In the Gospel for today we read where ‘Jesus went off by himself to be alone’ (v 13). He had received devastating news! His cousin John the Baptist had been beheaded and his head served up on a tray to Herod’s wife. After John’s followers had buried John’s body, they came and told Jesus their ghastly news. Then we read: ‘Jesus went off by himself to be alone.’
When we are grieving, we need space to be alone away from the rush and pace of normal life – and away from other people! John was about six months older than Jesus. Their mothers were related – probably cousins – and were close. Jesus had not been able to go to the funeral where they would have talked about John’s unusual life – how he survived in the desert living a simple life. John became a famous spiritual person, a sort of spiritual guru people loved to consult. His most important spiritual task had been to point out Jesus to his people – and to the whole world – with the words:
‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ (John 1.29)
John pointed out Jesus as the one who would be offered up as a unique sacrifice, just like the lamb that was killed on the Day of Atonement every year. When Jesus went to be alone to grieve the shocking and unjust death of John, Jesus knew it would soon be his turn too.
Sometimes people learn from their doctor they have a terminal illness and they only have months to live. They need the support and comfort of close friends, but they also need the precious time to be alone.
Jesus needed time to be alone. Jesus is human. He knows what it is like to lose a young relative in shocking circumstances. He knows it will be the same for him too. ‘As soon as Jesus heard the news he went off by himself by a boat to a remote area to be alone.’
Jesus did not come into the world just to heal the sick and give out free food to the crowds! He came to be the Lamb of God. Jesus would be alone again on the cross, and share the devastating loneliness of being abandoned by his Father. When you go through the terrible agony and loneliness of grief, you might feel no one else has been through it before. Be assured that God has been there. Jesus has been there, and he knows what one is going through. It was even worse for him. He was abandoned by his Father and bore the punishment for all the evil in the world, including the ghastly death of John the Baptist.
Somehow the location of where Jesus is headed gets out, and soon people from the villages nearby head out to see him. They bring their sick with them. They don’t even take time to prepare some food to take along with them. They rather rush to get their sick to Jesus: ‘A vast crowd was there as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.’
It seems Jesus does not get much time to be alone to grieve for John – or for himself. His energy is directed to the people with their sick, the bodies hurt and maybe broken by sickness and accidents. No doubt there would have been people of all ages, from tiny babies to the elderly. There would have been a lot of joy and excitement in the crowd after experiencing the healings.
In all the excitement we need to remember Jesus was more than a doctor. Out of compassion he used the creative power of God to heal the sick. But there was an even greater compassion in Jesus – to heal the sickness between God and the people – a spiritual sickness that can destroy people forever.
The disciples had a touch of concern in them too. In verse 15 we read:
‘That evening the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and it is getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”’
The disciples are very practical and down to earth people. They have compassion too, and the obvious answer is to send the people off to the villages to buy some food in the evening.
Then Jesus makes an odd and unreal statement: [In verse 16]
‘That isn’t necessary – you feed them.’
They had already considered that option and dismissed it.
‘Impossible!’ they exclaimed, ‘We have only five loaves of bread and two fish.’ [v. 17]
There was a huge crowd, with 5000 men, not counting the women and children. They had hardly enough food for a table of five, let alone over 5000!
Jesus takes the little they have and asks God’s blessing on five loaves and two fish. Then the food goes out from hand to hand and person to person:
‘Breaking the loaves into pieces, he gave some of the bread and fish to each disciple, and the disciples gave them to the people.’
No one pays for anything!
It is not a case of the rich paying to sit up the front to get the best food, and the crusts and fish bones passed down the back to the poor who have no money left, or who had wasted what they had in drink and gambling.
Everyone gets a full meal. Even the ones who had been sick and previously had no appetite. The crusts and leftovers fill twelve baskets.
What does one make of this event? Why does Matthew include this miracle of Jesus and leave others out of his gospel? Here are some possible explanations:
Firstly, it is a reminder that God is generous and provides more than enough food for everyone in the world. He designed seeds of wheat and rice that produce an abundance of food. He created varieties of fish to multiply in the seas, lakes and rivers and animals to roam the land. All the food we receive comes as a blessing from the generous hands of the creative God.
In contrast, the way we humans share the food is a disgrace. The powerful in society get the main course and the poor people the scraps! The powerful seem to get richer and the farmers who do all the hard work are paid little for their efforts!
Secondly, the food the people receive comes from the hands that were nailed to the cross. Jesus suffers for the greed of all people.
Thirdly, if daily food and good health are the answers to life, then we have everything we need are there was no need for Jesus to go to the cross.
If people’s hunger for food is the main craving to satisfy in this world, then we Australians would be set up for life, and the most contented, satisfied, thankful, happy, compassionate and fulfilled people who have ever lived on earth. We have an abundance of food. We probably have a wider variety of food in our country than any other place on earth. We can enjoy dishes from every nation on earth.
In reality, we are gaining a reputation as the fattest generation who ever lived, and among the least thankful people on earth. Jesus knows there is more to life than the food we eat. There is some truth in the saying, ‘We are what we eat!’ Our food comes from the earth, and so do we. We return to the earth, ‘Dust to dust and ashes to ashes.’ But we are more than the daily food we eat. We are designed to be the people of God, fed on the spiritual food of grace, forgiveness and new life.
God is more than a generous supplier of an abundance of food for the hungry in the world. It is true God has a deep compassion for the starving people on earth, and so do his children. But God knows there is a hunger no earthly food or drug can satisfy. There is an emptiness and brokenness that Jesus wants to heal. A craving he wants to satisfy. A fatal spiritual sickness he wants to heal. He wants to hand out a totally new food for living that leaves a person contented and satisfied, thankful, compassionate and fulfilled. A spirit filled life that lasts forever.
This new life comes at a tremendous cost. It only becomes possible when the Lamb of God is sacrificed on the cross.
The Jesus who blesses the bread and hands it out to the hungry people in the crowd is the same one who comes to you and me in the bread of the Lord’s Supper – the bread of life that lasts forever. The new life comes free of charge; a healing gift; an undeserved gift flowing out of God’s compassion. It is there for everyone. No one is forced to eat it. No one is force fed. And there is enough for everyone in the world. It is a miracle of God’s concern for people.
Our daily food and the spiritual food both come undeserved from the generous hands of God. Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.