Miracle stories can easily suck all the air out of the room, or out of the sermon. That’s part of why we offer an interplay between Paul’s Letter to the Romans and these wonderful stories from Matthew’s Gospel. It is not, however, our intention to diminish the miracle in any way. We’re not trying to “explain away” what Jesus did. Nor do we suggest that it was some kind of sleight of hand or appeal to the better nature of those in the crowd. It is a curious tendency of preachers and interpreters to try and explain the miracles. Either we’re trying to convince everyone it was indeed a genuine miracle (as if Jesus needed our affirmation), or we’re trying to make things fit into a scientific mindset that says everything has a natural explanation. Wherever you might fall on that spectrum, our contention for this series at least is that the how question is the wrong question to ask.
Let’s ask a different question, then: “Was Jesus being serious when he said to the disciples who told him to send the people home because they were getting hungry, ‘you give them something to eat’? Was Jesus trying to stump the disciples, or was he really attempting to get them to solve the problem?”
Think about it. Maybe he was just messing with them, hoping that they would realize how much they needed him. We need that from time to time; we think we are all capable, and we forget that we need a savior; we need someone who can pull us out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Maybe he was drawing a line in the sand, so that they would know their limits, their weaknesses.
On the other hand, maybe Jesus was trying to get them to see that their resources - allied with the power of God - were more than they thought, more than enough. Maybe Jesus was trying to change the attitude that says, “We have nothing but five loaves and two fish.” We tend to look at what we don’t have rather than at what we do. We tend to feel overwhelmed by the problems we face rather than being willing to start with what might seem like inadequate resources and see what God can do with what we bring. “Send the crowds away” so that they can solve their own problems is a common response to the needs around us. Can we hear Jesus saying to us, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat”?
Then we have Paul chiming in from Romans, chapter 9, with a recitation of resources. Yes, he sounds like he’s trying to wash his hands of them, the people with the resources, that is. And he is, to an extent. Not of the resources, however, not of the glory and covenants and the giving of the law, not of the worship and the promises. No, he will cling to these. They are the resources needed to do anything in the name of the Lord. They are the gifts that have been given by God that equip the people of God to accomplish anything necessary—not the least of which is to recognize the one who comes in the name of the Lord. That’s the source of Paul’s frustration here.
We must tread carefully over these verses, however. We don’t, for example, need to read this as a rejection of the Jews, which could be a source of anti-Semitism. Instead, it is possible to see in these verses a respect for the forbearers of the faith and perhaps a wistful longing that his family might see what he sees in Jesus the Christ, the fulfillment of all they had worked and longed for throughout their long journey of wrestling with God. “Israel” means the one who wrestles with God. For Paul, the result of all that faithful wrestling is the person of Jesus. And he longs for his people to see that and to claim that.
It’s obvious to him. At least he learned to see after he was struck blind and guided by one of the faithful ones back into the light. Now, he hopes to lead all those who are almost there into the deepest relationship. Is that too much to read in these verses? Perhaps, but maybe if we could peel back the layers of Christian anti-Semitism, we might find a simpler message, a more profound hope.
We can’t pass over the feeding story in Matthew without making note of the count. “Those who ate were five thousand men, not counting women and children.” One of our tasks in biblical interpretation is figuring out who has slipped to the margins, who has been ignored or diminished—not to put ourselves in a place of superiority to the Bible, but to be aware that in our application, we don’t perpetuate the diminishment, especially when we want to focus on the statement that we are to give them something to eat. The hungry that are around us, the tired and worn out, the despairing and depressed are, indeed, our responsibility. You give them something.