Jesus and The Poor People's Campaign (Matthew 14:13-21)
By Liz Theoharis
Just like poverty stunted the lives of the people of Jesus' day, poverty destroys, hampers, circumscribes the lives of millions of God's children in our day. 1 in 2 people living in the United States are poor or low-income; 43% of US children live in families that struggle to feed, clothe and house them. There are 28 million people without health care, 65 million workers who get paid too little to sustain themselves and their families, and record 14 million (1 in 9) US homes are vacant, yet 3.5 million people experience homelessness each year and 39% of them are children.
The poor in the US are of all races, all genders, all ages, and come from all over - urban and rural, citizen and immigrant. They are families who have to have no access to sanitation services and whose kids play in and near raw sewage. They are families who have lost their ancestral burial grounds and right to a livelihood because of mountaintop removal mining and extreme extraction. They are people who work two or three jobs but still find themselves homeless and poor. They are people who get locked up for fighting for fifteen dollars while the fast food corporations they work for make untold profits. They are the tens of thousands of families whose water has been cut off because they can't afford to pay for water right near the largest freshwater lakes in the world. They are the 22 to 32 million people whose health care is threatened to be cut by politicians who have quality health care.
This shocking abandonment in the midst of abundance brings us to today's Bible passage from Matthew 14. In Matthew 14:13-21, Jesus has just learned that a mentor and friend, John the Baptist, has been executed by the Herodian family. He has pulled back to be by himself to reflect on this news but the people of the villages follow him on foot. Jesus is moved with empathy and rage at the injustices around him -- the unjust killing of another popular leader, the poverty, disease and hunger that dominate the area. Having compassion, Jesus gets off the sanctuary of his boat and begins to cure the sick. He does this without asking for an insurance card and with the full knowledge that such people have pre-existing conditions (or they wouldn't need his healing). He chooses to heal them as he does throughout the New Testament.
As it becomes evening, the disciples suggest that they should dismiss the crowd so they can go get something to eat and find a place to sleep on their own. But Jesus says to the disciples to let the people stay and "you give them something to eat". What happens next is a story of making a way out of no way. It is a story about finding abundant resources among the resource-less. The disciples only have 5 loaves and 2 fishes. Yet Jesus has his followers organize themselves in base communities and Jesus blesses the food. The people enjoy a plentiful meal and are filled. And still, when the disciples gather up the leftovers, there are twelve baskets full.
This story must have been especially important in early Christianity; it is the only one recorded in all four Gospels (Matt 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-44; Luke 9:10b-17; John 6:1-15), with a variant "Feeding of the Four Thousand" in Mark 8:1-10 and Matthew 15:32-39. And such feedings do not only occur in the New Testament; there are parallel feeding miracles in the Hebrew Scriptures - the provision of manna in the desert (Exodus 16) and Elisha's similar multiplication of loaves (2 Kings 4:42-44).
Scholars point out that this feeding of the five thousand was not a chance feeding but may have been a popular movement gathering in response to the execution of John the Baptist. Perhaps the men were organized into military formation and that's why it mentions there were no women and children. The banquet of Herodias, the feeding of the multitudes, and the company Jesus keeps reveal the contrast between the leadership of Jesus and the reign of Herod. Appointed by the Romans to be King of the Jews, Herod steals money and crops from the people, amasses wealth for himself and his family on the backs of the farmers and fishers who live in Judea. His authoritative rule helps prop up a Roman imperial power that enslaves, kills, and conquers more land in order to benefit the few and dispossess the many. In contrast, Jesus is the poor Messiah -- the low wage worker from the poor part of town, who preaches liberation, who disrupts the economic and political status quo, and who organizes the poor into a social, political, economic and spiritual movement for transformation and community prosperity.
Something radical and powerful is happening. Poor people are taking action together.
The words used to explain Jesus multiplying the loaves resonate strongly with the communion formula as he blesses and breaks the bread and hands it to the disciples to distribute. This story of abundance and community when poor people eat together, asking blessing from God, claiming that the abundance on this earth is for all and not just a select few, has everything to do with the true meaning of communion.
And this Bible story resonates with the Poor People's Campaign that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King launched at the end of his life. In December 1967, he said:
The dispossessed of this nation - the poor, both white and Negro - live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize...against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty...There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life. Beginning in the New Year, we will be recruiting three thousand of the poorest citizens from...different urban and rural areas to initiate and lead a sustained, massive, direct action movement... Those who choose to join this initial three thousand, this non-violent army, this 'freedom church' of the poor, will work with us...todevelop non-violent action skills.
Fifty years later, inspired by Rev. Dr. King's vision and the stories of our sacred traditions, grassroots organizations along with poor and impacted people are building the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call to Moral Revival. At this time of intensifying political, economic, and moral crisis, with the lives of the most vulnerable and the spirits of all under vicious attack, people in growing numbers around the country are fighting back for their lives, communities and deepest values. To get involved in the Campaign go to: www.poorpeoplescampaign.org.
The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is the Co-Director of the Kairos Center and a Founder and the Coordinator of the Poverty Initiative. She has spent the past two decades organizing amongst the poor in the United States, working with and advising grassroots organizations with significant victories including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Vermont Workers Center, Domestic Workers United, the National Union of the Homeless and the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. She is the national co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival and the author of Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor (Eerdmans, 2017). Rev. Theoharis is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a biblical scholar in New Testament and Christian Origins.
1. Consider the communion and community meal that takes place in this Bible story. How does this impact the meaning of communion to you?
2. Usually when we tell the story of the feeding of the 5000, we think of a large feeding program or soup kitchen. How does looking at the social, political and economic context of the feeding impact our understanding of the call to do justice rather than simply charity in our day today?
3. Visit www.poorpeoplescampaign.org and explore the various global grassroots organizations engaged in the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. What connections can you make between their messages and structure and the world that Jesus and his followers were trying to build in the Bible?
For Further Reading:
- Always With Us?: What Jesus Really Said About the Poor by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis (Eerdmans, 2017)
- Trumpet of Conscience by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (King Legacy Series, Beacon Press, 2011)
- There Shall Be No Poor Among You by Leslie J. Hoppe, OSM (Abington Press, 2004)
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 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Trumpet of Conscience (Boston: Beacon Press), 61.