Living faithful

I want you to imagine that day.  Just another day, or so it seemed.  Nothing to set it apart, until the news begins to make the rounds.  Dead.  John the baptizer was dead – horribly dead at the hands of that murderous maniac Herod.  John in prison was one thing – a sign that the authorities were worried, maybe, but the news of John’s death is serious and confusing and horrifying, and fills people with questions…and grief.  With John dead, they turn to Jesus for advice.  Jesus, who had inherited John’s disciples and John’s mission; but Jesus was gone too.  Heading for the hills (they said).  Off in a boat to pray, or hide, or weep – who knew – but the people wanted to know…needed to know what to do next.

Sudden, tragic events bring thoughts of upheaval and revolution to people living in captivity – even to people whose hope is found in the promises of people like John and Jesus.  So what was next?  Was this the sign that Jesus would finally have to take up the role that they imagined was his?  Is the kingdom finally coming?  Was he off plotting the rebellion; ready to lead the nation to victory?

Jesus went, and they followed.  Out to the middle of nowhere and turn left, that’s where they find him.  His friends were there too – they never left his side – and the crowds…the crowds kept coming.  Some hopeful and cheering – some crying – others complaining and all of them imposing on Jesus privacy; pushing and shoving and making a general nuisance.   And God bless him, Jesus cried and listened and made time for them.  In moments like this Jesus shows us what he is made of – he hears the hope in their questions, shares their grief, honours their presence and offers them compassion – that’s what the text calls it.  A word; a touch; a prayer – and each one found peace and help and healing.

And naturally, it wasn’t long until the discussions turned from fright to freedom to food; especially as the day turned to dusk.  It had been a long difficult day, and there is now a vast multitude; families, former pupils, curious faithful and devious doubters – a small city with no infrastructure.  Surely they’ll be made to fend for themselves.  Surely Jesus has done enough.

His disciples have had enough.  There’s an earnest huddle on the hill; plenty of hand-waving, shoulder-shrugging and pointing (vaguely) toward town.  Then a the sudden, uncomfortable silence that follows Jesus’ words “you give them something…”

Think of it; you’re somewhere in the midst of the crowd and you see movement.  Hands raised to heaven – bread offered and taken and offered again.  A slow, determined wave of activity, with Jesus at its centre, making its way through the crowd, and from hand to hand – from one to another – a word, a prayer, a bit of bread and fish.  “And all ate and were filled…”, says the gospel record – an image of unparalleled satisfaction.  Not such a common thing in the wasteland of first century Palestine – out ‘back of beyond’ as they were.  What would it mean to know that feeling – to experience that miracle?

We have inherited this miracle story, and we always make it about the food – Five loaves, two fish, 5000+ people and still twelve baskets to spare.  We can claim God’s limitless providence, or we can imagine folks shamed into sharing what they had once tried to keep safe for themselves; either way, it’s a miracle.  But when we limit the story to the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (just as we casually gloss over the people who weren’t officially counted because they were women and children), I think we miss the point.

Whatever we think of miracles – then or now – the main component of any miracle story is compassion.  Nothing on that day was possible without Jesus compassion, and any miracles in our lives will have the same ingredients:

Jesus ability to see the needs of others even in the midst of his own questions and confusion – his willingness to see to the needs of others, and his insistence that his disciples do likewise – these are the ingredients of a miracle.  And it occurs to me that this miracle story may be a parable too.

The organization of Matthew’s gospel is important to my argument.  A chapter full of parables (and the explanation of parables), followed by a living parable.  The kingdom of God is like a crowd in a field.  The crowd is hurting and hungry and needy in all the ways that humanity is hurting and hungry.  The teacher in their midst has been generous with his time, and at the climax of the story, he suggests to his students that they might be equally generous.  In spite of the overwhelming odds against success,  they should follow his example; they should feed the crowd.  And all ate and were satisfied.  Simple and complicated, just like a parable.

What we want to see in this miracle is an easy way out.  The need is not overwhelming, no matter how large the crowd.  The impossible becomes ordinary, against our expectations.  God is for us, against all odds – that’s what we want to hear in this story.  When our expectations overwhelm us, Jesus steps in, gives thanks, and all is made miraculously well.  Because life is rather like a crowd in a deserted field, and we imagine ourselves at the centre of the story.  We expect to be asked to solve the whole problem – at once, and by ourselves.  We expect to be held responsible in case of failure.

We expect any help to be a long way off.  But this is not a parable of life – it is yet another glimpse into the kingdom of heaven, and the kingdom of heaven is not about our abilities or our expectations.

There is a miracle at the centre of every kingdom story.  Miracle is the word we use when the result cannot be explained by our experience.  And Jesus invites us to facilitate the miracle: “you give them something…”, he says, without bothering to tell us how it might be possible.   Instead, he shows us how; producing food from scarcity – hope from despair – life from death.  Jesus stands as a living parable, urging us toward something more – something of God.

It’s simple enough: Take what you have – your time; your food; your friendship; your life – and share it in faith.  By such acts of compassion, miracles are made.  By our imitation of Christ the kingdom is brought slowly and surely into view.


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