What does the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 tell us about the kingdom of God? Just about everything, that’s what. Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow. I hope your Sunday is a glorious one!
How To Feed A Big Crowd On A Small Budget
Matthew 14:13-21 NIV’84
13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
From Parables To Real Life
During the past several weeks we have been looking at some of the parables that Jesus used to talk about the kingdom of heaven. We have thought about the parable of the sower and the soils; the parable of the wheat and the weeds; the parables of the treasure hidden in a field, and the pearl of great price, and the parable of leaven permeating the whole lump of dough.
As he began each of these parables, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like….” and then he added the sower, the field, the treasure, the pearl, and the leaven as examples of what the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God is like.
But today, Jesus moves from parables that describe the kingdom in its various facets, to a demonstration of the kingdom in the miracles that he performs – specifically the miracle of feeding the 5,000.
“How do you know this is a story about the kingdom of heaven?” you might ask. And I would answer, “Because that is what Jesus came proclaiming.” Remember the first pronouncement that Jesus makes in Mark’s Gospel?
15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” — Mark 1:15 NIV’84
The very first words of Jesus, from the oldest and first Gospel record, depict Jesus as announcing the kingdom of God, which Matthew calls the kingdom of heaven, but means the same thing.
As a quick bit of information, Matthew’s Gospel is written primarily for a first century Jewish audience. Jews took their use of the name of God very seriously; so seriously, in fact, that they did not use the name of God, but substituted another appellation for God’s name. What Mark calls the kingdom of God, Matthew changes to kingdom of heaven so as not to offend his Jewish readers, and those who listened to his account. But the terms are interchangeable.
As we move from Matthew 13, where we read 5 parables, to Matthew 14, we encounter Jesus applying the power and presence of the kingdom in real life. Let’s take a look.
The Kingdom of God Is Not In The Temple
The first thing we must realize is that to first century mainstream Judaism, the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, existed in their midst in the Temple. We talked about this a little last week. But, that’s important because the Temple becomes one of the main points of contention between Jesus, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the chief priest, the scribes, and the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling religious council.
Herod the Great, not a Jew himself but a Idumean, had sought to win the favor of the population of Judea, and surrounding areas including Galilee, by rebuilding Solomon’s Temple.
You might remember that the Temple was destroyed in 586 BC by the invading Babylonians, and the Jews living in Jerusalem and surrounding areas were taken off to Babylon in what we call the Babylonian captivity.
As the nation begins returning home about 50 or so years later, attempts were made to rebuild the Temple, and restore the Temple to its former place as the worship center for all of Judaism.
When Herod the Great comes to power as the puppet king of the Roman Empire in 37 BC, he embarks on a 20+-year rebuilding project to give the Jews back their Temple. The Temple is finished shortly before Herod’s death in 4 BC.
The Temple was apparently magnificent. Gleaming white marble, gold adornments, including a solid gold grape vine over the entrance, dazzled residents of Jerusalem and visitors to the city alike. The Temple was the focal point of the city of Jerusalem, situated on the highest hill, and visible from miles around.
But, it is what happened in the Temple that made the Jews believe that the kingdom of God was in the Temple itself.
We can only imagine the kind of devotion accorded the Temple, because we have no equivalent structure in our society. While we value the United States Capitol, the White House, Jefferson’s Monticello, and other historic and symbolic structures, we do not believe that God lives in any of them.
But the Jews believed that God had God’s own residence literally, not just spiritually, in the Temple. Specifically, in the Holy of Holies.
And, so when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, he entered the presence of God. The Holy of Holies was where man met God, just as Moses had met God on Mount Sinai, and Elijah had met God in the still small voice, and Isaiah had met God in the Temple, so the High Priest met God once a year in the most holy spot in all of the world for Jews – the Holy of Holies in the Temple.
And, when God accepted the blood of the sacrifice sprinkled on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies, the High Priest became the embodied presence of God, just as Moses had reflected the glory of God when he came down off the mountain.
But Jesus challenged all of that. Jesus challenged the corruption of the Temple operation by driving the money changers out of the Temple. Jesus challenged the permanency of the Temple by declaring that not one stone would be left on another.
But mostly, Jesus challenged the idea that the kingdom of God was contained in the Temple when he said, “The kingdom of God is near.” Or, “The kingdom of God is within you.” Jesus was freeing the kingdom of God from the control of the Temple crowd, and making it available to the people of God again.
For the whole point of the Temple, and the Tabernacle that had preceded it in the desert, was that God was camping – literally, “tabernacling” – in the midst of God’s people. Granted there was a separation, but the presence of God was intended to be thought of as in the midst of his people.
That’s why when John sees the vision of the new heaven and the new earth, he writes –
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” – Revelation 21:3-4 NIV’84
“The dwelling of God is with men…God himself with be with them and be their God.”
That was the point Jesus was making, and that is the point of the kingdom of God. That God is present in the world He created, and not confined to a building made by man, magnificent though it may have been.
The Kingdom of God Means Shalom
But, Jesus wasn’t just arguing where the kingdom of God wasn’t. His point was that the kingdom of God was with the people of God, not the religious leaders who had hijacked the Temple and kingdom talk for their own profit and position.
But, how do you tell people that the kingdom of God is with them? By using very simple stories to tell them what the kingdom of God is like. So, Jesus chooses common images – a sower, seed, farm fields, weeds, treasure, a pearl, and leaven. All of these things point to the real life presence of the kingdom.
While the Pharisees, Sadducees, and chief priest pointed to the Temple with its gleaming marble and solid gold adornment, Jesus pointed to the dirt, the field, the common farmer, the plants, yeast, and things of great value like a hidden treasure or a flawless pearl. These things common people understood.
But, was the kingdom just an idea? Was it a future promise, or a present reality? And, what was the foundation or basis for the kingdom?
Okay, let’s take the last question first. The basis or foundation upon which the kingdom of God rested was the shalom of God. We’ve talked about that before. The idea of shalom, or peace, meant that everyone had enough, that things were as they should be, that the nation and its people were healthy, strong, and vital. And, when the Old Testament particularly talks about the “salvation of the Lord,” or God’s saving His people, it meant not taking them to heaven when they died, but restoring the balance of things, restoring the shalom of God, so that everything was as it should be.
Sickness and Death Have No Place in the Kingdom
Okay, if things are as they should be, why is there sickness and why do people die of illness, disease, and accident? That’s a good question, and so Jesus demonstrates that in the presence and power of the kingdom of heaven, there is no sickness.
How does he do that? Let’s look back at our scripture for today –
“14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.”
So, the first thing Jesus does is to heal “their sick.” And not just a few. He heals lots of folks that day. Why? Because he wants to impress people, gather a crowd, and be famous? No, because Jesus wants to demonstrate where the real kingdom of God is, and what it looks like when it is fully come.
John reveals that same idea, again in Revelation 21, when he says –
“4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” — Revelation 21:4 NIV’84
Note that John specifically hears the words, “…for the old order of things has passed away.” In other words, the kingdom has come!
We don’t have an example of death being vanquished in this passage, but Jesus raises Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, and the only son of the widow of Nain. And, at the crucifixion of Jesus, the tombs of the saints give up the dead and they walk about the city of Jerusalem because kingdom power is demonstrated even before the bodily resurrection of Jesus himself.
But, back to this passage. Jesus heals people in this account and others because he is demonstrating the presence of the kingdom of God in all its “make-things-right” power.
The Kingdom of God Gathers Everyone At The Table
But, that’s not even the main point today. The main point of this story is that kingdom power and presence is never more fully recognized than when people gather at the table to share a meal together.
The story says that at the end of a very long day, and out in the middle of nowhere, the disciples realize that it’s late and everyone is starting to get hungry. Their solution is to disperse the crowd, break them up, send them away, fracture the bond that holds them all together as followers of Jesus at that moment.
But Jesus says to the disciples, “They do not need to go away. You given them some food.” In other words, their sustenance and salvation is not to be found somewhere else, its right here.
Unfortunately, that point is lost on the disciples. So, Jesus has the crowd sit in an orderly fashion, and get ready to eat.
The disciples, in their mad scramble to find some food, any food, come up with 5 loaves of bread and two fish. All small, and all a part of a little boy’s lunch.
A quick aside here: There was a popular explanation floated about when I was a teenager that when the crowd saw that a little boy was willing to give up his entire lunch, they all felt guilty, and sheepishly pulled out their lunches, too.
Now that explanation is well-intentioned, and has a good motive. The behavior of one little boy inspires others to do the same. So, in a sense that explanation exhibits some good kingdom qualities – selflessness, giving, and concern for others.
But, as good as that explanation is, there is no way in the world that Matthew means for us to get that impression. That explanation is a 20th century attempt to explain scientifically a theological story. It’s like trying to explain love by saying it’s when your blood pressure rises. While that may be true, it hardly does justice to the story.
No, Matthew as not presenting the first century readers, or the 21st century readers with a story that had a mundane explanation.
Matthew was telling a story about the kingdom of God, just like he did when he repeated the parables that Jesus told about the kingdom of God.
In this story of the feeding of the 5,000, the first lesson we learn is that there is always enough in the kingdom of God. Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it abundantly.” Abundant life doesn’t just apply to spiritual resources. It also applies to God’s intention for His kingdom. There is enough for everyone, including the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field. No one gets left out, no one does without, no one has too much, and none is wasted.
We’ve seen that story before in the story of the manna that fell each day except the Sabbath for the nation of Israel while they were on their way to the land of promise.
The manna fell everyday. Everyone gathered what they needed. And, when they prepared it, it was enough, but not too much. And, they couldn’t hoard it or keep it.
And, so Jesus taught us to pray, “Give is this day our daily bread.” In the kingdom of God, God is the provider.
The first century church in Jerusalem got that, and they pooled all their financial and material resources, and everyone had enough.
But, the second thing we see here is that this miracle of abundance happens at the table. Jesus literally invites 5,000 people over for dinner, and asks the disciples, “What’s on the menu tonight?”
In our 21st century world, we have lost the idea of table fellowship. But it is still an art form in the eastern world of which Jesus was a member. To invite someone to eat with you was an honor for the guest, and an obligation for the host.
So, when Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus house, he was giving Zacchaeus the opportunity to be host to the Son of God. He was forgiving Zacchaeus, a disreputable tax collector, and publicly embracing him on a social level.
When we traveled in China, our hosts always went out of their way to take us to wonderful restaurants, with more food served than we could ever consume. Dinners would last 2-3 hours, as we talked, laughed, and lingered over one delicious dish after another.
As their guest, I was always seated at the head of the table, at the right hand of the host for the evening. And, in the course of the evening, the host would always do something to recognize the guest. On one occasion, after we had already feasted on a number of exotic and delicious Chinese dishes, the next dish served featured small filet mignon steaks, a rarity in Chinese restaurants, and an obvious attempt to offer their American guest a familiar dish.
When Jesus invites 5,000 men, not including women and children to dinner, he is making several statements. First, all are included. No one is excluded because of his status, his wealth, his education, his social standing, his religious practice, or his piety. All 5,000 there are invited to sit, to organize themselves, to prepare to eat.
Secondly, everyone is served and all have enough. In the kingdom of God there is plenty. Everyone is satisfied, Matthew says. Full, we would call it. Stuffed, we might add. Can’t hold another bite.
Finally, so that none is wasted, they collect what was not eaten. Now, these weren’t the table scraps. My grandmother used to collect the table scraps to feed the barn cats at their farm in Piedmont, South Carolina.
But, no, these weren’t the table scraps – portions of uneaten bread, scraps of fish, bits of bone. These baskets held the genuinely unspoiled left-overs – food that could be eaten the next day.
And most importantly, they gather twelve baskets full – one for each of the twelve disciples to take home, and eat from the next day. Of course, I made that last part up, but what did they do with them if they didn’t take them home and eat them the next day? What was the point of collecting perfectly good food, if not to save it for another meal?
All of this is pointing to the wedding feast of the Lamb, to the great supper where guests are invited from the highways and hedges, where there is enough and more for all who will answer the King’s invitation.
What We Learn From This Story
What do we learn from this very familiar story? We learn it has a point. We learn it’s a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven. We learn that Jesus is teaching us that if we’re going to be part of the kingdom, then we need to learn how to set the table for others. Its not just about us, all of this food and hospitality. It’s about God, and God’s love for all people, everywhere, regardless of who they are, or where they come from, or what their diseases or stigmas are.
Jesus reminds us that this kingdom of God changes things. That it makes things right, that it puts things as they should be. That it demands faith, selflessness, sharing, care, concern, empathy, compassion, love, mission, and action. That it means living differently, thinking faithfully, acting consciously, demonstrating love.
The question we have to ask ourselves today is – Are we like the disciples who said “send them away” or are we like Jesus who said, “Have them find a seat at the table.”
Because only one answer reflects the kingdom of God. The other reflects the old order of things, the way everyone else does it, the “let’s look out for ourselves” approach.
The downside is that the crowd is a lot of trouble. Some of them are grumpy from hunger. Some are picky eaters. Some want their share and more. Others forget to be grateful, and still others complain about the length of time it takes to be served.
But they’re all invited to the table, all 5,000 of them, along with the missus and the kids. “Come on over and join us for dinner.” That’s the kingdom way. But is it ours?