee. Jesus and his disciples were always in need of a place to stay, and were wary of the reality that they too might be arrested and put in prison, accused of stirring things up.
There are so many like them today. We always think of the Third World when we think of precarious existence, but we need not go that far. There are many people today with jobs who would be desperate within a few weeks if they lost those jobs. In many American towns there are homeless people, including children, who roam the streets and search all day for the basic necessities. And in too many places there are those who because of their beliefs are in constant threat of their safety. There are people who depend on expensive medicines to keep them from the ravages of AIDS, never knowing when those medications might cease to be effective and the disease could claim their lives.
These are the people for whom this Gospel and its Eucharistic image have much meaning. All of us should be aware of the fragile nature of our lives, and our need to rely on the compassionate Christ. All of us should come to the Eucharistic meal with a reverence for how something as simple as a bit of bread and a small sip from the cup can renew us for mission. Each of us can place ourselves in the crowd by the lake that day, watching, hearing Jesus' words, receiving his healing touch, learning that God loves us very much. We call all find ways to celebrate that with minimal resources, maximum joy, and a compassion for others.
Years ago a woman died in a small town. She was a widow and mostly a recluse. Everyone thought of her as having little. She didn't have a lot, but when she died she left a third of her modest estate to the church to be used for the poor, because, she said, "The church knows who they are." That is how we should be seen, as the people who know who the poor are because we are in touch with our own scarcity in the midst of a culture which says we can never have enough.
With Jesus there is enough, enough to eat and drink, enough to heal and care for, and enough to teach others about him. This Gospel reading calls each of us to abandon our excuse of not having enough to do the work he gives us to do. The Good News is that whenever he asks us to do something in his name, all we need is provided. The gift of this story is that we are free in faith to follow him wherever he leads us, and we need not go to anymore of Herod's parties.