TEXTS: Isaiah 55:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
I don’t know whether you noticed it or not, but I have broken with tradition a bit. This is, after all, a contemporary service Sunday and contemporary services allow only for the reading of the Gospel lesson and no others. But doggone it, our Old Testament and Gospel passages this week go together like peanut butter and jelly! They were made to fit with each other like two parts of a good dovetail joint. We have two passages, one where the Old Testament prophet is speaking about a marvelous feast that God will supply to the faithful, and the other passage from the gospel of Matthew in which the messianic feast actually takes place in miraculous form.
In the passage from Isaiah, the prophet is offering words of hope to the people Israel as they try to recover from the Babylonian conquest, which included the destruction of their capital city and their beloved temple, the very place where God resided. As a result of the conquest, great numbers of the leaders of the country, the ruling elite and the temple priests, as well as merchants and craftsmen were driven off into exile to live in Babylon under the watchful eye of their conquerors. The people left behind in Palestine and Jerusalem were the nobodies of society, peasants, day laborers and maybe a few skilled workers.
And while the people in exile in Babylon were far away from their homes, they still enjoyed some small bit of economic, social and religious freedom. And from all the archaeological evidence we have, they seemed to have a decent standard of living. Those left behind in Palestine though continued to suffer from the destruction of the land and the infrastructure that had supported them. They were also subject to continued pillaging by hostile neighboring tribes such as the Edomites of the south.
With the defeat of the Babylonians by the Persians under King Cyrus, the Israelite exiles were allowed to return to their homes. But what they returned to was nothing like the Israel that they knew before the days of conquest. The countryside of Judah was still lay in ruins. Jerusalem was a shell of what it once had been. And the peasants that had been left behind were not all that happy that the upper class people who had been away for close to forty years suddenly showed up again and wanted to be in control, giving orders, making demands and putting forth grand plans that largely relied upon the labors of others. Meanwhile the ruling elite still strove to live in a sense of luxury, still expected to feast as they had before In Judah and even to some degree during their exile.
Isaiah’s prophesy of a banquet welcomes all people to God’s table, a table where there is no cost, where there is no price, and he does so knowing that there will be those among the elite who will, as Paul Hanson (Old Testament professor at Harvard) puts it, “turn instead to the more elegant company of the few enjoying special privilege, . . . . those who ‘spend their money for that which is not bread, and their labor for that which does not satisfy.’” Isaiah knows, as we know to this day, that some people will refuse the banquet not because the food is not of high enough quality, but because they would rather not rub elbows with those who are invited – the poor, the outcast, the marginal people who live at the edges of society; people who they would consider unacceptable.
In our Gospel lesson today we find, as I have already noted, the prophesy of Isaiah played out in reality, as Jesus, seeking solitude for his grief but finding crowds of people instead, still had compassion upon the crowds; feeding them not only spiritually through his teachings, but physically in a shared meal where thousands went away satisfied.
Again, let us back up and look at the context of this miracle. Jesus had just received word that John Baptist been killed by Herod. The background story that opens the 14th chapter of Matthew tells us that King Herod killed John basically on a whim during what was, I am sure, a gluttonous birthday feast. The king’s stepdaughter danced for Herod and his guests and Herod, in turn, promised his stepdaughter “anything” in return for her dancing. It turned out that “anything” encompassed the head of a man on a platter. All this took place because John had spoken out again Herod and Herodias, the stepdaughter’s mother.
Hearing this news, Jesus strove to escape the crowds by retreating to what the gospel writer termed a “deserted place”. Jesus was hoping, I am sure, to have some time to process the news and to grieve the death of his friend and kinsman. What Jesus finds instead is that thousands of people anticipated the direction and destination of his travel, so that he continued to be besieged by crowds. Instead of responding in anger and frustration though, Jesus had compassion on the crowds and continued do what he had always done, to preach and teach, and to heal those who were sick and infirmed. And when evening came and a mealtime was upon the people, Jesus met that need as well, not with a sumptuous feast, but at least with food for all. The commentator Douglas Hare noted that while the people did not sit down to roast lamb and wine, the meal was in keeping with the basic fare that the peasantry of that area and that age were familiar with, bread and dried fish. The most important point of the miracle was that there was ample food for everyone; men, women and children, no one went away hungry.
So what is the lesson of these two passages for us today? First and foremost that the blessings of life, especially the basics of life, come from God and that we should treat every blessing we experience as a gift from God. I think that there are also reminders that we should give some thought about the whole business of “spending money on that which does not satisfy”. I believe that we are not only more than capable of spending money on that which does not satisfy, but that we are encouraged to do so thousands of times each day. There is even a little push toward what it means to be a disciple when Jesus turns to his friends and offers one of my favorite lines in the whole Bible, “You give them something to eat.” I would give a good bit to see the disciples’ faces when Jesus hit them with that statement! Yet that is exactly what disciples throughout ages have been asked to do; feed the hungry, give comfort to the downtrodden, offer healing to those who are ill or infirmed, preach messages of comfort and hope. And faithful Christians throughout the ages have responded to that call and have stepped up and rolled up their sleeves and have cooked meals and provided services and built homes. Friends, we are being called even now to continue that heritage of service in the name of Christ and to have Christ-like compassion upon those around us.
In weeks past I have been talking a good bit about the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. I believe that both passages offered by today’s lectionary speak of a realization of what the kingdom would be like if it were to be made real in the world today. Friends, the kingdom of heaven I like a banquet; a banquet where the food may be fancy or maybe where it may just be composed of the basics, a banquet where all are welcome and where no one is turned away. It is a banquet where you and I and other disciples of Jesus Christ might find ourselves in the kitchen helping to cook, but where we will also have the opportunity to step out of the kitchen and sit down to share bread with those who we might originally have been serving. It is a banquet where there is no entrance fee, no charge for the food, not even a donations basket at the end of the serving table. It is a banquet where there is always enough to eat and where for some strange reason there might even be more leftovers than the amount food that we started with!
As I have noted, such a banquet can be a reality; a place where people are fed with real food and real hunger is abated; but I also believe that such a banquet begins with (and can never be accomplished in reality unless it begins with) an attitude. Banquets of God don’t just drop down from heaven. They begin with an attitude among the faithful and sometimes among the not so faithful, an attitude of humility and trust, an attitude of compassion and grace, an attitude that first notices a need and then moves, with the help of God, to meet that need.
In the midst of that attitude of service, there is also a conscious mindset that says that we operate from a place of abundance rather than a place of scarcity. Abundance may not always be apparent and sometimes scarcity seems to be all that there is, but with the help of God it is always possible to find abundance of some type.
Friends, there is a lot of need in the world today; and therefore there is endless opportunity for Godly banquets and for expressions of compassion and to experience then exactly how the grace of God works. May we all adopt such attitudes, so that we do not miss the opportunities that are ever before us, and so that the grace of God can flow around us and through us like the waters of a mighty river.