Matthew 14:22-33 / Proper 13A / 31 July 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” wrote economist Milton Friedman. And he’s right. Someone has to pay. Somewhere, sometime. Free lunches went out with Genesis 3 and the curse against Sin. Before that all lunches, as well as breakfasts, dinners, and snacks, were free for the plucking. Fruits and nuts, all you can eat. Then came Sin and the terms changed. The free lunch was over. Now it was cultivated plants and sweat and work. No more free fruits and nuts. Now costly bread, working against the weeds by the sweat of your brow until you drop dead into the dust. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
The miraculous feeding of the 5000 in this morning’s Gospel was both free and costly. Free to the people, costly to Jesus. Jesus had just finished teaching in parables from a boat. When He came back to the shore, He was mobbed by a crowd who followed Him on foot. It was getting late. The people were hungry. They were in a desolate place. The Greek text says “wilderness place” which, of course, makes you think of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness, which is precisely what Matthew wants you to think.
There was no food. The disciples were concerned. Rightfully so. There solution was sensible and reasonable. “This is a wilderness. No food in sight. Dismiss the crowds and sent them to the nearby villages where they can buy some food for themselves.” The disciples knew enough to know that there was no such thing as free lunch or dinner. You either grow your food or pay someone else. Bread doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. You’ll recall that Jesus was tempted to pull that trick in the wilderness, and He declined. No turning stones into bread. That’s not the way Jesus does things.
“They don’t need to go away. You give them something to eat.” That’s how Jesus does things. He takes our meager offering and does something big with it. Imagine the disciples, looking at each other, saying, “Huh? Peter, what did you bring? James? John? What are we talking about here? Five loves and a couple of dried fish. Jesus, you’ve got to be joking. Send them away. They’re going to riot. Or pass out from hunger. We don’t have anything. What can you do with five loaves and two fish?”
It’s a kind of action parable. Jesus is teaching His disciples, and us, something about how He operates. He works through means. Ordinary means. Creaturely means. He could have just zapped everyone so that they weren’t hungry. But where’s the fun in that? And where’s the fellowship? It would be like popping a nutrition pill three times a day instead of sitting down to a meal. Food as fuel rather than fellowship.
He takes there little offering – five little barley loaves and a couple of dried fish. He orders the crowds to sit down on the grass. Yes, you heard it. On the grass. Do you hear it? Psalm 23? “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” Good Shepherd Jesus is tending His flock in the wilderness, the way Moses tended Israel.
He takes the five loaves and two fish, raises His eyes to heaven from whence He came, where His Father is, and He thanked His Father for the gift. “The eyes of all look to you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.” Though it came from the disciples, He thanks God, from whom all blessings flow. And then He breaks the bread and the fish, gives it to His disciples and His disciples give them out to the people. And this goes on and on and on. The five loaves and two fish just kept producing more and more pieces at the hand of Jesus. So much that everyone ate until they were full. And there were leftovers. Twelve baskets full, one for each disciple!
Five thousand men plus their women and children ate from five loaves and two fish from the hand of Jesus. Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread (“not-bread”), and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
God sounds like a middle eastern water carrier, or a merchant in the open air market. Boy, does he have a deal for you! Food and drink for free. Wine and mile without cost. Bread for nothing. Milton Friedman never had it this good.
Now if you’re not careful, you might fall into the Joel Osteen, prosperity preacher ditch and this notion that if you play your cards right, your bread and fish never run out, and your wine and milk will overflow, not to mention your IRA and stock portfolio. The lure of money for nothing is what keeps the Vegas casinos running 24/7 and the idea that God is an infinite vending machine of favors to the favored isn’t far behind. But we need to read on in Isaiah.
“Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear and come to me; hear, that your soul may live.” This free feast is a feast of words, a Divine Service of His Word. This is the kind of food you eat through your ears.
And that’s precisely the point. Jesus, the Bread of Life, Jesus the Source of all bread, Jesus who is our Manna in the wilderness comes to us through His Word, through baptismal water, through our humble offerings of bread and wine. He is our “daily bread.” Our other daily bread we work for, sweat for, labor for, die for. It’s still God’s gift in that without God we wouldn’t have a crumb much less a loaf. But living Bread, Bread that comes down from heaven, Bread that you can eat for free – that is bread that only Jesus can provide.
John tells us that the 5000 at this feast wanted to make Jesus king on the spot. Of course! Who wouldn’t? A free lunch and breakfast and dinner. A chicken in every pot. Bread for every table. The end to world hunger, poverty, and half a dozen other world social issues. Just get Jesus into public office, put Him in charge of the government, and watch what happens. National debt? No problem! Multiply those dollars! Oh, wait a minute, the Federal Reserve already does that. But printing money is no miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes. It’s just bankrupting the future. Wouldn’t it be great to have Jesus in charge?
That’s what the people thought, and it’s precisely what Jesus sought to avoid. His kingdom is not of this world. In the end, this miracle is not about filling empty bellies with bread and fish. World hunger can be dealt with easily enough by this sentence: “You give them something to eat.” Jesus doesn’t need to multiply bread to deal with world hunger. We just need to distribute the bread that’s already there.
What Jesus is doing and showing is that the kingdom of God had broken in to this world with His coming. True and living bread had come down from heaven. The Good Shepherd had come to feed His flock. The rabbis said that when Messiah came there would be bread in abundance and God’s people would feast on the flesh of Leviathan, the great sea monster, the incarnation of evil itself. The Jews ate a course of fish every Friday night at their Sabbath meal in recognition of this. Jesus’ meal of bread and fish in the wilderness was a foretaste of the messianic feast to come, a feast that would be fulfilled in His own death on the cross, His giving His flesh as bread for the life of the world and His blood as wine to gladden the hearts of sinners.
There were plenty of hungry people in Israel like the beggar Lazarus whom Jesus did not feed. That was for the rich man to do. Jesus came that we might feast on the abundance of His life, His forgiveness. He came to be our Bread, our food and drink free, without cost to us.
Milton Friedman was right. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Including this one. It was free to the diners, it was costly to Jesus. Every miracle, the healings, the feedings, cost Jesus His life. He, the source of all bread, the One who gives seed to the Sower and bread to the eater, laid down His life to satisfy our deepest hunger and quench our deepest thirst. The sign of miraculously feeding 5000 men together with their women and children and leaving an Israelite twelve baskets of leftovers points to the cross where Jesus becomes our Bread, our Manna in the wilderness, our living Bread come down from heaven. Eat of this Bread and live forever. Drink of this Cup and be forgiven and gladdened and restored.
A greater miracle than that miraculous feeding takes place here, now, for you. Jesus fed 5000 in the wilderness once. He feeds millions every Sunday, including you. Without cost. By grace. Without your works. Through faith in Jesus’ words. He gives, you receive. Free to you, costly to Him. And more than enough Jesus to go around. With leftovers.
In the Name of Jesus,