Inspiring Generosity: A Reflection on Matthew 14.13-21

Grieved to near exhaustion, he willed his aching legs toward the local boat docks.  After a brief negotiation about the journey’s cost, made easier by the flowing tears, an older fisherman untied the ropes and headed into the deep water of chaos and uncertainty mirroring his passenger’s condition.  A palatable silence surrounded them for what seemed like an eternity, until the captain whispered, “where to?”  “Somewhere I can be alone to remember and reflect,” replied the man who was still young but seemed ancient with the breadth of the world on his shoulders.  The elder man nodded and set a course for an uninhabited region just visible on the horizon.  The wind picked up a bit, rocking the boat rocked steadily and lulling the grieving passenger into the blessedness of a waking dream.

With tear-streaked face resting on the railing, his mind journeyed back to what felt like a hundred years ago since the days of quiet labor with his family.  He held no personal memories of the chaotic, terrifying opening scene of his life, that trying time of which his parents rarely spoke, but he remembered Nazareth well.

The smell of sawdust and sweat on his father’s clothing, the touch of his mother’s hand on his cheek, the sound of his siblings playing in the yard.  It was a simpler time.  Difficult in its own way, to be sure, but they were a happier, though imperfect family then.  Life was not easy, but at least it was predictable.

Then, one afternoon, a friend joked about a fanatic wearing strange clothing, consuming a diet of insects, preaching in the fields outside of town and exhorting all to be immersed in the waters, not of chaos, but of cleansing.  Some sort of exodus from the power structures of the day, it seemed.  Some escape from the banality of existence into the glory of life.   And nothing was ever the same again.

This “thirty-something” Jewish man, now prostrate and tearful in a grimy fishing vessel, had followed the penitent out into the wilderness one day to lay eyes on this undomesticated prophet.  He heard a compelling message, and found himself waiting in line to be immersed in the cleansing waters of exodus.  An unassuming, yet magnificent entrance into the reign of YHWH.  It was a surreal moment, he recalled, a terrifyingly joyous occasion, for when he submitted to the waters at the behest of this wild mystic, the spirit of YHWH descended upon him and called him “child,” the “beloved one” who would re-present God’s will and ways to the world.  And nothing was ever the same again.

Still spell bound, he wandered further from the predictable, carried by human legs but compelled by divine spirit, out into the deep wilderness of life’s loneliness where his newfound calling and commission were tried and tested.  Forty days and nights of solitude and void of nourishment passed, leaving him alone, starving and at his weakest, his most vulnerable, he recalled through the tears.  It was then that the idea first settled upon him—landing light as a feather but clenching tight as a vice.  “If I am truly God’s child, God’s beloved, surely I could harness God’s power to transform these rocks into bread so that I don’t die of hunger out here all alone.”  “After all,” he thought, “Mom and Dad used to tell us stories about God feeding our descendants in the desert, so why not here, why not now?”  He bowed to pray, to say whatever needed to be said to elicit the divine power residing within to feed himself.  “But wait,” the thought grew and gripped, further molding his will, “it would be selfish to feed myself alone.   If I have such power at my disposal, shouldn’t I use it to feed the whole world?”

Nearly convinced by the seeming purity of motive, the spirit that lit on him as the river water flowed off his head came again, reminding him of the Presence within and without, the Presence that made his soul tremble by revealing true nature of this idea birthed from deep hunger and deeper need.  It would require a denial of his calling by choosing to become the ruler of the world through manipulation of the masses rather than the liberator of the world through humble self-giving.

What seemed noble—to feed the world with nourishing bread from a plenitude of needless stones—was exposed as a manipulative trick to garner approval and followers: “Feed the crowds and you can be their leader, their ruler, their king.  Give them what they want and they’ll follow you anywhere and then you can gain the whole world.”[1]

This voice, this idea, seemingly righteous but secretly insidious, as all real temptations are, was not the voice of God, he realized, but the voice of one who willed his demise and downfall, who willed him to turn from his calling by embracing another path.  One who would continually tempt him with a path that did not lead to, did not live by, a cross.  Aided by the spirit he found his right mind, and soon recalled a saying often repeated by his mother: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every commandment that comes from the lips of God” (Deut 8.3).

Ever nearing the blessed seclusion of wilderness, the boat was filled by the sound of wind, waves and the woeful, barely audible whispers of the befuddled passenger.  The captain leaned in to listen: “I’ve resisted the temptation to exploit my power and position.  I’ve been faithful to YHWH’s commandments.  I’ve instructed many in the way of righteousness—exhorting them to love God by loving their neighbor.  I’ve told them that what God wants is mercy not ritual, compassion not sacrifice, the practice not just the proclamation of grace.  And after all that….this?”  The passenger’s voice trailed off, as he stared into the dark water, reflecting an image of confusion, uncertainty and anguish.  He drifted off to dream once again.

The first few months went well under the circumstances, he remembered.  His mentor was arrested, which thrust him into a prominent leadership role sooner than expected.  It was an inauspicious way to begin, to be sure, but he had made the best of it–had trusted God’s calling and sustaining presence, had even managed to gather a small group of young men to teach and disciple.

There were others who came to lay eyes on him, as he had “the Baptizer.”  It was nice, but wearying, because they always wanted something new—another pithy comment, witty story or miraculous healing.  The lure of novelty.  And then there were the religious leaders who were always suspicious—questioning his motives and methods at every turn.  The lure of tradition.

It was a trying time to be sure, but YHWH’s spirit stayed with him, in him.  And, as is often the case, he recalled that he learned the most about himself, about his God, about this venture we call life through the trials.   On the most trying days, he reminded himself that God’s reign is like a tiny seed sown in the soil, a seemingly miniscule presence that grows and flourishes slowly but effectively—like a mustard seed or a pinch of yeast.  At his lowest moments, he recalled that the will and ways of God are worth any amount of effort to find and any amount of cost to obtain.

This helped him most of the time.  But then it happened.  His hometown, of all the places he traveled, responded to his message and ministry with derision and offense, with disbelief and rejection.  A hasty goodbye to his family and he was gone.  Soul aching, mind reeling, energy waning.  He could accept mocking from strangers, endure rebuke from religious leaders and manage the endless demands from the crowds, but rejection from those who knew him best was too much.

Adding injury to insult, with the Nazareth dust  still clinging to his heels, he received more bad news: his friend and mentor was dead.  Not dead from old age, accident or illness, which would have been hard enough to swallow, but dead at the hands of the local politician, Herod, whom John had criticized for his immorality.  The precious, sacredness of life blotted out.  His mentor was dead for carrying out his prophetic ministry, a calling that he also received from God and, in some ways, inherited from John.  John—the one whose ministry drew him from the familiar and predictable, whose hands plunged him beneath the cool water of the Jordan and whose message he heralded upon his arrest—was no longer present in the world because of a fickle king whose foolishness was matched only by his abuse of power.

“This journey, this path has already cost me so much, a few denarii for a ride across the water but everything for a ride across to life,” he thought.  “But if it’s true…but if it’s true….”  Tears flowed between gritted teeth.  Anguish flowing in sobs of grief.  Unceasing, unrelenting, the world spun madly on.

Jostled by the shore scraping lightly on the boat’s underbelly, he awoke.  The crossing was over.  The hoped-for oasis found.  Wiping his eyes, he thanked the captain, clambered over the railing into the cool water and started up the beach to find a quiet place to search after and plead for the comforting, sustaining Presence that descended upon him and called him “child.”

Suddenly, he heard the squeaking voice of some adolescent teen, “Look!  There he is!”  Raising his weary head and shielding his eyes from the waning sun, he crested a small rise to find a crowd invading his wilderness retreat.  His heart sank along with his prospects of finding time and space to obtain rest for his body, hope for his soul and comfort for his grief.

Resisting the temptation to flee this unexpected burden, he was surprised by the peaceful energy growing within and the compassionate smile forming on his lips.  He opened wide his arms in loving mercy, and began to heal the sick of all their many diseases—receiving their burdens into his already heavy heart, their weariness upon his already tired bones; offering them an easy yoke and a lighter burden to bear in return.

Evening came quickly, and with it a growing concern about the possibility of feeding so many in this deserted place.  “What do you want us to do with all of these hungry people, rabbi?” the disciples wondered.

His jovial face unexpectedly grew ashen, serious, strained.  A desert wilderness.  A growing hunger.  A great need.  “The tempter has returned,” he mumbled under his breathe.  “Feed the people and you will be king.  Give them what they want and they will follow you anywhere.  Use your power to feed them and they will follow you wherever you go and do whatever you ask, even to the palace to help you overthrow Herod who just killed your friend and mentor.”

In his deepest grief, the tempter had come again with an alternative to the way of self-giving, to the path that is cruciform.  But in his deep pain, the spirit also lit again and recalled the ancient words so often repeated by his mother: “People do not, cannot, live by bread alone, they must live by the commandments of God.”

The struggle left his soul weary, but his mind clear.  “Feed them and you will be king,” that is the temptation.  “Live by the commandments of God,” that is the calling.  “Feed them?  ‘Yes,’ but not to be that kind of king.”  “Feed them?  ‘Certainly,’ but it cannot be bread alone.”   A few moments’ reflection, as the spirit inspired and moved within, and he had his answer: “Feed them the commandments of God so that they may learn how to feed each other.  Teach them how to love one another through humble, self-giving and no one will be lost in the wilderness, the wildness of life.”

“Teacher, what do you want us to do?” his disciples repeated.  His furrowed brow softened and his parsed lips loosened into a smile.  “You give them something to eat.”  “What!?!” they replied, bewildered by the audacious request.  “We have only five small loaves and two meager fish.  That will barely feed us!  How do you expect us to feed all of these?”

“Yes,” he replied, “you only have five and two, but you can feed them if you really want to.”  “How many of these,” he continued, gesturing to the crowd, “do you imagine came here without at least a few provisions?  Perhaps there are a few others just like you–fearful that if they share what little they have there won’t be enough, that if they share their meager resources they’ll end up with nothing.  What if there are even a handful who have a few loaves and a couple fish, but are scared to share what they have?  It’s always a temptation,” you know, “to fear the needy, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless and to hide and hoard what we have to ensure that we don’t end up with nothing.  But what good does it do us if we gain the whole world but lose our humanity, our humaneness, our souls, our selves by refusing to help those in need?”[2]

“My children, my students, my friends,” he said as his smile grew broader, “no one can live by bread alone, they must live by the commandments of God, which teach us how to love our neighbor as ourselves.  We must live by a selfless, profligate way that inspires generosity and goodness in others through acts of daring faith.  If you are generous with what little you have, perhaps others will be as well.  Treat these hungry people as you would have them treat you, and the way of life and blessedness is under your feet.  So, let us give God thanks for these provisions, for these seemingly few loaves and fewer fish, and then let us share them freely, willingly with those in need and see what God might do in the hearts of others with similar provisions when they see such generous giving and selfless grace.”

So Jesus lifted up his eyes to the heavens, blessed, broke and gave the bread to the disciples who went out and shared it with all who were in need.  When everyone had eaten as much as they wanted, they gathered twelve baskets of leftovers. Having feasted on the commandments of God, more than five thousand went away full.

May we be daring, be foolish, be desperate, be faithful enough to go and do likewise.  AMEN.

————

[1] cf. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 26.

[2] cf. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Matthew–Volume 2, Revised ed., (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 103

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