Three Imperatives Tell the Story
If you're artistic, you tell this story painting five loaves and two fish. The catacombs and frescos of the early church are full of such depictions. But if you're a word person, the imperatives tell the story. If you're a follower of the Word made flesh, when He uses imperatives you really listen.
The first imperative shows the disciples' unbelief. They introduce it with what we call "duh?' statements to the Jesus they had already seen heal the blind, cast out demons, calm storms, and raise the dead. The disciples come to the Lord of the living and the dead, the Lord of all creation and say, "Duh? This is a remote place." "Duh? It's already getting late." Does Jesus not know where He is? Does Jesus not see the sun setting?
They treat Jesus as if He's oblivious to the obvious facts. This is the introduction to their imperative command to Jesus, "You must send the crowds away." "Send" is not the first meaning of the Greek word they use. The disciples actually command Jesus to "set free" or "release" the crowd. Jesus is holding the crowd there. Jesus is the preacher droning on and the congregation wants to get home to dinner or a football game. Besides the disciples don't believe that the Jesus who cleansed lepers, healed the paralyzed, and opened the eyes of the blind can do anymore for this crowd.
How could the disciples be so unbelieving? The same way we can. We think we're in the hands of the Federal Reserve or the government when it comes to our economy. We think we're at the mercy of nature when it comes to our weather. We think the world situation is up to what terrorists can or can't do. We believe not in the God whose mercy endures forever, whose power knows no bounds, whose grace abounds more than sins do. No we think those who openly flaunt His will, believe in themselves, and the power of humanity call the shots. The best Jesus can do with the physical problems that confront us is to send them away from us.
The first imperative shows the disciples unbelief. The second shows what we are to believe. Jesus responds to their command that He must release the crowds with a strong contradiction. "They do not need to go away!" Departing from Jesus is never the answer to an unmet need, yet people do it all the time. The parents pray and pray for help with their bills and it doesn't come. The farmer prays all year for rain and doesn't get any. The person who prays for peace sees precious little if any in this world of war craft. Righteous Lot-like people souls are vexed everyday by the Sodom and Gomorrah they see all around them. All of them, like the disciples in the text, think it's time to depart from Jesus. They need to try something else.
"No," Jesus says, "You have no need to depart," but that's not the imperative. The imperative is more shocking than that. It's in the next sentence; He says to the disciples, "You must give them to eat!" This command from Jesus was to spark faith, to turn their thoughts, and it did turn them but only to themselves. "We have here only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish." The solution to the situation is right there in the words of Jesus. If Jesus commands them to give food to this tremendous crowd though they have no food to speak of, and if Jesus says there is no need for the crowd to go away to get their own food, then Jesus must mean they have a source of food that they have entirely overlooked.
The only thing they have is what we have: Jesus. He is the one thing needful that Jesus promises will never be taken away from us. The disciples are staring out at a crowd of hungry people more than 10,000 in number. We're staring out at a bewildered government, a world up in arms, a drought stricken state, and a society that is as pagan as any Babylon ever was. And we have no more than they did: Jesus.
Did you listen to the Epistle? Did you note that Paul's great litany about not being able to be separated from Christ has to do with physical things? "Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword separate us from Christ?" And even when he gets to death, life, angels, demons, present or future, height or depth, he ends with "anything else in all creation."
Jesus is enough to meet whatever crisis might be before us. Luther saw this in "A Mighty Fortress." He saw that "goods, fame, child, and wife," all physical things, were on the line. And what was his comfort? That the Word, Jesus Christ, was on the field with us. Our God is not removed far from us. When Saul was persecuting His Church, Jesus asked Saul why he was persecuting Him. God the Son took on a human body and soul to redeem us body and soul. He fulfilled the Law given to body and soul humans only to be punished in body and soul for humans. God the Son didn't step into our creation, do His work of redeeming us, and then step back out to leave us at the mercy of men, weather, or wickedness.
There's one more imperative. This third one answers the first two. To their imperative that He must set free the crowds so they can get something to eat, Jesus replied with the imperative that they must give them something to eat. Now note the interesting play on words that the insert preserves. They answered Jesus' imperative with, "We have here only 5 loaves and 2 fishes." In the third imperative Jesus counters, "You must bring what you have here to Me."
They admitted all that they had here was 5 loaves and 2 fish, and as the disciples say in another Gospel, "What are these among so many?" I'll tell you what they are nothing. They might be able to feed 2 or 3 people among the thousands standing there. And what do we have here over against a withering economy, a wasting land, warring nations, and wickedness being declared righteousness in our own nation? All we have here is sin, death, and weakness. It's not just that we lack the power to control economies or weather. Even if we did we are afflicted by the same fallenness that besets us on every side. And even if we could somehow always use unlimited power wisely, death would still hunt us down and stop us.
No, let's do what Jesus commands. Let's bring all that we have to Him. He called us a couple a weeks ago to bring our weaknesses and burdens to Him. He calls us every week to put our sins on Him for Him to carry them away from us. He calls us every week to bring our death to Him and find our life in Him. Jesus commands us to bring here to Me your sin, death, and weakness, and gives us forgiveness, life, and power, but here's the rub. How does Jesus give them to us? Through His Word attached to Water, Bread, and Wine. What are these in the face of such physical need and such evil realities?
Why it's just plain foolishness, isn't it? It's David going up against giant Goliath with 5 stones, a sling, and no armor. It's Gideon facing a 100,000 Midianites with 300 soldiers. It's Abraham going into the land of the Canaanites as if he owned the place. It's God taking on sin, death, and the power of the Devil with a body and soul just like that of Adam and Eve who were defeated so easily. It's the disciples feeding over 10,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish. What can God do with these in the face of such need? Far more than we ask or even imagine.
I'm telling you that the answer to the weather, the wars, the economy, and the evil is the Word of God attached to Water and especially to Bread and Wine and you can see this in our text. The crowds in our text couldn't have seen this, but the first hearers of Matthew and we who have heard it many times can. Matthew makes the feeding of the 5,000 foreshadow the Lord's Supper he later recounts. There are 10 verbal parallels between them. You yourself noticed this. "Taking the loaves, gave thanks, broke the loaves, gave them to the disciples," and more. The early church saw this too. I said the catacombs and frescoes of the early church are filled with depictions of 5 loaves and 2 fish and they're usually symbols of the Lord's Supper.
As Jesus used a paltry amount of bread and fish to do the impossible task of feeding thousands, so we are to see that the Body-Bread and Blood-Wine Jesus gives us at this Table does the impossible for us. You already see that this small amount of Bread and Wine gives you all the Body and Blood of Jesus needed to forgive sins that are impossible for you to forgive. You already see that when Jesus gives you His Body for Bread and His Blood for Wine you are strengthened and preserved in faith. Now see that as the 5 loaves and 2 fish in Jesus' hands were the disciples' answer to feeding thousands, so the real hands of Jesus, the real Body and Blood of Jesus in your hand and mouth are the answer to all the problems that confront you.
We bring ordinary Bread and Wine here to Jesus and He gives us back His Body and Blood here. Being here with us do you think His heart doesn't sink with yours at the lack of rain? Walking with you in your shoes do you think He's unconcerned about the holes this economy is wearing in them? Do you think the One who told us in advance about the wars and rumors of wars has left you alone to deal with them? Do you think the God who comes to you in His Body and Blood to give you His peace is powerless or hopeless in the face of this latest generation of Babylon?
But our Lord seldom acts when we think He should. Read how long He allowed Goliath to taunt Him. Read how long the Midianites oppressed His people. Study with us in Bible class Abraham's trials in possessing the land promised him. Read John's account and see how Jesus knew from the get go how He was going to feed the 5,000, but He tested His disciples to see how they would respond. They failed just as we do. They forget Who was with them. They didn't "ponder anew, what the Almighty can do." As the imperative to bring the 5 loaves and 2 fish to Me was His answer to the problem before the disciples, so His imperatives "You must take eat; you must take drink" are His answers to the problems before you. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (20110828); Matthew 14; 13-21