Jesus said, “You give them something to eat.”
In 1924 a man named Cardini owned a popular restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. One holiday weekend supplies at the restaurant ran low while the dining room was full of hungry patrons. The cooks were upset because they had nothing to prepare. How could they feed their customers?
Senor Cardini entered the kitchen and looked over his meager stock. He toasted some bread, then cut it into croutons. He took some romain lettuce, a block of parmesan cheese, some hard-boiled eggs, vinegar, olive oil, and Worcestershire sauce. All this he carried into the dining room. With a flourish, Senor Cardini – Senor Caesar Cardini – created, on the spot, the Caesar Salad. The customers were duly impressed. They ate their fill and went away satisfied.
The feeding of the five thousand is one of the most important stories in the Bible. This is the only miracle recorded in all four of the gospels. Add to it the accounts in Matthew and Mark about another miraculous feeding, of four thousand people, and we have six stories in the gospels about feeding large crowds of people.
Why such an emphasis on this particular miracle? What makes this story so special? I think it’s because this particular event is symbolic of the gospel message as a whole.
Why did God send his Son to the world to begin with? There are a lot of ways to answer that question, but when you break it down to the basics – the bare necessities, if you will – God sent Jesus to the world in order to meet the needs of humanity. Christ came to this earth to provide for the needs of humanity. Christ provided the atonement for our sins. Christ provided victory over death. Christ provided the way to eternal salvation.
And Jesus Christ provided something else. Something that we humans need, even though we may not be aware of it. Christ provided for us an outlet for our compassion. Jesus provided, and still provides, a way for us to show our love for our neighbors.
“You give them something to eat.”
The disciples of John the Baptist have come to Jesus with the news of John’s death. As a result, Jesus withdraws in order to spend some time alone, to grieve the loss of his cousin, his friend, his prophet. Although a specific destination is not mentioned here in Matthew, John says that “Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee,” while Luke narrows it down to the city of Bethsaida.
The reason this is important is two-fold. First, although Bethsaida isn’t really very far from Capernaum, it’s on the other side of the Jordan River, which means that Jesus is no longer in Herod’s jurisdiction, just in case Herod, having gotten rid of one trouble-maker, John, decides to make it a clean sweep.
The second reason is that Jesus is now in Gentile territory. The crowd that is following Jesus is Jewish. Jesus is making a point to the crowd: if they wish to become disciples, to follow Jesus, they will have to follow him among the Gentiles, they will have to eat among the Gentiles. Jesus is telling us, today, that if we wish to follow him, we’ll have to follow him among people who aren’t just like us. We’ll have to learn to get along, to worship side by side with people who are different from us.
But that’s another sermon. Jesus climbed into a boat and tried to get away, tried to get some alone time. Unfortunately, the crowd wanted to hear more from Jesus. Somehow they were able to keep track of Jesus from the shore, and when Jesus arrived at his destination, “he saw a great crowd,” already there, waiting for him.
Now remember, Jesus had just heard about John’s horrible death. Jesus wanted some down time, Jesus wanted to be by himself for a while. But when Jesus saw the crowd, “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.”
There are times when we all feel the need to get away from it all. There are times when we want to withdraw, to spend some time alone. And there’s nothing wrong with that, nothing at all. Jesus often withdrew, to be by himself, to pray alone. The lesson here is that sometimes we have to put the needs of others ahead of our own needs. Not all the time, but on occasion.
I’m sure that Jesus was dismayed when he first looked up and saw the crowd waiting for him. But Jesus realized that the crowd needed him, and as badly as Jesus wanted to be alone, he just couldn’t turn his back on people in need.
We cannot be compassionate for others only when it’s convenient for us. We cannot expect people to schedule their pain, their heartache, their illness, for a time when it won’t be a bother to us. When a situation arises where compassion is called for, we have to be compassionate right then and there. I’m sure it wasn’t convenient for the Good Samaritan to find a man who was half dead lying by the side of the road, but the Good Samaritan had compassion for that man, and took care of him.
It would have been much more convenient for John Wesley to preach only from his pulpit, and only on Sunday mornings, instead of traveling around preaching to coal miners whenever and wherever he found them. But the coal miners needed to hear the gospel message, and John Wesley had compassion for the coal miners.
It would certainly be more convenient for you if all you had to do was drop a few twenties in the offering plate every week. Let somebody else visit in the hospitals and nursing homes, let somebody else do the actual hands on work of taking care of those in need, while you provide the funding. But that’s not what Jesus calls us to do.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you shouldn’t put money in the offering plate. When Penny [Sherry] pays the church bills I’m sure she wishes all of you would put more money in the offering plate! I’m also not saying that you lack compassion. I think we all have compassion for those who are less fortunate than we are. I think the problem is that we just don’t know what to do. We see the problem, but we lack the faith to see the solution.
“You give them something to eat.” The disciples were concerned about the crowd. The disciples weren’t heartless. The disciples asked Jesus to send the crowd away, not because the disciples didn’t care, but rather because the disciples did care about the people in the crowd. The disciples had compassion for the crowd. The disciples could see the problem, but the disciples couldn’t see the solution, because they lacked faith. The disciples had not outlet for their compassion.
I said earlier that one of the things Jesus provides for us is an outlet for our compassion. Jesus gives us a way to show our love for our neighbors. Just as Caesar Cardini was able to, on the spur of the moment, find a way to feed his customers, so can we, with Jesus’ help, find a way to express our compassion for others.
“You give them something to eat.” It’s not just the pastor’s job, or UMCOR’s job, or a missionary’s job, to care for those who are hurting, those who are lost. It’s the job of every disciple of Jesus Christ. We all need an outlet for our compassion.
As a pastor, I’ve been asked many, many times, in every church I’ve served, “Have you visited so-and-so?” And of course, I answer, whether it’s “Yes, I have,” or “No, I need to do that,” or whatever the case may be. But what I feel like saying, whenever I’m asked that question, and what I think Jesus would say, is “Have you visited so-and-so?”
“You give them something to eat.” Jesus knew that the disciples didn’t have enough food to go around. Jesus knows that our resources, yours and mine, are limited. But still Jesus commands us – all of us – to take care of others. And the only way we can do what Jesus is telling us to do is have faith.
We look in our offering plate and we see that there’s not much there. We look at the stack of bills that have to be paid, and we shake our heads. We look in our basket and see five loaves of bread and two fish. We look at the crowd and see five thousand people, and more, and we wonder what we can do.
But then we turn our eyes upon Jesus. Look at the story again. The disciples didn’t take the little food they had directly to the crowd; they turned it over to Jesus. Jesus took the food and blessed it. It’s Jesus who performed the miracle.
But what happened next? Jesus performed the miracle, but then Jesus took the five loaves and two fish and “gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowd.”
Jesus performed the miracle, but he did it using what the disciples had to work with. Jesus didn’t say, “Come back when you’ve got more food.” Jesus doesn’t tell us, “Don’t try to do any ministry until you can come up with more money, more resources.” No, Jesus takes what we have, and uses it to perform miracles.
Jesus performed the miracle, and then Jesus gave the food back to the disciples, and let them spread the miracle around. Jesus did the work that the disciples couldn’t do themselves, but Jesus didn’t do all the work. Jesus made sure that the disciples did the work that they could do themselves. Jesus provided the disciples with an outlet for their compassion.
“You give them something to eat.” We don’t need all the resources in the world in order to make a difference in the world. Right now this church has everything we need to do whatever God might call us to do, because God will take whatever we have to work with, and use it to perform miracles.
But then God will give it back to us, to you and to me, so that we can spread the miracle around. God gives us an outlet for our compassion. It’s up to us to take advantage of what God has provided.
“You give them something to eat.” Doesn’t it feel great when you’re able to do something nice for someone else? That’s the gift God gives to us. That good, warm feeling we get inside when we know that we’ve helped someone who really needed help.
So have faith in God. Give what you have to God, even if it’s not much. Let God perform the miracle. Then take what God gives back to you, and spread it around. That’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. That’s what it means to carry the gospel message into the world.
It means that you get to give people something they need. “You give them something to eat.”