The story of the Feeding of the 5,000 according to the Gospel of Matthew (14:13-23) is a familiar one. It was most likely an even larger crowd since Matthew’s account counted only the men, mentioning that there were women and children also in attendance! It’s an unexplainable miracle that so many people were fed from such a meager amount of food — five loaves and two fishes. But this is anything but a typical miracle story.
A more typical miracle story might be: when Jesus healed Bartimaeus of his blindness, his family and friends immediately started praising God. When Jesus healed the 10 lepers, 9 of them went on their way, but there was that one who turned back, threw himself and Jesus’ feet and began proclaiming him throughout the region. The disciples had a miraculous catch of fish, so many that their nets were bursting, and they left those nets immediately and followed Jesus.
And what happens in this miracle story? Nothing. Everyone ate until they were full, the leftovers were gathered up, the number of people in attendance announced, and …nothing. No response. No one seems to notice that anything unusual happened. Certainly no one appears grateful. Did thousands of people follow Jesus as a result? Did even a handful?
Was Jesus discouraged? If he was, his discouragement is not recorded for us to know. I wonder how the disciples felt. What was it like for them that day. It was the disciples who actually served the crowd and cleaned up the leftovers. I wonder if anyone thanked them. I wonder if anyone was interested in knowing more about Jesus.
This story reminds us here at Disciples Christian Church of our free monthly community meal. We too have served 5,000+ men, women, and children, though not all at the same time. That said, the 150 or so meals that we serve each month are no small feat for a church our size. It always seems a miracle that we come through at the very last minute with more than enough food and volunteers. We encourage second helpings, as long as everyone has been served one plate, and we send all our extra food home with folks.
It is an eye-opening experience for those who come to serve the first time. I don’t know what people expect. I just know they are always surprised. Sometimes they are surprised by the atmosphere in the room. Surprised in a good way. Surprised that people don’t just eat and leave, rather they stay and schmooze. It is a meal unlike any other we sit down to.
That said, that first time experience is sometime not a good surprise. Not everyone we serve is particularly nice. Sometimes they are demanding and picky. Ungrateful. Sullen. Rude. And yet, they’ll be back next month and hungry.
Should we be discouraged?
As we stand in the shoes of those first disciples and we obey Jesus’ command to feed anyone and everyone, with our limited resources, whether we feel like it or not that day, without even the expectation of gratitude — that is a tough demand!
And yet there are some moments of real joy and celebration when we stand in the shoes of the disciples waiting tables. There is a spirit in the room every month that I wish we could duplicate in everything we do.
Do people who come want to give back? Some do. There are too many examples to name of people who have come to the meal hungry and alone and have found the community they were looking for — and now they are bringing food and waiting tables and washing dishes . Are any of them looking for Jesus? Yes, some are. And some have found Jesus in this place and are taking the next step to be deacons in this church which means they’ll be setting and serving at another table — The Table of our Lord.
Of course we can find things to be discouraged about. Each one of us comes into the work of ministry with our own set of troubles and the need to just get away from it all sometimes. Every one of us needs those breaks when God takes care of us. Take them. Jesus did.
Jesus went off by himself before he faced this crowd, and he went off by himself immediately after. Jesus didn’t wait around for adulation or thanks. He went away to pray. It would be the pattern for the rest of his ministry. Responding to need in the world, and responding to his own need for God, and living in that cycle for the rest of his ministry among us.
That’s how a life as a follower of Jesus is supposed to be. Life is about how we respond. We can face it alone, or we can live his command to love and serve each other, knowing that we are loved and served in the same way.