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That Day the Basket Came Round -- Matthew 14:18-31 (Ninth Sunday After Pentecost)

This miracle of the loaves and fishes is the only miracle story that makes it into all four of the Gospels. We have four Gospels in the Bible – each told by a different community – each with their stories of how they experienced Jesus. Three of them (Matthew, Mark and Luke) share a common pool of stories – but they often tell those differently, and they add their own community’s distinct experiences. John has its own stories and is different enough from the other three that it often stands on its own.

But all four of the Gospels tell some version of how Jesus miraculously fed thousands of people with just a few loaves and a couple fish. John devotes a whole chapter to the story. Two of the gospels tell the story twice –it’s told as the feeding of 4,000, and then again as the feeding of 5,000. The story – or some version of it – appears a total of 6 times in the 4 gospels. It’s an important story of an important experience – Do you remember that time we were with Jesus – out in the wilderness – and there was more than enough – everyone was fed, and everyone was filled?

It was miraculous.

Biblical scholar Eugene Boring points out that one of the fascinating things about the Gospels is that they include both miraculous AND non-miraculous traditions about Jesus.[1] There are these moments, with Jesus, when folks experience things that are beyond their comprehension – a glimpse of the power and love and compassion of God, embodied in Jesus – healing; feeding 5,000; life when we thought the world was nothing but death. And, we also see Jesus – rather ordinary and non-miraculous – walking around like us – deeply and fully human – finite and limited – in a world that is hard. Jesus, grieving at death; Jesus, resisting temptation; Jesus, raging at oppression; Jesus, dying on a cross.[2]

Both glimpses are true – Jesus fully human – and Jesus embodying the power of God. Both are true here in this story.

Jesus staggers into this morning’s Scripture – fully human and fully hurting. In the verses that precede this story in Matthew, John the Baptist has just been executed. Herod has thrown a different kind of feast than we see on this day after, and as part of the entertainment at Herod’s feast, the King and his court have beheaded John the Baptist. When word reaches Jesus, he tries to escape to a deserted place – maybe he is grieving, maybe he’s exhausted. (Howard Thurman says – Jesus stands with those whose backs are up against the wall. Maybe here, Jesus’s back is up against the wall.) There’s been no miracle today. John the Baptist has been executed. As this story begins, it’s been a non-miraculous day: The Empire has won the day, yet again.

And so, as Jae Won Lee describes it, Jesus heads away from Empire – out into this “alternative place” – out into the wilderness – and the crowds follow him.[3] (Jesus just can’t catch a break.) And what they find there – with Jesus – away from the violent world of Empire – is compassion. The day after the Empire has won again, Jesus heals their sick – (the Greek is closer to “Jesus heals their weak.”) The most vulnerable in their midst are made whole. One after another. Throughout the day. Compassion, upon compassion, upon compassion. All day long.

And as the day starts to draw to a close, Jesus’ disciples come to him, and suggest that it’s time to send the crowd away – let’s call it a day, Jesus, it’s late, we’ve/you’ve worked hard, send them back to the villages to get something to eat.