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9th Sunday Pentecost

  1. Pentecost 9.17 “Subdued” Matt. 14:13-21

We are so used to this story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 and the standard reading is that it is proof Jesus will give us whatever we want, that He does this simply as an act of kindness for a hungry crowd. And it may be that. But when you read it in the context of what’s going on in Matthew’s Gospel at this point in the story, a more complex picture emerges, maybe a more challenging reading of what’s really going on here. It’s a reading that’s not for everyone, but maybe it is for you?

We are people who always start with “What?”, and we see a great big “What?” right away in our Gospel reading: “When Jesus heard, He departed from there by boat to a deserted place…” And so our question is: “What did Jesus hear?” The lectionary compilers try to cover it with the bracketed insert “[about the death of John”] and whenever you get brackets in the lectionary you know that someone’s pulling a bit of a fast one on you and should be suspicious. Actually, you should be suspicious of most things you hear from modern liturgiologists, but that’s a story for another time…

Anyway, yes; “what” Jesus heard was that John the Baptist had been beheaded in prison by Herod the Tetrarch. But that’s just the tip of a pretty big iceberg. See, the masses of Israel saw John as a prophet; some saw him as the Christ, the Anointed One, the new David who would re-establish the Kingdom of Israel, kick out the Romans and make Israel great again. Their definition of greatness was the usual: strong, independent state with a formidable military so that no one would mess with them, a good economy with plenty of high wage jobs widely available, broad-band internet in every house, etc., etc. The Roman occupation was providing none of that for Judah at this time, and John looked like a guy strong enough, popular enough, and with enough divine power behind him to maybe do something about that…

But John was a bit of a puzzle at first and then a disappointment. He insisted he was just a messenger pointing to the real Christ, who is Jesus of Nazareth. And then John is arrested by Herod the Tetrarch (a Roman puppet king) and thrown into prison. Herod grows fond of John and they talk a lot, but nothing revolutionary is happening. And then John is killed when Herod had a little too much to drink at his birthday party and made a rash promise to his pole-dancing step-daughter, that ends with John the Baptist’s head on a platter.

And these disciples of John who come and tell Jesus are not delivering a straightforward message of grief. In their rushing to tell Jesus, there is political pressure, a passing of the baton, an implicit, “OK: John said You are the real Christ, the Son of David. Well, John is dead and it is time for You to step up to the plate and start driving in some runs for the home team. There is a crowd ready, willing, eager to follow a real David, a true leader, so grab Your slingshot and start killing giants, Man!” That’s kind of the subtext here, and it has been building for a while, this frustrated expectation for Jesus to take over the reigns of the state and deliver some real greatness, keep some long suspended promises…

It’s tough to say precisely what the disciples of John expected. But, at minimum, I think it’s safe to say they expected Jesus to confront Herod, to hold him accountable for judicial murder, to rally the crowds for justice that could end up sweeping not only Herod from his perch, but maybe the Roman procurator Pilate as well. That, at least, would be a promising start if Jesus really is the Son of David!

But Jesus goes the other way, literally. Because they are people who start with “Why?”, the crowd demands to know why Jesus is going the wrong way?! They let Him know that Jerusalem and Caesarea are the other way. You see: size and numbers here are more threat than promise. But Jesus is neither threatened nor fussed. He is moved with compassion when He sees how many among them are sick and unwell; and He heals them all…

It appears He spends the better part of the day at this and it certainly must have subdued the crowd a bit. “Well, You know, I’ve got this thing with my hip that has been bugging me, Jesus, and while You’re at it, maybe You could take a look?” But, providing universal health care at no charge to the patient is political dynamite [then as now!] and by evening, the disciples are concerned. It is getting late, it’s a deserted place, and the crowd has grown restless and hungry. I forget who it was that said “rebellions don’t start on full stomachs”, but it is an excellent point.

Jesus tells His disciples to give them something to eat (He doesn’t seem to want His fingerprints on free food banks, along with free universal healthcare with Himself as the single payer). They retort: “We have only five loaves and two fish.” (they don’t mention they took the loaves and fish from a little kid, but that’s another story too!). Now, Jesus can do things with five loaves and two fish that defy imagination and belief! He makes the crowd sit down, takes the five and two, blesses, and breaks them, and gives them to the disciples to distribute to the crowd.

And once the food starts coming, the crowd is subdued. And not only does everyone eat of the five loaves and two fish—all 5,000+!—but they had twelve baskets full of leftovers (which it appears the disciples will forget to bring along to the next stop, but that also is another story). And when they are full and happy and dozy, on the grass, Jesus makes His disciples slip away in the boat while He goes up on a mountain, alone, to pray…

Now, you can read this story lots of ways, draw lots of conclusions from it: Jesus is kind. Jesus is concerned for our earthly needs. Jesus fills all our lack. I would say nothing against any of those conclusions. But I think Jesus is subduing an unruly crowd. Like the saying: “Inside every heavy person is a thin person, trying to get out. But I find I can usually subdue that person with a couple of donuts”. John reports the aftermath of this miracle in chpt 6 of his Gospel, saying that the crowd wanted to “make Jesus King, by force”. The miraculous feeding with the five loves and two fish subdued them and then the promise of feeding them with His flesh and blood drives all but the 12 of them away…

And the Holy Supper still has a way of doing that, doesn’t it? Giving us what we want isn’t always giving us what we need. They wanted earthly food, bread, fish (donuts?) and Jesus gives it, but perhaps only to make them hungry for the real Feast, His own Body and Blood given on the cross, taking away all sin…

When the Church has gathered unflinchingly around the flesh and blood of Jesus truly given us to eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper, no ifs, ands, or symbols about it, the crowds have usually dispersed, and a rather smaller, more hard-core group is left. Because the food we really need is the very Body and Blood of Jesus. Only this satisfies. Only this feeds. All other food merely subdues. Ultimately, Jesus would not have us subdued. He would have us saved by His death and resurrection, feasting on His flesh and blood, made over by these holy means into His own Image so that no merely earthly peace, but Peace surpassing all understanding will guard our hearts and minds, bodies and souls in Christ Jesus. Amen.


Advent Vespers –

Wednesday, 15 December 7:00 p.m.

17  December 2017

3rd Sunday Advent

8:30 Matins

11:00 Divine Service with Communion

9:45 – Sunday School and Adult Bible class

Classes for ages 3 and up

Advent Vespers – Wednesdays – 7:00 p.m.

December 6, 13, 20

Christmas Eve Candlelight Service – DS w/Comm

7:00 p.m  24 December 2017

Christmas Day Service – DS w/Communion

11:00 a.m.  25 Christmas 2017


Our Savior Lutheran Church is a confessional Lutheran church in Raleigh, North Carolina, belonging to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

We are located at: 1500 Glenwood Avenue, Raleigh, NC 27608.

For directions, use 742 Nash Street, Raleigh.