Food and table fellowship: Feed the needy
By Rev. Jacob Kanake —
The beloved nurse’s story
Father Jerry tells a story of a Frenchwoman; she was a trained nurse who devoted her life to caring for the sick and needy. This nurse was single and had no children. She offered selfless service to her villagers for many years before she died. The villagers organized to give her a beautiful funeral, a fitting tribute to the woman to whom so many villagers owed their lives.
The villagers wanted her to be buried in a Catholic cemetery but the parish priest pointed out that, because she was a Protestant, she could not be buried in the town’s Catholic cemetery. The villagers protested, but the priest was firm. During his serious illness, this nurse had also cared for him so it was not easy for the priest either. But the church canons were very clear; she would have to be buried outside the fence of the cemetery.
On the day of burial, the whole village accompanied the woman’s casket to the cemetery and buried her outside the fence. That night, a group of villagers, carrying shovels, sneaked into the cemetery and quietly moved the fence.
The church canon was obeyed during the day despite dividing the community united in grief. And later the villagers refused to be divided and set themselves to allow the nurse’s death to unite them into one community. During the night villagers were willing to extend the cemetery fence to unite the dead as they were also united.
From parables to miracles
For the last few weeks we have been learning about parables, their hidden meaning and why Jesus used them. In last Sunday’s parable, Jesus asked his disciples if they understood parables and how to apply them to grow the kingdom of God. The disciples answered an affirmative “Yes,” then Jesus encouraged them to use their old and new insights and self-awareness of their faith to grow the kingdom of God. In Chapter 10 Jesus had sent the disciples out to preach on their own to the “lost sheep of the House of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6); when they were reporting back and before Jesus responded, he was told that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been killed.
In today’s reading Jesus and his disciples sail to a lonely place but the crowd followed them; when Jesus saw the crowd, he abandoned his plan to attend to the need of the crowd.
John the Baptist’s death
Jesus and his disciples “went by boat to a deserted place” located on the bank of the sea of Galilee. The other Gospels suggest the location may be Bethsaida, Capernaum or Gennesaret.
John was imprisoned (Matthew 4:12, Mark 1:14) and killed around 29 AD (Matthew 14:1-12, Mark 6:14-27, Luke 9:9). John was murdered because he objected to Herod’s divorce of his wife so he could marry Herodias, the wife of his brother, Herod Philip. The Jewish laws did not allow this behavior (Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21). John the Baptist was courageous, he took the bull by the horns and that led to his death. I think we are aware most secular leaders do not like to be told to get their ducks in a row. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian, was killed—hanged—because of supporting the underground movement against the Nazis. Facing physical death, he said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” A Christian call is a courageous spiritual conviction that demands that the believer should tell the truth as it is.
I had my share with a local chief that influenced my peers to discipline me for preaching on girls’ circumcision and creating awareness on HIV-AIDS in my community in 1986. My peers cried for my life; they came one evening to my parents’ home and forced me to go to an illegal peers’ night meeting. After a well-crafted deliberation, I was found guilty of teaching against cultural practice back then. I firmly defended Christian and scientific principles against the harmful cultural practice but they were not ready to listen. They frog-marched me half-naked at midnight as discipline; they proposed to frog-march me the entire night but they disagreed within 30 minutes and I left them and went home. Their action made my faith stronger. I continued to preach vigorously until that cultural practice lost its influence. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that Americans are racially divided at 9-11 a.m.; he was referring to religious worship. Can inclusive Christians be on the side of the minority as some politicians continue to promote racial divisions? The courageous Christians who stand with the minority might be prepared to pay a price of being different and wiling to bring God’s people together.
The Christians and the Jewish people often retreat to pray, to meditate or to be with God alone, a moment of spiritual intensity. Or perhaps Jesus wanted to contemplate on merging John’s ministry of repentance and his ministry of salvation by fire and the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, Jesus was interrupted by the crowd; they wanted to see him, to be healed or to be comforted! Or maybe some wanted to comfort Jesus upon hearing of John’s death. Jesus rose to the occasion; he preached, healed the sick and provided physical food. The fear created by Herod did not capture and control the compassion and generosity of Jesus toward the crowd.
The feeding miracle shows God can create something new, a life-giving food, and the kingdom of God is breaking in. We ought to never underrate what we have in terms of money, skill or strength; God can multiply it for us to use and for others to benefit. Did you notice characters in this miracle?
Natural law or science are not able to explain miracles or “objects of wonder.” Miracles are extraordinary religious happenings that are only understood by faith. In the feeding miracle Jesus chose characters to play various roles:
The Jewish culture was communally oriented. It was not hard to bring people together; it did not require formal invitation, there were no gate crashers. In this crowd some people may have been the disciples of John seeking moral and spiritual support. And those who knew John was the cousin of Jesus were there to support Jesus in his grief. And of course, some people were traitors seeking a subversive message from Jesus so they could accuse him to either the Jewish religious leaders or the Roman leaders. But, most people in the crowd may have been curious about Jesus’ preaching and healing. We could be wrong to imagine the entire crowd came to be preached or healed. In spite of their categories, Jesus did not discriminate against them; he did not ask questions; he preached to all of them and fed all of them equitably. Jesus’ ministry is fair and squarely inclusive to all who seek and practice it.
Though the disciples had expressed understanding in previous readings, at first they tend be less involved in this miracle. Some of the disciples were concerned that the crowd was getting hungry, or getting home late to cook. During that time there were no ready-made drinks, punch, junk food, snacks, TV dinners. To put it simply, food required a long time to cook.
Furthermore, the disciples were worn out by the day’s work; they wanted to rest. One can sense their level of anxiety rising as they began to be quite tactical: they requested Jesus to let the people go “into the village to look for food.” Perhaps Judas, the financial officer, must also have said there wasn’t enough money to buy food for the crowd. Maybe the disciples were more concerned about themselves than for the crowd; maybe they had their own packed food and they wanted to eat, rest and plan for their dinner. When they asked Jesus to send the crowd away, Jesus told them point blank to “feed them.” The disciples answered by saying it was impossible to feed this many people, there was no money to buy food or time to organize a feeding program, which would also require particularly trained chefs to plan the menu and organize sitting and several servers.
The disciples did not understand what Jesus was getting at. However, St. Luke says Peter found a boy with his packed lunch and convinced the boy to offer his lunch to feed others. The boy had compassion! Maybe Jesus fed the crowd to teach his disciples compassion. Uncompassionate people approach any type of giving with a mindset of “if you give, then God will…” This is the wrong attitude for Christians. Jesus is teaching us to give generously without expecting anything in return. Jesus prayed for Christians to be moved by compassion for the needs that are present and attend to them without expecting any return. A compassionate giver is moved by a generous spirit, not a hoarding spirit. A compassionate giver’s faith is not about performance. It is about the giver’s heart attitude, an outworking of love that Christ puts in one’s heart. Christ is seeking for the believer to develop the culture of compassionate giving—giving wisdom, time, money and food and much more.
During the time of this miracle the Jews’ food preparation followed Mosaic laws. The disciples may have had in mind that if people were sent into the village searching for food to buy, they would assess on their own if Mosaic rules on preparation were followed. It is not written that Jesus observed Mosaic law on food in this case. Instead Jesus inspired trust in the crowd and everyone was willing to forget the Mosaic food laws and ate fish and bread without asking where the food came from, or if it was safe—kosher.
Whatever food we give must adhere to whatever food we eat. The hosts does not cook disgusting food for the people because he/she is expected to eat with the guests. In my culture, the host tastes her/his food in front of the guest to declare food is fit for others. If the host bewitched the food, the host will die first.
Jesus uses food because the table fellowship makes people relax and share freely. Anthropologists say that a meal has a social language that breaks the barriers and welcomes the strangers. Meals provide people with unique ways to connect. Food can transform and unite strangers into a community, the community that unites in needs for each other. The sharing of our food and the Good News with others transforms and make us fully ourselves in the company of the Holy Spirit. Through the use of food, we have witnessed the transformation of communities in our time like the teaching of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Dorothy Day, among others. If we move on sharing what we have, God promises to meet our needs and the needs of others (Phil 4:9).
Today we share the Holy Communion and unite to be one community of faith and practice. We aspire to move the barriers or fences to include the outsiders in our lives. In this miracle Jesus is challenging the disciples to welcome non-Jews into their ministry. I know the Holy Communion inspires in a Christian the vision of liberation and reconciliation. To receive the bread and wine is also to participate in the nourishment and vision of the kingdom of God that makes breaking racial barriers possible.
If Jesus was to use food to explain a teaching today, he would tell us the type of food he is referring to, whether junk or organic, because in our time food has turned to be poison. Today food preparation does not follow the natural rules. My guess is that Jesus would talk of organic food and teach on the methods to prepare a healthy diet. In this teaching Jesus is seeking a culture of generosity in our community, in our family and individually. This teaching is relevant today because most people have lost a sense of community and there are others who do not love even themselves.
It is not easy to take a child’s food away; the parents of the boy in the story must have taught him to be generous in sharing. Or perhaps the disciple had convinced the boy that Jesus wanted to bless the food or perhaps Jesus wanted to pray for it or something like that. Let us hope the food was not snatched away from the boy, as Jewish culture of the time expected young children to obey their elders and to do what they were told without questioning! This child offered his food freely; otherwise Jesus would have cautioned the disciples.
Jesus said elsewhere that children are innocent and we ought to be like children in our deeds. He used children on occasion to teach equality and inclusivity, a lesson extended in this story. We all get excited when a child is willing to share their belongings with others freely. This miracle teaches me that the Kingdom of God is for all, regardless of age or status.
What fences can we break down in our lives to unite with others? As the Falcon Heights community, we recently vowed to break down racial fences, employment discrimination and housing discrimination, and agreed to share with those who have less or nothing. Each of us may self-assess to realize the secretly held fences that divide and bring division between the individual and others. The goal is to let those dividing views break down so one can unite and be united.
Jesus encourages compassion, mercy, selfless giving and communal sharing. Jesus first encourages the disciples to obey God in believing food for the crowd can be available, and to also accept that God would use Jesus to do a miracle. The disciples obeyed Christ; they asked the people to sit down; they requested the little bit of food from the owner. Therefore, breaking the dividing fences frees people to feed others with spiritual and physical needs, so we can be Christ to others despite their situations.
Jesus’ motive in this miracle is to see a change in the hearts of the people so they can learn the scripture. He is not so much concerned about physical food as spiritual food, for he who eats the physical food will hunger and thirst again but he who eats spiritual food will continue being satisfied and nourished (John 6:35). The spiritual food can cater to physical need also.
During that time, the wealthy Jews and Romans lived in luxury but the common people labored or begged for food. The Roman government or Jewish elites did not provide a food pantry or social welfare, a political tool in our society. Jesus enters the human situation and decides to provide a free meal to the worshippers. The motive of the teaching is not free food but a lesson on sharing, commitment, and obedience.
We have a choice to make because Christian faith is not about performance, it is about our hearts’ attitudes. And, generosity is an outworking of the love of Christ that has been placed in our hearts. If we allow God to change our hearts into hearts that are generous, then no longer is the issue about how much, or what our responsibility is. It is about where we can show love by being generous. How we can be moved by inner compassion for the people who seem to be without a shepherd—leader—Christ. The teaching reminds us of working toward our comfort and the comfort of others. This week we will prepare sandwiches and distribute them to the homeless and the needy. We are acting on Jesus’ words, “Give them something to eat,” and that is sharing a prophetic action to challenge modern-day stinginess. Whereas some politicians are negative about the poor people, Christians ought to show a calm demeanor and approach human hunger with the handle of faith. The mature Christian faith is better expressed in action and is better lived in practical terms.
Jesus asks that we extends mercy and compassion to hungry people without discrimination like he did in this miracle. Sometime one wonders if Jesus would approve what some religious organizations and their followers do to each another like refusing to share Holy Communion or to allow people of the same sex into leadership or rituals. God is teaching us compassion, inclusivity in our mission.