John the Baptist was the last great Old Testament prophet and the first great New Testament herald of the Gospel.
And yet he dies because of a stupid, senseless, lusty, and boozy blank check promise made by Herod to a young girl whose provocative dancing had clearly stirred him on more than one level. John literally loses his head on account of a drinking party gone awry and on account of his public scolding of Herod’s larger family for their equally public immorality. He gets killed not because he heralded Jesus as the Christ and not on account of some big, cosmically vital theological issue but on account of having ticked off the wrong people by pointing out the sordid and lurid nature of their lives.
It doesn’t make sense.
But that’s often the way life goes. Gratuitous evil crops up so very often. Even the secular media frequently label any number of crimes as finally “senseless.” Killings are sometimes called “random” and “bizarre” and as having “come from out of nowhere.” Every day people get shot and stabbed and brutalized for the most stupid of reasons (many of which are in fact so stupid as to qualify for that oft-applied moniker of being “senseless” after all).
These things happen, and we know this all-too-well. But we don’t necessarily expect a figure as important as John the Baptist to get caught up in such senselessness. Yet he did. And as this lection in Matthew 14 opens, Jesus himself is reeling in grief and shock that so great a figure as his cousin could be so easily cut down. The Bible generally does not include big descriptive paragraphs that detail a given person’s interior moods or emotions. The text of Scripture contains huge gaps that a modern day novelist or even journalist would no doubt fill in. So as readers of the Bible, we sometimes need to slow ourselves down long enough to ponder what was probably really going on.
In one short verse Matthew dispatches with Jesus’ reaction to the news of John’s death. It’s not very descriptive. Yet Jesus’ immediate reaction of withdrawing privately to a desert-like, remote place speaks volumes. He’s hurting. He’s baffled. Evil won the day over the God-anointed prophet who was the harbinger for Jesus’ entire existence and ministry. Only if we decide to go the route of the heresy of docetism could we deny that the human heart within Jesus recoiled at this evil and broke over the loss of a cousin and friend. Jesus came to save lives. But now his presence on the planet had cost John his earthly life. It just didn’t make sense.
So Jesus withdraws to be alone with his thoughts and his sorrows.
It doesn’t work, of course. The eager crowds hunt him down like some Ancient Near East equivalent of paparazzi tracking down Britney Spears. Jesus would have a right to be annoyed, a right (given his emotional state) to turn his back and withdraw even more deeply into himself or into the wilderness. But, of course, Jesus ends up having compassion. He sees the people as needy and hurting themselves and so cannot possibly let them down.
We all know that the Feeding of the 5,000 happened when the crowds hounded Jesus out to a place devoid of food and resources. And we all know, too, that his feeding of the people, in addition to being a grand miracle, was an act of compassionate love.
But have we ever pondered how Jesus addresses the hurts of the people from right out of the middle of his own deep hurt? Maybe a fresh way to approach this exceedingly familiar story is to not picture—or proclaim—Jesus as the one who is serenely above it all, pulling the necessary levers behind the scenes to generate an abundance of bread and fish. Maybe we need to see Jesus as the one with red-rimmed eyes and tear-stained cheeks and whose hands are trembling for the sorrow of it all. And yet out of his own scarcity, out of his own emotional trainwreck, he manages to bring forth an abundance of life and joy.
Viewing this story through that lens is a wonderful reminder of the entire trajectory of our salvation and of the gospel that narrates the story to us. Starting with the surprise incarnation of God’s own Son as a humble and helpless baby, the New Testament assures us that our salvation comes not from the abundance of divine strength and the flexing of divine muscle but somehow right out of the same poverty and weakness that led the Son of God to identify with us so sharply in the first place.
As Frederick Dale Bruner points out, the Feeding of the 5,000 is the only one of Jesus’ miracles that gets recorded in all four gospels. The only one! What is it about this miracle that makes it so important the evangelists clearly concluded that you simply could not have a gospel without it? Bruner suggests that it may be because of the tie-in of this miracle to the Lord’s Supper (is there any missing that rhythm of “taking, thanking, breaking, and giving”?). Jesus is revealed in this story as not only sufficient for spiritual needs but also physical ones but that somehow the “feeding” Jesus ultimately provides (and that we see again and again in the Holy Supper of communion/Eucharist) is food for not just the Church but for the world. Like the paltry amount of bread and fish the disciples initially discovered, so the food of the Lord’s Supper looks paltry and not up to the task of giving this hurting and broken world what it needs. But this story tells us it is sufficient and that this is precisely what the world needs. Maybe that is why–theologically, sacramentally, and ecclesiastically—the four evangelists knew that this story had to be included.
We should also note that the Gospels are all very careful in relating this story to remind us that the place to which Jesus withdrew was not just quiet, remote, serene, or even “lonely” as some translations put it. No, it was an eremos place in Greek: it was the desert, the wilderness, the place that biblically is always a symbol of chaos, of the devil’s realm, of the place that takes life. Yet Jesus came to transform the wilderness back into a life-giving place. In fulfillment of the prophets’ words, when salvation comes, the desert will bloom, streams will flow in the wilderness, myrtle and flowers will grow instead of weeds and thorns. Jesus’ mass feeding in the place of death prefigures the transformation of the whole world from chaos and back to the cosmos God intended “in the beginning.”
Throughout history and across many very different religious traditions there has long been a curious linkage between spirituality and food. The Old Testament has its share of dietary restrictions and laws, many of which to this day translate into what observant Jews regard as kosher or non-kosher foods. Although the Christian faith has largely left behind such strictures, we still regard gluttony as one of the deadly sins, and some Christians also promote strict vegetarianism.
Even some of the foods we eat each week have a religious background. In the mid-1800s there was a group of people in America known as the Millerites–a Christian sect firmly convinced that Jesus would return sometime late in the year 1843. He didn’t, thus setting off what was called “the Great Disappointment.” At least some of these folks, however, made the best of the situation by declaring that as a matter of fact Jesus had returned but that it had turned out to be an invisible, spiritual advent. Believing themselves to be living in an already-present millennial kingdom, these Adventists decided that as part of this new identity they should invent alternative foods as a sign of their not being fully in this world. So one preacher named Sylvester Graham invented a new kind of cracker for his congregation to eat–yes, the Graham Cracker. Peanut butter was also invented at this time, as was a variety of cold breakfast cereals, including something called a “corn flake,” perfected by Adventist devotee John Harvey Kellogg in a spiritual community located in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Food and spirituality have long been yoked, but aside from observing occasional periods of fasting, no religious group has ever said it would never eat anything again. We all know we must eat and drink to live. If we go much more than three days without water or a month or so with no food, we will die. Many organizations nobly work every day to get food to this world’s starving. The fact that thousands of children die of starvation every day is as vivid, and utterly tragic, a sign of this world’s broken condition as anything.
We need food to live. Those of us blessed enough never to have to worry about our food also have the luxury of being able to enjoy this creation’s bounty in all its manifold variety. We even celebrate those skilled at serving up particularly tasty cuisine, whether it’s Aunt Millie whose pot roast cannot be topped or Julia Child whose “Bouef Bourguignon avec Champignon” is so fine we’ll shell out thirty or forty bucks just to get a plate of it.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 6, 2017
Matthew 14:13-21 Commentary