Jesus does two miraculous crowd feedings: The 5,000 and the 4,000. The 5,000 is a bigger miracle – he feeds more people with less food. For that one, each loaf feeds 1000. Today’s miracle is only 571 people per loaf. Much less impressive. Of course, it’s sort of like asking you to jump 1000 feet into the air, and then when you say “I can’t do that” saying “Then how about 500 feet, we’ll compromise.” It’s not going to happen. It’s a miracle. The numbers may be smaller, but they are well into the impossible-for-humans-to-do range. The hand of God, active in the world, overturning the normal rules of how things work in order to bring about his will, and to strengthen the faith of the disciples.
The 5000 shows up in all four Gospels. And John’s account of the 5000 is the Gospel reading for the fourth Sunday in Lent – usually that’s a pretty well attended service, coming so close to Easter. Todays – the 4000 only shows up in Matthew and Mark’s Gospel, and it’s read in late July when everyone is either busy or travelling, so it gets comparatively fewer people hearing it.
The Gospels don’t record everything – only the most important events make it. And among those important events, very few are mentioned in all four Gospels. Even Jesus birth only gets mentioned in two. Palm Sunday, Jesus death, resurrection, those are in all four. And the feeding of the 5000. It’s an important miracle. Jesus provides for his people. Do not doubt. The 4000 is only in Matthew and Mark. The question really isn’t why the others don’t include it, but why Mark does – Mark is the shortest of the Gospels. 16 chapters. And yet Mark records as many miracles as Luke and only one fewer than Matthew . Mark is about Jesus power – always moving to what he does, often introducing sections with “immediately…” there is an urgency to Mark. And yet Mark takes the time to record a second feeding, not too long after the first. But there are some differences, aside from the numbers.
The feeding of the 5,000 takes place where there is a lot of grass. It’s lush. Matthew, Mark and John all mention it. Feeding of the 4,000, no grass. May seem a small detail, but the 5,000 is read late winter, early spring. Lots of rain, lots of green. 4,000 is read in July. We need water. Small sections of green dot the landscape, but the high plains are mostly brown and dry. Things don’t look alive. Jesus is in a desolate place. No food, no water mentioned, no grass. The disciples ask, “How can we feed these people?” A question that is on our minds as well.
The other difference is that in the 5000, in every Gospel, Jesus says “You feed them somehow.” John even mentions – Jesus was testing the disciples. Don’t be fooled by the lush grass and pleasant surroundings. The feeding of the 5000 happens in Lent, and it fits right in with that theme of testing and trial that we get in the Lenten season. The disciples fail the test. They don’t believe there is anything that can be done. They don’t believe Jesus can feed all the people.
In today’s Gospel – desolate, no grass, dry and barren, Jesus doesn’t question them or tell them to feed the people. He only says, “I have compassion. How can I send them away? They will faint.” The 5,000 it was the end of a long day. The three thousand is after three days. The need is greater. The people more desperate. Jesus doesn’t test the disciples, he prepares them for what he is about to do. He has compassion in this difficult and uncertain circumstance. He does not abandon the people. He feeds them.
And so this Gospel is in a sense more comforting than the more familiar one with greater numbers. Jesus has compassion on the crowd, he knows their needs – even when the need is desperate. And he takes care of his people. This is a wonderful reading now, when the summer turns dangerous and uncertain, and we pray for rain, but when it comes, we are nervous because if it comes with lightning, salvation may be mixed with destruction. Our Lord Jesus wants us to know that he provides for all our needs of body and soul. That’s what we say in the prayer today: O God, whose never-failing providence… He provides. His love never fails. That doesn’t mean things go the way we want, or that they are always easy. But he will not abandon us.
That’s a point Saint Paul makes in Romans 8: He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
He won’t abandon us, not now that he already gave up his son into death to save us. That makes no sense. God would have to be unstable to do things that way. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the proof that, no matter how crazy and dangerous and difficult things get in this world, he will not leave us or forsake us.
There is poem from the Medieval Era – used during Lent when the feeding of the 5000 is read, “In the midst of life we are in death, whom may we seek for help? But you, Oh Lord, who for our sins are justly displeased.” A Lenten prayer and poem to be sure. God is displeased with our sins. Even as we live in this world, we face death. It reminds us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
And yet, our Lord Jesus in today’s Gospel reading turns it around. “If I send them away, they will faint on the way.” So he feeds them, he provides for them. Not “in the midst of life we are in death” but “In the midst of death, we are in life.” That’s what Jesus gives us. Yes, in this world of sin death is ever present. It stalks us every day. We are as sheep to be slaughtered. And yet our Lord Jesus undoes death by his death. Now because of his work, resurrection follows death. So even in this world of sin and death, we have the promise that we will not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord.
Our Lord Jesus is our help and our comfort. And he is displeased by our sins, but he bore those sins on the tree of the cross and paid the penalty for our Father’s displeasure. And now we are made holy and righteous through the waters of baptism, and given new life in him. In Jesus our heavenly Father is pleased with us.
We have the proof right here – hungry people are not sent home to faint on the way, but even that need is provided for them by Jesus.
We live in an odd time. On the one hand we live in a radical materialist society – we are taught that this life is all there is, there is no god, get what you can in this world because there is no world to come. And yet it is a society in which we deny the basic facts of reality – you are not bound by the limits of your body, you can be anything even if it makes no sense at all and violates the laws of biology or genetics. And there is a tendency in this schizophrenic age to look at scripture and see it as presenting only spiritual truth that doesn’t really apply to our physical bodies in this world. There are churches that deny that God created the heavens and the earth, they deny that Jesus bodily rose from the grave. They take all the events of scripture, and spiritualize them, it’s only a spiritual resurrection, the bible presents important truths, but it didn’t really happen, it’s all just a myth, and then say “do what you will with your bodies in this world, they don’t matter”.
Jesus grounds us in physical reality – he was made flesh. He bodily died. His body was raised from the dead. The salvation he gives is for more than just this world – but it is also for this world. We have hope for this world already because of Jesus resurrection. We also have the hope of the life of the world to come – a real life with real bodies.
And so in this world God works through real things – it is a real washing – a real Baptism into the name of Father Son and Holy Spirit. We are really fed by Jesus – no less miraculous than in Jesus own day. Now, not with bread and a few fish, but with his body and blood. And the miraculous feeding he gives in his supper strengthens us in our body and soul. On its own it is a few calories, a little bite and little sip. But even the smallest drop of food from the hand of God is more than enough. We are sustained and will not be overcome. Jesus has strengthened you through the eating and drinking so that no matter what happens in this world, you are safe in him. That’s why he gave it in the first place. Because he knew you would be hungry. He knew you would be weak and would faint on your own. So he gives you body and blood to eat and drink, and be fed and be filled and be strengthened in this world so, even when you are weak, you are strong, even when you are dying, you are living, even when you depart this world, it is in peace and joy, and in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of all flesh.
Who would not want to be fed with food from the hand of God, like those 4000 were? And that was food that spoiled. It filled them for only a day. We are not only fed with food from the hand of God, but food and drink from the side of God. His blood was poured out for you, and collected into the cup of salvation, so that you would not falter, you would not fall away, but you would be fed and strengthened on your way, by Jesus, with Jesus, in Jesus.