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Preaching Matthew 14:13-21

 

 

Is Jesus able to meet our needs? This question was at the heart of the disciples’ dilemma in the desert. As with many familiar passages, we have the challenge of helping the congregation hear the old story in a new and relevant way. Because this passage is so familiar, there is a wealth of material about it. If we succumb to the temptation to include as much material as possible, we dilute the message. Instead, after doing the exegetical work, we should determine one clear message that we want to communicate, and then craft a sermon that is designed to help the congregation receive that message.
In his insightful commentary on Matthew, F.D. Bruner noted that this is the only one of Jesus’ miracles found in all four gospels. The reason for this is that “it shows so comprehensively how Jesus is equal to all human need, whether spiritual or physical.”1 While shaping a sermon around the central idea that Jesus meets our needs, we can explore a variety of ways that becomes true for the people. A sermon might move from problem to solution, from promise to fulfillment, from impossible to possible, or from our lack to God’s provision.
As we think about where to situate the listeners in the text, the best place to locate them seems to be with the disciples rather than mixed among the crowds. While we may identify with Jesus’ frustration about being hounded by people when he simply wanted a place for peace and prayer, locating ourselves with him would be a bit presumptuous, since we are not the source of the provision. In the disciples, however, we find the kinds of faults, doubts, and shortcomings that all humans have.   
We can help the congregation put themselves in the disciples’ place by setting the stage.  There they were, out in the middle of nowhere, this deserted place by the sea, surrounded by a huge crowd, possibly 20,000 people all told. They had been there for hours, and now evening had come. It was time to eat. The disciples were unsettled. A hungry crowd could easily turn into a mob. What would happen when all those hungry people realized there was no food nearby?
We see their worry in the abruptness with which they address Jesus: “We’re out here in the desert, and it’s late; send these people into town so they can get some dinner.” We may wonder at the way they are talking to their teacher, with no “please,” no polite address, not a “will you” or “could you!” No, they are so anxious that they come close to giving Jesus an order.2
Jesus, as he so often did, turned the tables. “You give them something to eat,” he said.  Well, wasn’t that ridiculous. As if the disciples had secretly stowed away the mountain of provisions it would take to feed 20,000 people! What did Jesus think, that the twelve of them had smuggled 10,000 loaves of bread under their cloaks? It was crazy!  
We can imagine them looking at each other and shaking their heads. Five loaves and two fish was enough food for about seven people, not enough even for the twelve, let alone the crowds. “We have nothing, except…” They dismissed even what they had, a common reaction when we are anxious and afraid.
Here we should ask where the needs of the congregation fit the text. The needs may be individual or corporate. The recession may be over, but many in our congregations continue to struggle financially. The end of the month comes and we look at our checking account. How are we going to pay the bills? Or tax time comes around. Where will we get that much money? We consider retirement, but how would we get by? Or we’re living on a retirement income, but there’s just not enough in that check to live on. It is not just money or things that we feel we lack. We may look at our lives and think that we don’t have enough education to get the job we want. We don’t have enough intelligence or wisdom to know what decision to make. We don’t have enough time in the day to do everything we need to get done. We don’t have enough patience to deal with our children, or we don’t have enough faith to face this crisis.
Instead of individual needs, we might choose to focus on the needs of the church. Is the church struggling with feeling that they are too small, too old, or that they do not have enough resources? Or is there a word here about the congregation’s mission to feed the hungry or meet other needs in the community? Whatever the context, our task is to help people see how, with the power of God, there can be movement from scarcity to abundance.
I titled a sermon on this passage, 5 + 2 = 8, inspired by Bruner’s emphasis, “[The disciples] are counting only the realities that impress them, not the Reality that should impress them most.  Disciples should always count to eight.”3
Jesus said, “Bring me what you have.” When they gave what they had to Jesus, he blessed it and gave it back to them, and it was enough. Not only was it enough, it was more than enough!  Everyone was fed, and at the end, there were twelve baskets left over.  
In a sense, here Jesus is enacting the truth of the parables of the kingdom from the previous week’s text, that in a little yeast, a little seed, a little pearl, a little treasure, is the kingdom.  With God it becomes something great.  There is more to the equation than just what we have.  We must also count the One with whom all things are possible.  

Dawn M. Mayes
First Presbyterian Church
Brunswick, Georgia

NOTES
1. Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary. Vol.2: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 66.
2. Ibid., 68.
3. Ibid.
 

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