The Care and Feeding of Multitudes

Feeding the multitudes
Giovanni Lanfranco, Miracle of the Bread and Fish, 1620-23

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking 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. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
– Matthew 14:13-21

This scene depicts the beginning of a people’s revolution. If, among those crowds that day, there had been anyone from the press, they would have reported it as such.

First off, notice the connection to John the Baptist. Herod did. In Luke’s version (Luke 9:7ff), the lead-up to the story shows Herod wondering how the guy he executed for gathering crowds in the wilderness could still be out there. Matthew says Jesus goes to the wilderness (“a deserted place”) after being told the John the Baptist was dead. In the wilderness following the first meeting with John, Jesus had been tempted to turn rocks into bread for his own benefit. This time, following John’s scene, Jesus is back in the wilderness and he does make bread – for the benefit of the people.

So the first question about this scene has got to be (thanks to Simon Harak): Where did all the people come from? Think about it. How can there be 5000 men, plus women and children with the kind of leisure time to take a couple days off for a wilderness trek? And the answer is that they are unemployed. They are imperial flotsam. Then and now imperial economic systems need to maintain a certain rate of unemployment. Modern economists call it the NAIRU: the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment. And they say that ideally, depending on other economic factors, this ideal unemployment figure should usually be over four percent, and as high as ten or more percent. In parts of the world under occupation, the rate is much higher: it’s easier to control people if they haven’t got an excuse to go anywhere or the means to do anything meaningful. Currently, for example, in Palestine unemployment in the West Bank is 16.5% and 40% in Gaza. In Iraq, the unemployment rate in 2009 according to the CIA’s World Fact Book  was 15.3%. In Afghanistan, it’s 35%. But unemployment isn’t just an ideal fact in an imperial war economy. Currently the US employment rate as it tries to maintain two major wars and maintain footholds throughout the known world is (as of the end of June) 9.2%. These 5000 are the ones who have been intentionally left destitute.

Second, it stands to reason that in any crowd of unemployed people, there are bound to be a lot of them sick. They can’t afford adequate nutrition. They can’t afford going to the doctor. They can’t afford medicine. And, think about it, if you’re sick or if you have a sick kid, you’re main worry is going to be about getting better. So occupations go better when there are lots of sick people. People don’t have the time or energy to resist. So the crowds gather and the first thing Jesus does is “he cured their sick.” Remember what they were saying about Obama when he was talking about the possibility of free universal health care? What do you think the establishment was saying about Jesus?

Third, notice that the disciples want Jesus to “send the crowds away.” It’s not hard to see the disciples as a representation of the church. And, even in the first generation of Matthew’s community, there is a tension between Jesus and the church. Then and now, the first response of the church in dealing with marginalized, unemployed, sick, hungry people is to send them away, Jesus’ constant response is let them come, and you take care of them.

So Jesus instructs the disciples to have the people sit down on the grass – wait, what grass? This was supposed to be the desert. So now, the scene is not just a people’s revolution: it has now become a living instance of Psalm 23 – “He leadeth me in green pastures, and feedeth me beside the still waters” (how else is there grass-in desert, the wilderness, the valley of the shadow of death?).

All ate and were filled – not just ate, were filled. So, says Harak, “He’s healed all the people the empire wants sick, and he’s fed all the people the empire wants hungry. How long do you think they’re going to let him live?” In fact, where there were once a crowd of sick hungry no-accounts, there are now 5000 healthy, well-fed men here. It’s a number big enough to be of imperial significance, since a Roman legion was a group of between 5000 and 6000 healthy well-fed Roman citizens. Jesus is leading five thousand healthy, well-fed men who he’s symbolically named citizens of God’s kingdom: he has legion now. How long do you think they’re going to let him live?

Finally, about the twelve baskets left over. Twelve tribes of Israel: the leftovers, the broken pieces. Jesus collects the broken pieces to be the new Israel. Think about it. The care and feeding of multitudes is just that revolutionary.

Mustard Sunday

mustard plant
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This Sunday is Mustard Sunday, when many churches will hear the gospel passage from Matthew 13:31-32 wherein Jesus says:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

I’ve known people to get all sentimental about the mustard seed. I’ve seen people wearing necklaces with mustard seeds encased in amber or set in silver filigree. And it does make an easy object lesson for the “children’s sermon,” because you can get mustard seeds in the spice aisle at the grocery store just about anywhere. And, that this passage tends to get conflated with another saying about how “if your faith is but the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains” (the armchair Christian’s equivalent of wielding an H-bomb) also makes it popular.

But this Mustard Sunday, let us remember that mustard, then and now, is a weed, notwithstanding when someone intentionally plants it. And as anyone who actually uses it in the kitchen can tell you, a little of it goes a long way. In Jesus’ parable, the plant is clearly out of control. It has grown to the point that birds are making nests in it. The weed has taken over the field. Jesus is implying that the kingdom of heaven is like a weed growing out of control. It’s a total pain in the ass. It’s attracting birds. You don’t want birds in your field. They’ll eat what’s left of your crop after the weeds get done with it. That’s why farmers invented scarecrows.

This is the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-9) in reverse. The birds pluck up the seed, the weeds choke out the plants. But now, instead of the devil and worries, Jesus says, these are manifestations of the kingdom of heaven.

Together, the two parables are opposite sides of the same coin. On the first side, the barriers to really following Jesus (as opposed to paying lip service one hour a week) are pretty tough. On the other side, once the kingdom of heaven gets planted in your life, it tends to take over everything else, whether you like it or not.