“Besides women and children”

For Saturday

Matthew 14

File:Christ feeding the multitude.jpg21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

It grates against our ears to hear the number given as five thousand and then to be told that the women and children weren’t counted. It should, I guess. It is helpful to remember that equality of men and women – and adults and children – is not part of our human experience ever since we lost the garden. (We should be clear that scripture attributes this to our fall from communion with God, and not to God’s eternal design.) But it wouldn’t have sounded strange to Matthew’s congregation; it would have said something much different to them.

First of all, it would have clued them in that we are hearing about a banquet. Banquets at the time were public rituals not private parties. As public events they were the affairs of men. The fact that this is a banquet is important for Matthew, because he has set this banquet of Jesus alongside the banquet of Herod Antipas.

This is a banquet, a public occasion, not a spontaneous picnic in the park (at the time of Jesus, people didn’t picnic out in nature). At such occasions, the food was set before the men, what remained would then be taken away to be shared with the women and children. (It was a man’s obligation not to eat to excess, to remember that others would need to eat from this table.) After the women and children ate, what remained would be shared with the poor. (So it was also the obligation of the women and children not to over indulge. Whatever they ate beyond what was needed was stolen from the mouth of the poor.) So this simple reference “those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children” clues the reader in that what happened out there in the wilderness was not as a quick lunch but the banquet of God.

At this banquet of God everyone ate and was satisfied – and there were still twelve baskets left over, twelve baskets for the poor, twelve for the twelve tribes of Israel.

All are fed at the table of God.

All are fed. Not those in power. Not those with privilege. Not those with abundant lands. Not those with houses and fields and people to come tend their gardens and clean their houses and prepare their meals. All. The men, the women and children, and the poor.

5,000 was bigger than all but a few cities in Israel. 5,000 households may be hyperbole – but it proclaims the bounty of God. The banquet of God has come to us in this Jesus of Nazareth. Israel is fed again in the wilderness. The nations are gathered to feast at Zion. The reign of God is present to us in this blessed and broken bread.

And all are fed.

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Feeding the crowds

For Friday

Matthew 14

File:US Navy 051104-N-3455P-001 U.S. Navy Sailors, assigned to the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4), take time to give back to the community.jpg

Volunteers packing food boxes for the San Diego Food Bank. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Paul Polach

19Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

Do you think the disciples ate first, before passing the food on to the crowds?

I wrote this simple question for Friday’s reflection. After writing the question, I couldn’t find the next words. I tried. I tried several times. And every time, it seemed like they were just words, that all the power was in the question. But I was unwilling to post just the question. I wanted people to probe the depths of the question.

Do you think the disciples ate first, before passing the food on to the crowds?

In a way everything hangs on this question: Is the church’s first obligation to feed itself or to feed the crowds?

This isn’t meant to be a stick with which to beat upon our congregations (it’s not that we don’t deserve it; it’s that beating us with sticks doesn’t make us more loving.) It’s meant to be one of those simple incisions that open us up for heart surgery. Hiding in the question is the reminder and profound truth that Jesus didn’t eat first, either.

He didn’t eat first on the night of the last supper; he got up and washed everyone’s feet. He didn’t eat first when the soldiers came to arrest him; he stepped forward so his followers could get away. He didn’t eat first – he didn’t take care of himself first – when he stood before Pilate, or when he carried his cross, or when he bore our pain. Alright, maybe he ate first on Easter evening when he appeared to his followers and asked for something to eat, but that wasn’t to serve himself, it was to show his disciples that he was not a ghost. That night he ate first for our sake, as everything else was done for our sake. Jesus gives himself to us and for us. And when we understand this, when we are truly grasped by this faithful love of God, then we start to understand that the meal doesn’t end with us: we were sent to feed the crowds.