July 3, 2011
“Feasting in the Deserted Place”
David A. Davis
It is hard to imagine a more familiar story from the ministry of Jesus than the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. It would also be hard to imagine a story from the ministry of Jesus that had anymore symbolism attached to it. Every detail, absolutely every detail of the story of the loaves and fishes can mean something if you work at it, if you read about it, if you google it; the numbers, the food, the actions, the setting. All of it points to something else, something more. A simple story from the life and ministry of Jesus and it’s not just the loaves and fishes that multiply. The footnotes grow exponentially.
Twelve baskets of left overs; that’s not just one basket per apostle, that’s enough to feed all of Israel because the number twelve reflects the twelve tribes of Israel from the Old Testament. The meal was complete before they started because the five loaves point to the Five Books of Moses. The two fish, well there’s a nod to Noah and the Ark. Two by two of every kind. (I thought that was a bit of stretch). Groups of fifty, the number fifty ties to the celebration of Jubilee in the Book of Leviticus. Not just a dinner party, a feast of jubilee. 5,000 people…who knows whether that’s a headcount, or a particular biblically important number, or just a story teller’s way of saying “everyone was there.” Everyone, all, the whole crowd, all 5,000, as recorded in Luke all ate and were filled.
After one has squeezed all the meaning out of the numbers, then there’s the observations about the actions of Jesus. He didn’t feed the crowds himself. He called on, expected, empowered the disciples; a foreshadowing of the church’s ministries of compassion. There’s Jesus welcoming the crowds though he had withdrawn with his disciples so that he could hear more about what they had done on their mission trip. The ministry of Christ happens in unexpected places and ways. Hospitality and need will always trump the best laid plans. There’s Jesus after the crowd was broken up into groups and sitting down, Jesus taking the loaves and the fish, taking, breaking, giving. The communion symbolism in the action of Jesus is just too obvious to ignore. The multiplication meal is a Eucharistic feast.
And then there’s the twelve and their comment right at the beginning of the story. “The day is over. It’s time to send the crowds away so they can scatter around the villages and countryside to find a place to stay and get something to eat.” Seems pretty straight forward. It’s time to stop the teaching and the healing. Tomorrow’s another day. Pretty clear. Pretty basic. Nothing pregnant with meaning. Not much symbolism to squeeze out or force or overplay here. “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are in a deserted place.” A deserted place. You see now, that’s no small thing, the disciples telling Jesus that “we are here in a deserted place” (As if he didn’t know where they were or couldn’t figure out the logistical crowd management challenge himself.) It was a simple observational comment until they said “a deserted place.”
A deserted place. A lonely place. A desert place. A wilderness place. Like the wilderness place of such wondering in the Book of Exodus. Manna from heaven. Water from a rock. Pillar of fire by night, cloud by day. Forty years. A deserted place. Or just in Luke’s gospel, when the Word of God first came to John the Baptist, it came to him in the wilderness, in a deserted place. John quoting from the prophet Isaiah, “one crying in the wilderness….in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” In Luke 4, when Jesus returned from the Jordan after his baptism, the Spirit led him into the wilderness for forty days. A deserted place. Elsewhere Luke describes how Jesus departed and went out to a deserted place. A wilderness place. Jesus in a parable later in Luke, “which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it.” Leaving the 99 in the wilderness. Searching for the one in the wilderness. A desert place. A lonely place. A deserted place. The multiplication of the loaves and fish; calling it Bethsaida is one thing; the disciples described it as “a deserted place.”
Our group spent a lot of time on the bus driving around Israel/Palestine a few weeks ago. Our Arab Christian guide would point out things to see near and far. There was always something to see from the bus; the city life of Tel Aviv, distant mountains with biblical names, signs marking an area with land mines in the Golan Heights, the two story separation wall and the checkpoint into the West Bank to get to Bethlehem, the serious climb on the highway to go up to Jerusalem, the Mediterranean Sea, the Dead Sea, on and on and on. I was a bit surprised how quickly some of my traveling companions fell asleep on the bus. I kept wanting to wake them up. You can’t sleep through this.
There were acres of banana farms along the Sea of Galilee. Many of the religious sites had beautiful gardens and orchards. Our guide kept telling us that the landscape wouldn’t have looked like this in Jesus’ time. She was referring to both irrigation and imported vegetation. We could walk to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes from where we were staying. It was a walk through an orchard where every tree, every bush was fed by irrigation. It took me a few days to realize our guide’s point. It would have been more desolate, less fertile, more arid in Jesus’ time. When the bible talks of wilderness, the reference isn’t to a lush mountain range, or a rain forest dense with growth….it’s a mountainous desert. A lonely place. A deserted place.
That crowd of 5,000, the crowd which was everyone, they all ate and were filled in the deserted place. That meal that was fixing to be perfect even before the miraculous multiplication, it was in deserted, lonely place. The evening dinner that topped off a day of gospel proclamation and gospel healing and gospel compassion; when the Lord’s attempt at an off-site leadership training for the 12 was interrupted by the press of human need, that was all in a deserted, lonely, wilderness place. That thanksgiving feast where Jesus took bread and broke it and gave it to the crowds and everyone ate and was filled, that was in a deserted, lonely, wilderness, far from life sustaining but clearly not God forsaken place. Feasting in a deserted place. In a deserted place where hope and future and sustenance and life is defined by little else, nothing other than the presence and the faithfulness and the mercy of God.
The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes is owned by an Order of German Benedictine priests and cared for by an order of nuns from the Philippines. The day we visited the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes as a group it was brutally hot. Half a dozen tour busses filled the parking lot. Inside the church was no cooler than outside. The church is famous for the ancient mosaic tile on the floor. Up at the altar the mosaic tells the story of the loaves and fishes. That’s pretty much what everyone comes to look at, the floor. It was too hot and too many people and I wasn’t feeling it so I went back outside to find some shade. I stood by a sign and read more about the church and a construction project that was in progress. The church runs a youth hostel and a camp for kids with disabilities. Later in the week I took a walk again through that orchard and found a beautiful outdoor chapel right next to the water, the Sea of Galilee. Some good conversation and rest and reflection in the shadow of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes was interrupted by the sounds of children as a group of campers and their counselors came down to the water to enjoy the afternoon breeze. As I stood to leave and get out of the way, I had to move quickly to avoid the four or five speeding chairs and the young people in them and the young people pushing them. I avoided the chairs but I couldn’t avoid the joyful looks and the laughter and the life that came spilling down the way.
I don’t know where those young people were from. I don’t know whether the campers were Christian, Muslim or Jewish. All I know is that there was some sort of joyful feast going on down by the water that afternoon. And in a region where the politics offer no hope for better days, and fear and hatred flourish, and the future at best comes with a question mark, in a region where the wilderness still points to humanity’s brokenness and the city of Jerusalem forever stands as a symbol of humankind’s inability to know the things that make for peace, a handful of campers that day were feasting smack in the middle of it all. For me that day, I will always remember that the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes is about more than a tile floor. It’s about offering a feast in the deserted places of young peoples’ lives. A joyful feast.
Maybe no story in the life of Jesus is more familiar. But before all those numbers, before everyone was fed, before Jesus took the bread and broke it and gave it to them, before all of that, there was, and there is this deserted place. It is Christ Jesus who invites you to this feast. The meal doesn’t start with the invitation. It doesn’t begin at the prelude. It doesn’t begin when the servers gather here at the Table. This joyful feast begins in the deserted places, the lonely places, the wilderness places of your lives. In the most vulnerable and tender places of your life where hope and future and sustenance and joy is defined by little else, nothing other than the presence and the faithfulness and the mercy of God.
Come. Come. Eat and be filled. For this is the joyful feast of the people of God.
© 2011, Property of Nassau Presbyterian Church
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