Recently, I was reading the work of a colleague, who serves as my synod’s director for evangelical mission. In discussing how congregations can—and must!—be a blessing to their neighborhoods and communities, my colleague argued that there is an essential twofold nature of ministry. First, congregations made up of beloved children of God must witness in the world to the good news of God’s gracious redemption of humanity through Jesus. And second, we must endeavor to meet the material needs of our neighbors (James 2:16). If we neglect either, we are, at best, preaching only half the gospel. As my wife frequently reminds me: “If it ain’t good news to the poor, it ain’t the gospel” (Luke 4:18).
In this week’s passage from Matthew, Jesus preaches the full gospel. He has just heard that his relative, John the Baptizer, has been killed out of spite by leaders who didn’t appreciate his criticism of their lifestyle (Matthew 14:3-13). Jesus was trying to find some alone time, presumably to grieve and consider how he, too, would be killed in a short time by a capricious power. But a large crowd followed him, and he had compassion on them, healing their sick (14) rather than insisting on his alone time.
Matthew doesn’t mention it directly, but all the other Gospels point out that Jesus spent the whole day teaching (Luke 9:11, Mark 6:34, John 6:3 [“sitting” was a favored teaching and learning posture for Jesus and the disciples, e.g., Luke 4:20-21]) in addition to healing. In other words, Jesus, instead of privately mourning for his relative, had taken up a position on a hill so he could heal and teach all day. The crowds stayed long into the evening to listen to him and have their injured healed.
But there was a problem.
Jesus had picked this location specifically because it was “a solitary place,” meaning that it was away from settled areas like towns or villages. As the daylight faded, people would be getting hungry. The disciples counseled Jesus to send the people away while they could still see the paths in front of them (we’ll see later that storm clouds were rolling in).
We do well when we follow Jesus’ example. We share his words of eternal life (John 6:68), and we share our food.
But Jesus surprised the disciples by asking them to provide for the people. The disciples came up with five loaves and two fish (probably the small, salted sardines for which the Galilee was famous). Jesus instructed the people to sit (they were about to learn something!). He blessed God and divided the meager food supply. And all the people ate—the disciples even collected 12 baskets of leftovers, which I imagine were snacks to help them survive the coming arduous night.
Upon seeing the people and having compassion on them, Jesus first spent the day teaching and healing, and then fed all of them as well. We do well when we follow Jesus’ example. We share his words of eternal life (John 6:68), and we share our food. The reading from Isaiah 55 underscores this point. God’s word through the prophet urges people to both 1) consume the bread, water, milk and wine that the Lord will provide without cost, and 2) “incline your ear, and come to me; listen so that you may live” (Isaiah 55:1-2). Isaiah says: “Listen carefully to me and eat what is good” (emphasis added) (2). God provides both food and holy word. As God’s people, we are entrusted with this same ministry.
Humans don’t live on bread alone, but on every word from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:3). We need both bread and the Word! Jesus, as incarnate human, knows both these needs, personally, and met them for others. Followers of the early church were known for their fellowship, praying, studying and eating together (Acts 2:42). Their life centered around sharing words and sharing food. We are the body of Christ when we share Christ as Word (John 1:1) and as Christ as Bread of Life (John 6:35).