The third week of the Lent course has now passed and we are much encouraged not only by the very appreciative feedback, but also by steadily increasing numbers – 38 first week, about 45 second week and now 55 for this week. Do pray for the Lord to speak to people again this coming Wednesday, the final week. This week I looked at the feeding of the crowds in Matthew 14 and 15, very favourite passages of mine.
We noted that the death of John the Baptist forms the introduction to the feeding of the crowds. So Jesus clearly has his own impending death in his mind as he feeds the crowds. So we saw how Matthew uses the verbs associated with the Last Supper and in the Christian Communion Service. Jesus took the bread and fish, he looked up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the bread, he gave it to the disciples and they gave it to the people, they all ate. Jesus not only has in mind to feed the crowds with bread and fish, but also with his sacrificial death for our sins. Social ministry which meets the people’s needs must go hand in hand with the message of Jesus’ atoning death for us on the cross.
We noted too that Matthew often has two parallel stories or the number 2 in an event – so Jesus feeds two crowds, still the storm twice, heals two blind men etc. In Jewish law a testimony becomes valid with two witnesses. Matthew’s account of Jesus is the truth.
Matthew stresses that Jesus had compassion not just on individual people, but also on “the crowds”. In our day of huge cities and populations, we need to relate our task of feeding the crowds also to the multitudes al over the world.
Matthew interestingly tells how with the crowd of 5,000 the Jewish disciples take the initiative in going to Jesus (14.15) with real concern lest the crowds remain hungry, whereas with the Gentile 4,000 crowd it is Jesus who shows concern for the crowds lest they faint by the way (15.32). He has compassion for this Gentile crowd, whereas the Jewish disciples were not very enthusiastic. We realise the danger of being more concerned that the crowds of our own people should be fed than we are for ethnic minorities or people overseas.
Jesus’ words in 14.16 send shivers down our spines. “You give them something to eat”! The horror of these words is underlined by the pathetic response of the disciples “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish”. Their loaves were not large supermarket loaves and their fish were not whales! Totally inadequate resources. But Jesus has the answer to their problem – bring your inadequate resources to me, he says. He has a wonderful way of taking our weakness and multiplying our gifts, so that we can fulfil his commands to us in the feeding of the crowds.
And what crowds they were! Five thousand men, not counting the women and children. How many therefore altogether? Jesus was living in the pre-birth control era. When we were missionaries in Indonesia back in the 1960s there was also no birth control locally. It was reckoned that a normal family consisted of parents and six children, so eight people per family. Was Jesus’ crowd then some 40,000 people? Let’s be conservative and say just 20,000! Five bread rolls and two little fish appeared ridiculous. As we face the worldwide task of mission and feeding the crowds everywhere, in our weakness both individually and as churches we may feel our gross inadequacy too.
We have said that Jesus fed the crowds. This is not quite the whole story. Jesus gave the bread and fish to his disciples and they fed the crowds. Jesus loves to use us to do his work. What a humbling privilege! Of course he could do the work better without us, for we tend to make a mess of everything we do. And we tend also to allow pride to spoil our lives – “I preached the sermon”, “I led the worship”, “I witnessed among Muslims” . . .
12 baskets of leftovers indicates the fact that the first crowd was Jewish, while 7 baskets indicates the wider nature of the second crowd which was Gentile. In the Bible it is foreseen that the Messiah will feed the crowds of all nations in the messianic banquet at the table of Abraham. Jesus’ feeding of great crowds of both Jews and Gentiles is a messianic sign, so the feeding of the crowds is immediately followed by the Jewish leaders demanding a sign from heaven. But Jesus declares that the only sign given to them is “the sign of Jonah”, the one and only Old Testament person to be sent to preach to the Gentiles. Jesus is the Messiah and he feeds the crowds of all peoples both materially and also with his saving death on our behalf.
Our calling is to follow Jesus and feed the crowds of every ethnic background, Jew and Gentile, both in Britain and all over the world.