When Matthew wrote his gospel, he didn't put in any titles. Neither did any of the gospel writers. But now Most Bibles have added titles to help us find things we're looking for. In my Bible, the title of this section of Matthew is "Feeding the Five Thousand." But that's wrong! Here's what the text actually says, "And those who ate were about 5,000 men, besides women and children." Matthew is the only gospel writer who adds those last words, "besides women and children." So, how many would that be? Did most men come with their wives? That would mean at least ten thousand adults. If each family had two children, that would bring the total to 20,000 or more if they had large families. Of course, we'll never know the exact number. It's hard to estimate the size of a crowd - just think about the arguments over crowd size at the president's inauguration in January. Were there more people than at the last inauguration? Were there more people at the Women's March the next day? Even aerial photographs couldn't settle the arguments.
So, we can't blame Matthew for rounding off the total to five thousand men, besides women and children. As this story begins, Jesus has gone off by boat to a deserted place after hearing that his cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded. He wanted to be alone. But, when people heard that Jesus left by boat, they hurried around the lake on foot. When Jesus got to shore, his solitude was gone. But he didn't get back in the boat and turn around. He had compassion on the crowd, curing the sick who came to him. As the sun sank lower in the sky, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and it's getting late. Send the crowd away so they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." That seemed like a thoughtful, compassionate suggestion, but Jesus had a different idea. "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." Are you kidding? The disciples knew they couldn't feed all these men, besides the women and children! Maybe they had brought just enough for their group - five loaves and two fish. "Bring what you have to me," Jesus said. Then he told the people to sit down. He didn't ask for validation of income. He didn't ask the men if they were working. He didn't scold the women if they too many children. He didn't ask if they were from Galilee or if they were foreigners. Isn't that just like Jesus? He didn't seem to have any standards. Except, need.
But many members of Congress insist on standards. They want stricter work requirements for people who receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutritious Assistance Program) payments - usually called food stamps. Now, since 91% of Congress men and women are Christians, some of them are apt quote scripture to back up their positions. Their favorite text comes from 2 Thessalonians. (Of course, Jesus had never read 2 Thessalonians because Paul hadn't written it yet.) In recent debates about the SNAP program, a congressman from Texas cited Paul's letter: "But there's also you know, in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, he says 'for even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: if a man will not work, he shall not eat.' So, I think it's reasonable that we have work requirements." Really? Almost 45% of those who receive food stamps are children. (They shouldn't be working.) Another 30% are elderly or people with disabilities. (They may not be able to work.) What about the rest? Many of them are working, but they don't make enough to feed themselves or their families.
Jesus must wonder why people like that one verse so much while they neglect most of the Bible, including his own teachings. In Jesus' last teaching session in Matthew, he paints a picture of the Judgment of the Nations at the end of time. The Son of Man divides everyone into two groups and names some of them "blessed" and others "accursed." To the blessed ones, Jesus says, "I was hungry and you gave me food." But the blessed ones were shocked and asked him, "When did we see you hungry and feed you?" Jesus replied, "As you did it to the least of these who are part of my family, you did it to me."
Jesus wanted his disciples to see the crowd as family. "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They must have stood there with their mouths open. "We have nothing here," they said - but that wasn't the end of their sentence. "We have nothing here...except five loaves and two fish." So, they didn't have nothing - they had something! And it turned out to be enough.
I've had a really hard time with this sermon. Even though I've preached on this gospel many times, this story seems more urgent this year. I keep hearing Jesus turn to me and say, "They need not go away, Barbara. You give them something to eat." Did you hear Jesus saying that also to you? I fear that too many in our country are more worried about fraud than about hungry people. We're focused on ourselves more than others in God's family. At this moment, 20 million people in four countries are facing starvation: South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria. The U.N. calls this the worst humanitarian crisis since it was founded in 1945. Yet, we hear very little about this tragedy. Seeing those huge numbers, I feel like the disciples: there's nothing I can do; but, like those disciples, I do have something rather than nothing and so do you. Right now, we can donate to Unicef or Oxfam or Bread for the World or our church's hunger program. Think of it this way, there are 300,000 Christian churches in the United States with about 63 million people who worship regularly. If each of us gave $10 this month and $10 next month, that would add up to over $1.2 billion! We don't know these hungry people, but Jesus says they are part of our family.
If you can't donate or if you can, you can also write letters to our elected leaders. Most Americans think our country gives about 30% of our federal budget to poverty-focused foreign aid. Do we really give 30%? Not even close! We give seven tenths of a percent - that's not even 1%. Now the administration proposes to cut that puny amount. At the same time, the budget calls for large increases in military spending, but we already spend more than the next eight countries combined. How can we cut aid to people who are starving while we add billions for weapons we don't need?
Stop, preacher! This is getting too political. Jesus wants us to work at the local food pantry or serve meals in our church's community lunch program. Of course, that's wonderful. You've heard Jesus say, "give them something to eat" - and you're doing it. Don't stop! But there are far more than 5,000 men, besides women and children, who are hungry. We need each other and we need to act together. One of the reasons we pay taxes is so we can do together what none of us can do alone. I'll never forget what David Beckman, president of Bread for the World, said when he came to our congregation:
All the food provided by all the charities in this country amounts to about 6% of the amount of food poor people receive from federal food programs such as school lunches and food stamps.
Our food pantries and lunch programs can never make up the difference if federal funds are drastically cut. Art Simon, the founder of Bread for the World, often said that work to end hunger walks on two legs: assistance and advocacy. So, if you bag groceries at the food pantry this week, write a letter to a member of Congress next week to support the SNAP program. If you write a check to an international hunger program, write a letter to your Senator or Representatives about increasing our foreign aid budget rather than cutting it. There is something each of us can do and what we do makes a difference.
Ending hunger is personal. It's also political, but most of all, it is holy work. Jesus prayed that God would bless the food in his hands so it would be enough for all these hungry people. But he didn't pray until after he said to the disciples, "...you give them something to eat." Then, after praying, Jesus gave the broken bread and the fish to his disciples. Here's the surprising thing: they took the pieces! They didn't argue and say this is preposterous. They didn't laugh at this ridiculous assignment. They took those broken pieces and started passing them out. They must have wondered how long the food in their hands would last, but they just kept going. They fed 5,000 men, besides women and children. And when everyone had eaten, there were twelve baskets left over.
Now, Jesus turns to us with the same calling: "They need not go away; you give them something to eat."
Let us pray.
Loving God, you provide enough for everyone to eat and be satisfied, yet many of your children long for bread. Awaken us to the cries of those who are hungry for they are members of your family and ours. Amen.