This week’s gospel reading (Matt 14:13-21) is another well-known story. We might feel awkward that only the men are countered but it is what it is. And we might also have some good ideas about how Jesus did feed so many people. We might also miss the context of this story, the two devastating events that precede this story, and in doing so miss the contrasts that run all the way through. I wonder if you have read the stories between this week and last week.
The story begins with Jesus leaving all in search of a place to be with his grief and anger over the death of his mentor, teacher, even friend. John has been beheaded and Jesus needs time alone. But this huge crowd, bigger than any town except the major urban centres, have gone to find him. Maybe they too are filled with grief and anger and they look for hope in this man. And so Matthew tells us that Jesus meets them. We might be tempted to say he has pity, but pity is too nice a word. This is deep gut wrenching empathy. It is shared grief. The word “sick” can also be translated weak. He meets and heals those weak with all that is happening.
And here the contrasts start. The birthday party which precedes this story is one of depravity and all-consuming self-centeredness. It is symbolic of all that is wrong with Herod, Rome and the Temple leadership. In contrast to their luxury and waste, the poor who gather looking for Jesus live lives marked with hunger and deprivation. That is the way of the Roman Empire.
In contrast to the greed of these groups we are reminded of the biblical tradition where the hungry will be fed, and condemnation is pronounced on those who do not feed their people.
And in contrast to the abuse of power encountered in the Herod’s birthday bash, in this story we are offered a visible reminder of the gracious abundance of God’s power. Despite the impossibility of the story, all these people were fed. Were fed until they no longer wanted, until they were no longer hungry. God’s power is bringing in a new age where all have enough to eat.
This year is an election year. I wonder how this story with its image of compassion, provision, generosity, and God’s justice and care for all, will influence how we vote. What kind of society do we look for? How does this story affect our hopes for Tauranga Moana and for Aotearoa-New Zealand? Which people, which party offers us the best hope of taking a step or two towards it?