Sermon for Pentecost 12

Proper  13  a

Holy Trinity/St. Anskar


So they ate and were well filled, *
for he gave them what they craved.


+ In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

The miraculous of the Feeding of the Five Thousand is an obvious reference the Holy Eucharist. The same sacerdotal actions – the very same verbs – are used to describe the Last Supper: He Took, Blessed, Broke, and Gave the bread. The lectionary today points us in this mystical direction by including the Psalm about manna from heaven, since ancient times seen as a prefiguration of the Sacrament:

He rained down manna upon them to eat *
and gave them grain from heaven.


So mortals ate the bread of angels; *
he provided for them food enough


I don’t know about you, but I have always thought that the miracle here was a supernatural multiplication five loaves turning into enough to feed five thousand with twelve baskets left over, showing the power and abundance and mercy of God. I am entirely comfortable with that. I am not persuaded of the necessity to demythologize everything. If God could become human, the Godman could certainly turn the five loaves into food for the multitude. But let us look at the text more closely, and consider it in the context of the rest of the Gospel, which we have been reading for the past few weeks.

    The disciples want Jesus to dismiss the crowd to go off individually and fend for themselves. But the Lord instead commands the disciples to feed them; “YOU give them something to eat.” The disciples protest that they have only five small loaves and two fish. (By the way, of all the miracles of Jesus, this is the only one that is attested in all four Gospels. And one of the parallel accounts has the loaves and fish brought forward by a young boy – his own dinner, presumably.) That is what Jesus Took and Blessed and Broke and Gave to the disciples to give to the crowd. This food did not rain down from heaven. A little boy brought it – and gave it away. Jesus didn’t give the crowd anything.  He simply passed on, through the ministry of the disciples, what the boy had provided. The boy, who was so generous that he was willing to give up all he had.

    “All he had.” A “small boy.” This rings a bell doesn’t it? Last week the lucky man who stumbled on the treasure hidden in the field and the merchant who found the superb pearl both went quickly to give up “all THEY had.” The pearl was a SMALL thing. So was the mustard seed that grows into a tree big enough for all the birds to build nests in it. And ALL the birds get shelter, not just a lucky few. All the five thousand are fed, not counting all the women and children, and there are twelve baskets left over. This story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand is related to the parables of the Kingdom. In fact, the miracle of the loaves and fishes IS the Kingdom come on earth: an example of God’s will being “done on earth as in heaven.” And that is the sense in which it is a figure of the Eucharist, since the Eucharist, too, is the Kingdom come on earth – the eschatological banquet of the Wedding feast of the Lamb. For the past three weeks we have heard Jesus tell us what the Kingdom of God is LIKE. Today, the disciples and the crowd beside the lake experience Kingdom of God firsthand, without parables, similes or allegories.

    The characteristics of the Kingdom we noticed last week are all here: small, hidden, unnoticed by the big important machers of the day; extremely valuable but obtainable only by work and sacrifice of “ALL ONE HAS.” A transformation wrought by God through the agency of human beings, working with creation, working with what is already there. That is the Reign of God, which Jesus said is already “among you.” And the Feeding of the Five Thousand is the material, visible sign of that Reign. And not just a sign, but the reality itself. A small boy comes up with a small amount of food that turns into more than enough for a large crowd.

    As I said, I am comfortable with the supernatural. But what if the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which prefigures the Holy Eucharist, was not the same kind of miracle as changing water into wine up the road at Cana, which Jesus did and the “disciples believed in Him”? Jesus did not say to the disciples: “Watch, I am going to give them something to eat that they won’t soon forget, and you will see the glory of God.” He did say things like that on some occasions, but not this time. This time He said “YOU give them something to eat.” The Reign of God that was about to appear in that deserted place would come as a result of the small boy’s gift of all he had, and the disciples’ work. All Jesus did was Take, Bless, Break, and Give back the food. What if the miracle was something even more stupendous that a supernatural multiplication? Jesus certainly could have done that, and usually I am very happy to argue for the reality of Divine Wonders –  the testimony to His glory. But that hungry, frightened, selfish people should become thankful, self-forgetful and generous were even more wonderous.   

    Imagine it. Here was a hungry crowd. It could easily turn into a frightened mob in which each individual fends for himself, the war of each against all, the polar opposite of the society Jesus called the Reign of God. (If you want to see a depiction of that side of our fallen human nature, just go to War of the Worlds.) People tearing and devouring each other in survival panic.  But the people in the remote place by the lake saw the boy offer his small dinner. They saw his generosity. They saw that Jesus wasn’t keeping the food for Himself either, but directing the disciples to pass it out to them. And they were thankful. Thankful people are self-forgetful people. Thankful people – in the moment if their thankfulness – are in the Kingdom of Heaven. A society of thankful people is not just LIKE the Reign of God, it IS the Reign of God. Maybe the loaves multiplied by supernatural power, but on the other hand, maybe something else even more deeply miraculous and transfiguring took place. Jesus turned the crowd that might have become a violent mob into a EUCHARISTIC SOCIETY – a society of the thankful. And thankful people are generous people, open-handed people.

    Did pockets empty? Did a loaf appear from under a cloak here, a flask of wine from a satchel there, some figs and olives in the next row? A bit of cheese from up the hill? Some more fish? All hidden theretofore, all too small and insignificant to bother with by themselves, but together…? Was everyone suddenly busy passing food from unknown donors, food which had previously been hoarded? After everyone had eaten their fill, twelve baskets could not contain the fragments left over. The abundance of God?  To be sure. But God’s abundance is found in human generosity. THAT is the Kingdom of God – which is to say that is how God chooses to govern the world. God’s Reign – the rule or principle of it – is that generosity brings abundance. And that is why the feeding of the Five Thousand is a figure of the Holy Eucharist: not the divine gift of manna from heaven, exactly, but the thankful, self-forgetful offering of grateful people – the Sacrifice of Thanksgiving.

    “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” “He who would save life will lose it.” “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Reign of God.” Of course, because the Reign of God is self-forgetful generosity on a mass, reciprocal scale, and what rich man can stand that? Only the one who can let it go – and some can – those who cannot may be rich, but our word for them means poor: miser. Such creatures really are miserable. Just as the five thousand would have been, if they had followed the disciples’ initial advice to Jesus to fend for themselves.

    By the way, that is exactly what the wayward Israelites did in the wilderness, isn’t it? God gave them manna, and then they tried to fend for themselves by hoarding it! “Get away, this is MY manna, not yours, and I’m keeping it for me and my family.” Remember what happened then? The MANNA SPOILED ON THE SPOT!  Without human generosity, even miraculous bread from heaven is worthless.

    This is the paradox – the Divine Mystery – of the Holy Eucharist: the small provides for the great; we get the incomparable treasure only by giving up all we have. St. Francis put it best:

It is in giving that we receive

In pardoning that we are pardoned

And in dying that we are born to eternal life