Tale of Two Banquets
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
The text that I want to
share with you this morning is the very familiar story of the feeding of
the 5,000. I think many of us remember the details of that story, but
can you tell me the context of the story? Particularly the context as
presented in the gospel of Matthew?
It's a bit of a tricky question, because the context varies according to
which gospel you're reading. And by the way, this is the only miracle of
Jesus that appears in all 4 gospels. Not only that, but Matthew and Mark
also have an additional story about the feeding of the 4,000. So if you
get some of the details confused, it's not surprising, because they tell
the story twice, each one a little bit differently.
So there are 6 'feeding' stories in all, this story in the 4 gospels,
and then two of the gospels have the story of the 4,000. It gives you an
idea of the importance of this story in the context of the early church
in that day & age, when basic sustenance was such a critical issue for
Well, in Israel, when I was there in 2008, I had an opportunity to go
visit the region, the Sea of Galilee, and now we're going to have
another miracle this morning with our new addition to the sanctuary:
Just like a big church :). Is that cool, or what?! It's not quite
finished yet, we're still working on the details of the picture quality,
but we're making progress.
Along the Sea of Galilee, there's a church called the Church of the
Heptapegon, which is the Church of the 7 Springs:
I assume there must be
7 springs there in the vicinity. But the German name is much more
interesting -- it's the "Brotvermehrungskirche" -- easy for me to say,
having spent 3 years living in Germany. But "kirche" -- is Church, "brot"
is bread, "vermehrung" is multiplication. It is literally the "Bread
It's actually a newer building, built around the 1980s, upon an ancient
foundation. And they discovered here this incredible Byzantine tile
work, dating from about the 5th century.
They built this church
over this tile that was still in incredible condition. What I noticed on
visiting this site is that it's not one of the big sites, where
thousands and thousands of tourists visit. It's more like a 3 or 4 bus
tour-bus location, rather than a 20-30 tour-bus location.
Most of the folks that come there are on some type of spiritual
pilgrimage. And so they come there to pray:
They don't always pray in the way that we pray:
It was very much a
spiritual place where you have a sense of the presence of Christ, even
after 2,000 years.
One of the portrayals in this mosaic is a very familiar one, it's a
picture you may have seen -- the loaves and the two fish:
A very popular image. That is found right in front of the altar.
Underneath the altar is a stone, which has been worn smooth. It's on
that stone, according to the local tradition, that Jesus broke and
blessed the bread before he gave it to the disciples to distribute to
the 5,000 people:
Keep in mind, there are traces of this story that go back to the 4th
century, of some of the mosaics, a tradition that is quite old, and has
been a revered spot for thousands of years.
Why is that stone worn smooth? Even though there's a barrier around it,
for this one woman on her spiritual pilgrimage, she had that need to
reach out and touch and pray:
I think she was probably even weeping, very powerful place.
As I read this text, this story, think about the people who come to a
place like this. What is it that draws them? Is it a miracle from 2,000
years ago for people long-since dead? Or is it something else? That
desire to connect to that presence of Christ, still after 2,000 years?
So hear now, then, the full story of not just what Jesus did along the
shores of Galilee, but also why. What brought those crowds out to that
deserted place? And without adequate preparations, that they came
without food. So here is, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the
story, from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 14, verses 1 through 21:
At that time
2and he said
and for this
at work in
him, and put
wife of his
And by the
way, this is
is one of
him, ‘It is
for you to
to put him
to death, he
much that he
‘Give me the
head of John
here on a
yet out of
and for the
to be given;
and had John
on a platter
and given to
it to her
13 Now when
in a boat to
on foot from
he saw a
and he had
for them and
came to him
‘This is a
the hour is
so that they
may go into
and buy food
not go away;
here to me.’
sit down on
and the two
looked up to
gave them to
gave them to
ate and were
they took up
left over of
Once again, I find
myself surprised, amazed at the nuances, the complexities of the Gospel,
which reveals what an incredible piece of superbly constructed
literature it is, which can convey so much in so few words. But then why
is that surprising? I mean, this is after all the Gospel, the greatest
story ever told, indeed.
I have long known, and I suspect many of you have, of the Eucharistic
themes that are in this story, which anticipates (or foreshadows) the
Lord's supper, the Last Supper, which is to come. Jesus blesses and
breaks the bread and gives it to Disciples -- the very same actions,
indeed the very same words, that Matthew used in retelling that story of
the Last Supper.
And just as there are 12 Disciples representing the 12 tribes of Israel,
so too here there are 12 baskets full of food. A rather obvious symbol
for the Kingdom of God, where there is plenty of food for all and then
Now, all of that is familiar. But I had never really put this into that
larger context as Matthew presents it, where it is not only the story of
a miracle, but of a banquet. And more precisely, of two contrasting
banquets. One that occurs in the palace of power, of Herod, the ruler of
Galilee, and the other that occurs on the lake-shore in the countryside
Never has there been a
stronger contrast between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of
God. And that Matthew intends for these two stories to be told together
is especially evident when you compare his version with Marks earlier
version, probably written a decade or two before Matthew, and probably
Matthew is drawing on Mark.
But there, in Mark's version, the context for this meal is different. In
Mark's version, when John is beheaded, the disciples of John take his
body and bury him, and there the story ends. Mark doesn't say anything
about the disciples of John going to tell Jesus about the death of John.
And thus the transition in Matthew's Gospel, which connects these two
stories together, connects the dots, and that becomes the reason for the
withdrawal of Jesus to the deserted place, and the reason for the
pursuit of Jesus by the crowds.
So this is most likely Matthew's addition to the story, it's Matthew's
insight, it is perhaps God's revelation to Matthew of why it is that
Jesus withdrew, why it is the crowds sought him out. So these are not
just two isolated events, but the second (the miracle of the feeding) is
a response to the first (the execution of John). Matthew wants us to see
what he sees, writing some 40 to 50 years later, after these events
occurred, looking back, reflecting on what we can learn from them.
He says, in effect,
here is what worldly power looks like -- a banquet with the rich and
powerful, important people in that palace of power, where the head of a
righteous man is served up to settle a personal grudge, and to save face
for a King who's afraid to look weak in front of his guests.
And here is what the kingdom of God looks like (the anti-banquet, if you
will, of Herod) -- a banquet of common folk, where a simple meal of
bread and fish is multiplied and there is plenty left over for all to
So in which banquet would you like to be?
And if you find yourself attracted to the first one, that gruesome
scene, seek help, please, before it's too late :)
Matthew, you see, wants us to be appalled by this blatant use of power,
by the actions of Herod and Herodias. And he wants to identify with that
place where everyday folk find a place at the table and all are fed.
When we started the Sunday breakfast last year, I had just one request.
You know, there are a number of places where people can go and be fed --
we call them soup kitchens. But that place where people go to be fed,
who are hungry and can sit down and eat with those who are well-fed,
that place is called the kingdom of God.
So yeah, it may take more food, and it may mean those of us with the
means to pay need pay for our breakfast. And it may take more
volunteers, so that those good people who are serving behind the counter
can also take their turn to sit down and eat with our guests.
But when we do that, when we eat together, when we have fellowship
together, when we hear those stories of those hungry people who come to
us, when we sit down and we get to know one another, we share, we hear
those stories, you see, that is the kingdom of God. It changes you. It
When we read this passage together in our staff retreat this week at the
beach (and I share that with you just so you know we actually did some
work together, prayed together, read Scripture together, it wasn't all
fun and games), we sat with this passage. And what came out in that
reading with our staff was the communal response to the grief. And how
that always involves food. Have you noticed that? It's true in almost
every culture -- when a death occurs, people bring food.
And it's not just about the practical need for nutrition. It's about the
social need for community. It's about the spiritual need to affirm that
life still exists, still goes on, in that process of eating.
Upon learning of the
death of John the Baptist, the crowds seek out Jesus. And the Disciples
try to send them away -- go send them somewhere else to get something to
eat. And Jesus says no, you give them something to eat. And they say
'Jesus, we hardly have enough for ourselves!'.
And Jesus says -- that doesn't matter. They need something to eat. They
need comfort. They need reassurance. They need to know that God has not
abandoned them. Give them something to eat.
Sometimes that's what compassion means -- that we just show up to
provide some of the basic necessities of life. Sharing our food is about
so much more than filling our stomachs. It's the kingdom of God, when we
share in the kingdom of God, there is always, always more than enough
And in the kingdom of God, we're never left alone. Jesus goes off to be
by himself. Sometimes we need to do that in our grief. But the crowd
seeks him out. They do not leave him alone for long, and Jesus is moved
to compassion. To be with them, to share with them, to heal, to provide
It's so striking, this last week, to see all those images from Norway,
after that enormous tragedy, committed this time not by a foreigner, not
by a person from a different religion, but by a supposed Christian who
advocated separation and purity of race and nation and proclaimed a
message of hate. And the people of Norway responded -- 200,000 people
who came out and filled the streets in the public square, in just an
outpouring of grief and compassion. Of sharing together, of calling for
more openness and inclusion, not less.
And this story ends on a rather odd note, doesn't it? There were 5,000
men, not counting the women and children.
April was in Nashville at the General Assembly, and a few others, and
heard Sharon Watkins (the General Minister and President of the
Disciples of Christ) proclaim (sharing this text, about not counting
women and children), and she said "But we are going to count the women
and the children". That's right.
How many times have the
women and children not counted?
How often has it been that the hungry and the homeless don't count?
That the poor and the mentally ill don't count?
That foreigners and people of color have not counted?
There may have been a time when that was so, but not this time. There
may have been a place when that was so, but not this place.
Not only are we going to count the men, the women, and the children, we
are going to count the immigrants -- both documented and undocumented,
who also want a place at that table in the kingdom of God.
We are going to count the same-sex couples who want us to know their
relationship matters too, just as much as anyone else's.
We are going to count people on the street who come to us on those cold
winter nights when no one wants to be left alone.
We are going to count those singles who too often get lost in churches
that are all about families.
We are going to count divorcees who have to readjust their relationships
and associations, their finances and routines, on top of all the legal
issues and the grief of a broken relationship.
We are going to count the alien and the alienated. The friend and the
foe. The childless and the children. The home-bound and the homeless.
The churched and the un-churched.
We are going to count all who counted by God. All that God counts. These
are the people of God.
This is the kingdom of God, where all count.
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