As we begin our Gospel reading this morning from the book of St. Matthew, Jesus has just learned of the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. In fact, Scripture says, “When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart.” (Matt 14:13) In other words, Jesus, in His sorrow, wanted some alone time to mourn the murder of His cousin. While Jesus has a dual nature of both God and man, it was the human nature in Him that wanted to mourn a death in the family. All of us are prone to that same tendency to take flight in time of crisis, to be by ourselves to think, to cry, perhaps even to yell and vent over such a loss. And yet, despite Jesus’ plan to spend alone time, the people followed him out of the city by foot, and this is where our Gospel lesson selected for today begins. “Jesus saw a great multitude, was moved with compassion on them and healed their sick.” (Matt 14:14) Jesus spent the better part of the day, despite His own personal sorrow, taking care of the souls who came to see Him, healing their sick, comforting them in their own afflictions, and he continued ministering to them until the evening. By then, His Disciples came to him, suggesting that Jesus wrap it up so that the crowds can disperse into the villages and find provisions for dinner.
Jesus gave His Disciples an unusual answer, telling them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” (Matt 14:16) We don’t really know what possessed Jesus to answer His Disciples in this manner; it almost seems like a reaction of annoyance. Keep in mind, Jesus learned of the death of a beloved family member, He tried to withdraw, but felt compassion on the people who followed him, so he continued his ministry until the evening. He was tired, saddened, and seemingly angry that he was put upon to provide physical sustenance for the people, in addition to the spiritual nourishment he gave to them all day. I guess it can be a natural reaction- no, I know it is a natural reaction to become short with others when you are under stress. Even during a time of personal crisis, Jesus was expected by His Disciples to continue his usual activities. However, Jesus, always aware of the greater goal, said what he said and did what he did because He had a plan that the Disciples couldn’t possibly understand at that moment.
In telling His Disciples to find provisions, Jesus was showing them that they needed to take an active part in Salvation History. It is human nature to not appreciate what you have if you never had to work for it – things have no value when there was no cost or sacrifice in acquiring them.
My brothers and sisters, Jesus was teaching His Disciples that they needed to step up and be an active part in His ministry. As usual, the Disciples just didn’t get it – they lamented to Jesus that they didn’t have much food for themselves, much less to share their own meager provisions with the multitude of people still hanging around. Jesus knew how everything would play out – Jesus could have waved His hand and made 5000 turkey dinners appear to satisfy everyone, but no. Jesus wanted the Disciples to think, to anticipate, to put a plan together on their own. For this reason, Jesus waited until the Disciples came back to Him and informed Him of the small amount of food they managed to secure in the form of five loaves of bread and two fish. Once Jesus had them labor and try to figure out a plan of action, he ordered them to bring the food to him, and then he followed the ancient formula. He gives thanks, offers the blessing, and then gives the food - note that it is given, not taken – and while the food is being distributed by the Disciples, the miracle happens – the baskets containing a small amount of fish and bread continues to be given out to the faithful, and the basket seemingly is endless in its supply. In all, scripture tells us that “those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” (Matt 14:22) Over five thousand people were fed, satisfied and nourished physically as well as spiritually by the Master, and after everyone has had their fill, the remaining fragments collected managed to fill twelve baskets. Is this coincidence? I think not.
There is theological significance to the numbers mentioned, for each and every word recorded in Sacred Scripture is important. If not, it wouldn’t have been an important enough detail for St. Matthew to mention when he put pen to paper and wrote this Gospel. The numbers mentioned in the Gospel do indeed have significance:
Why five loaves? The number five, as we read in the Psalms and in the prayers of thanksgiving after communion, represent our five senses, being sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste, which are fed by Christ, the Bread of Life.
Why two fishes? They represent the two parts of the New Testament, the Gospels and the Epistles, which were written by fishermen who became fishers of men, for we are spiritually fed by their writings.
Why twelve baskets of fragments? They represent the twelve Apostles who preach to the ends of the universe, the fragments who feed our souls with the words of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
So, my brothers and sisters, if we are to call ourselves Disciples of Christ, we must keep in mind the important example Jesus gave us in today’s Gospel reading: We cannot idly sit by and wait for our own salvation. Rather, we must take an active part in our salvation by being a part of Jesus’ ministry. To whom more has been given, more is required. As Jesus’ Disciples, as Orthodox believers, we must continue to provide for those who need, and not just wait for something to happen. The old saying is true, that God helps those who help themselves.
As we journey on this day, think and pray over these thoughts, my brothers and sisters in Christ, and let the Holy Spirit guide you to be a blessing on those with whom you encounter, as you labor as a Disciple of Christ. Amen.