August, 2008 - Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
The waiter comes around with the dessert menu. You glance at it and groan. “I just can’t,” you say, as you push back a little from the table. “I’m full.” My mother always taught me that was an impolite expression in a restaurant or at a nice dinner. “I’m full” is the kind of thing you say around the family table at home, but not in public or at a formal dinner. That standard may have changed a bit. When we recently declined dessert at Applebee’s, it was our waiter who said to us, “So you’re full.”
In polite company, western cultures tend to avoid expressions that refer directly to our bodies. A French person would never say “I’m full,” but might say Ca suffit, “That is sufficient.” A German says, Ich bin satt und zufrieden, “I am satisfied and at peace.”
Some eastern cultures are not so bashful about the body. Still absolutely polite, in India they say words that mean, “That is enough, my stomach is full, thank you very much,” referring directly to one’s stuffed abdominal region.
So the New International Version, and other English translations produced by the stuffy, uptight Wheaton College sort of evangelical, bring western politeness to verse 20, making it begin, “They all ate and were satisfied.” But the word there is more literally “filled.” That’s how the King James and the New Revised Standard versions translate it. Eugene Peterson’s The Message says, “They all ate their fill.”
The Greek verb for “filled” here is chortázō. The root of the word is actually in the previous verse, “And he directed the people to sit down on the grass.” “Grass” is chórtos. The image being conjured up is that the people were filled… like livestock being stuffed with hay. They were stuffed, bursting, satiated completely. That’s what the meal that Jesus miraculously produced there by the sea did for them. It filled them up.
That little language note is important if we don’t want to miss an important connection with something else Jesus taught. In the Beatitudes, both in the Matthew 5 version and Luke 6 version, He said, “Blessed are those who hunger… for they shall be filled.” In Matthew, Jesus blessed a spiritual hunger for righteousness, but in Luke it’s literal, physical hunger that will be met. Here in this miracle of bread and fish, Jesus delivered on that blessing for thousands of people. The hungry were filled.
Hearing this miracle today we need to feel its vital connection between the spiritual and the physical. If we translate verse 20 with the word “satisfied,” we could go off on a lesson solely about spiritual satisfaction, as I did the last time I preached this text nine years ago. We might dwell on how the spiritual bread of God’s Word satisfies our souls. And the Matthew Beatitudes would give us some justification for that.
Yet the spiritual lesson the disciples learned here was not just about the filling of their hearts and spirits with the good teaching of their Master. It was not just about hungering and thirsting after righteousness and finding peace and forgiveness. Their lesson involved a tangible, physical encounter with a crowd of hungry people.
Verse 15 tells us that when the hour grew late in the day, the disciples came to Jesus and suggested, “Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus’ response to them is part of the lesson: “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
Their answer in verse 17 is perfectly reasonable, “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish.” We don’t have enough. Verse 21 says there were “about five thousand men, besides women and children.” We call this the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, but the presence of women and children could easily quadruple that. This is the miracle of feeding twenty thousand. It was a huge crowd and the disciples could see no way on earth to feed them all with what they had.
In verse 19, Jesus took their little offering of bread and fish, blessed it and broke it and then gave it to His disciples to give to the people. The rest is history, as they say, the history of a miracle in which bread and fish kept coming. Jesus just kept handing it to them and they just kept on distributing it among the hungry folks sitting there on the grass beside the lake. The disciples discovered the amazing power of God’s supply for doing the work of righteousness by feeding those around them. They would all be filled.
The spiritual filling, the spiritual satisfaction, comes right along in and with the physical filling. It comes through the change of heart which no longer ignores or turns away people in need, but cares and seeks to offer whatever help can be given. By becoming the waiters for that incredible fish dinner, the disciples themselves were blessed and filled in a new way. Their hunger for righteousness was being met.
Jesus Himself found blessing and filling in this miracle. He came to it empty. Verse 13 began, “When Jesus heard what had happened…” What had happened was the brutal murder of Jesus’ cousin. John the Baptist was the man who paved the way for Jesus’ own ministry. King Herod made John’s head a present on a plate for an evil woman and her spoiled daughter. Overcome by grief, Jesus sought escape on a lonely corner of the shore of Galilee. But instead of solitude, verse 14 tells us He found a crowd there.
He could have tended to His own needs, got back in the boat and sailed off to find what He needed to be filled. But we read that when He saw the people, “He had compassion on them and healed their sick.” In His own grief, Jesus reached out and ministered to the pain of others. He healed them and then He fed them.
As Craig Enberg said to me Friday, as I ate beef stew with him and Alex in their garden, part of what makes a meal satisfying are the friends or family with whom you share it. A meal by yourself is not nearly as filling as one enjoyed in company with others. By telling the disciples, “You give them something to eat,” Jesus was teaching them the deeply spiritual nature of this fact. If we want to be filled, we need to provide for others to be filled. Even if the hungry void in us is deep, like Jesus in His sorrow over John, part of what fills us is ministering to our neighbors’ hunger.
That is why our theme for Dirty Hands Days this year is “Feeding our Neighbors.” We believe we receive our own filling from the Lord when, like the disciples handing out fish sandwiches by Galilee, we participate with Him in filling others.
You might think you need to be filled yourself before you can fill someone else. But this miracle demonstrates that’s not so. The disciples had almost nothing, five loaves and two fish was not enough to feed even the twelve of them. They were hungry too. The filling came from Christ, from His power and grace. As they brought what they had to share, He made it enough, He filled everyone present.
We don’t have enough among us to feed every hungry person in Eugene, much less in Lane County. Forget about the world. Yet Jesus Christ will gladly receive what we bring to Him for others, bless it, and make it enough to fill a crowd.
Jesus will bless the hours you spend packing bags of cereal at Food for Lane County, or the lunches you make for kids, or the vegetables you weed at the Community Gardens, or the pie you bake for the residents at Churchill Estates. He will bless the lunch you share with visitors to church or the hamburger you buy for a person on the street. Jesus will bless and multiply, in all sorts of ways we cannot see, every act of love that aims at filling not just our own need, but the need of someone else.
Jesus provides just enough so we will not forget to come to Him to be filled. You might get the sense that twelve basketfuls of leftovers mentioned at the end of verse 20 was a lot, that the crowd was fed with a superabundance. But remember the number twenty thousand. Even twelve big baskets isn’t much left over from that large a meal. It was just enough for the twelve disciples to take away and eat for another day or two. Jesus fills us, but we need to keep coming back, keep depending on His miraculous power to feed and nourish us for another day. That’s why we pray as we will in a moment, for “daily bread.”
We also come back, as we do this morning, to this Table to remember that it is Jesus who fills us, Jesus who satisfies both spiritual and physical hunger. As we eat and drink in Holy Communion with Him, we seek communion with each other and with every other person needing to be fed and filled by our Lord’s compassion. Alone, we cannot fill others. We cannot even fill ourselves. This bread and this cup fill us in the only really filling meal there is. Come and be filled by Jesus, and don’t forget those out there still waiting to be filled.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj