Sister Johanna is back! With Advent just around the corner, we find Jesus and the disciples looking for peace and quiet to absorb the news about the prophet of Advent, John the Baptist.
Jesus and the disciples withdrew by boat to a lonely place…. But the crowds heard and went after him on foot. So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them and healed their sick (Mt.14:13f.).
Jesus and the disciples are taken by surprise here – several surprises. The first surprise is a shattering piece of news: they had just heard of the death of John the Baptist – that’s why they wanted to go off by themselves. It’s easy to forget that Jesus and his disciples were like us, and the death of Jesus’ cousin John, who had been a profound spiritual force in their lives, was as traumatic for them as such a thing would be to us. Jesus knew that they all needed some space in order to come to terms with their grief – to some extent anyway. So Jesus organises a boat, and they go by sea to what they hoped would be a place of solitude. They needed to talk about John together, to weep, to pray.
But no solitude was given. Second surprise: a large crowd met them as they got out of the boat. Jesus was grief-stricken, but he saw the faith-filled, needy crowd, and was filled with pity. It’s possible, in fact, that their great faith strengthened Jesus, and enabled him to heal their sick. As I read this, however, I found myself thinking about the disciples, rather than the miraculous healing of the crowd. The disciples don’t seem able to draw energy from the crowd. What happens to them? The text doesn’t say, but during the time when Jesus is healing the crowd, the disciples seem to have disappeared. They are still overwhelmed by grief, surely; I imagine them creeping away, out of sight of all the people who are focused on Jesus. They try to watch the action from a safe distance maybe. As I read on, I realise that Jesus also remembers his disciples, even while he is taken up with the needs of the crowd. He knows that his sorrowing disciples need healing, too.
At length, a further situation develops. Evening comes. Those whom Jesus had healed need to eat. The disciples materialise now, finally, and suggest that Jesus draw the event to a close so that they can all find some food somewhere. Jesus has a different idea. ‘There is no need for the people to go,’ Jesus tells the disciples. ‘Give them something to eat yourselves.’ They must have groaned inwardly at Jesus’ words, and wondered what madness had possessed him. They only had the provisions they had brought with them: five loaves and two fish – barely enough for their own meal. There are over five thousand people to feed. Jesus, always good at registering unspoken words, reads the disciples’ stunned and tired faces and doesn’t even try to dialogue further with them, in Matthew’s account. Jesus simply tells the disciples to bring him their food. Jesus himself instructs the people to sit down on the grass. Then, quietly blessing the food and breaking the five loaves, he gives the bread and fish to the disciples to distribute to the five-thousand-plus people. We know how this story ends. Everybody eats – and well. Third surprise for them.
Why does Jesus do this? The people could probably have managed to get home without expiring, picking up some food as they went through different villages on the way. This miracle of feeding doesn’t seem to be one that addressed a desperate need, as did the physical healings Jesus had performed for them earlier in that day. But Jesus has a message here. He seems to be saying: “I do not fulfil only the minimum requirements of a needy situation, and I do not address only the most obvious and most desperate troubles of my people. I am willing to do more – so much more than you have asked or think you need. Or rather, I show you that you need more than you think. The healing that you sought from me is not complete without the food that I alone can give you.” That was perhaps Jesus’ primary message, and it was addressed both to the crowd and to the disciples. And now to us. But something more was involved here for the disciples. I would like to explore this tomorrow in a second reflection on this story.