Jesus Ordered the Crowds to Sit Down…

Isaiah 55:1-5

Matthew 14:13-21

It’s hard to know what there is new to say about this story which shows up in all four Gospels: a story which you and many of those who gather likely know by heart.

It takes little to recall the energy of the massive crowd, the disciples’ frustration, the apparently meager amount of food there is to share, Jesus blessing and breaking and giving it to the disciples to share with all those people, the wonder that the food not only does not run out, but everyone is fed and satisfied and there was plenty enough left over to feed even more if needed.

  • It is a story which speaks of the abundance of God.
  • It is one which, no doubt, had those who were there remembering stories passed down of another ‘deserted place’ where  God’s people were fed and satisfied for forty years.
  • It is one which surely has us all looking forward with eager longing for another time, when by God’s love and generosity and because of God’s promise, all people everywhere will be fed.

It is a marvelous story recounted again and again and is, no doubt, central to what we are called to remember about who Jesus was and is for us and for all the world.

This time through I found my imagination especially captured by the crowds, by all those who who felt compelled to put themselves within reach of Jesus. I have wondered at what had them dropping everything and going.  Indeed, I don’t know much in terms of detail, but I do know that the lives of those in first century Palestine were hard by any measure and that especially for those whose lives would have them knowing deeply a kind of emptiness or need or lack, they could hardly afford to take a day and take off after Jesus.

And yet, they did.

  • They came with their broken, ailing, hurting ones, hoping for healing.
  • They came with their own needs, acknowledged or not.
  • And they came without planning ahead, not thinking that they would grow hungry before the day’s end.

And then Jesus told them to sit, to sit down on that expanse of grass.

And I wonder to myself, reading this again, how often any one of them had ever been invited to sit down and to be so served.

For I imagine that many, if not most of them had spent their lives on the other side of that equation, that their social station had them serving others. And what wondrous gift that must have been.

And oh, I caught a little glimpse of just this a few days back. Of this kind of hopeful need which propelled one, perhaps, to also seek to put himself within reach of Jesus:

Indeed, we have found ourselves in the middle of a heat wave here in Northern Illinois.  To be sure, our experience does not compare to other parts of the country, but even so, those who are most vulnerable find themselves even more so as one unrelenting hot day follows another.  I was alone in the office a few days back, when the doorbell rang.  Even though I did not recognize who it was on the tiny monitor on my desk, I buzzed him in and went out to our atrium to meet him.

Before I saw him, I could see his wagon parked outside the door, with his meager possessions piled there.  He was drenched in sweat and I quickly noted he had a hospital wristband dangling from his right arm. He told me he was recently out of rehab. That he was clean.  But that the wristband was from when he had been recently hospitalized for dehydration.  Of course he had.

When I asked, he said his name was Michael.  He told me that what he really wanted was a place to stay where he could shower and clean up.  He said all the shelters are full and while I did not bother to verify this, he may well be right. I could not provide him what he wanted most, but I invited him to sit down while I gathered up a couple of cold bottles of water and juice pouches, which he drank down quickly.  And yes, I gave him $20 before I sent him to the public library next door where he could cool down for a while.

He said he doesn’t normally go to churches, although he didn’t say why.  Perhaps that afternoon his need was so great that he thought he would try.  Maybe there was some memory deep within him of the One who fed the thousands.  Perhaps he held on to some belief that where those who follow that one, Jesus, gather still, we might be called to do the same.

Surely this familiar story now  could have me going to the obvious place of how as those who follow Jesus who broke and blessed the bread and shared it, we are called to do the same as I tried to do (so inadequately) a few days back.  And this is a reasonable place to go.

And surely we could go to the place where we recall that Jesus met the people where they were in their hunger (or whatever need presents itself), and that God’s People are called to do the same. And this is also so.

Only for now, I am wondering this first.

  • What would it mean for you and me to see ourselves in that massive crowd today, drawn there by our own yearning for something so needed as Michael was a few days back?
  • Indeed, what does it mean for us to be among those who have felt and acknowledged our own hunger, so much so that we drop everything to put ourselves within reach of all the gifts God intends for us?
  • What would it feel like to be told to sit down on the grass and then simply be fed?
  • And what would it mean if I, if you, learned to trust that God will bring us what we need the most and that we will be more likely to recognize God’s hand at work if we just were to sit down?

And how might I be better equipped to then help feed the ‘Michaels’ of this world if I were to just do and be so? If all of us were to just be and do so?

Oh, how might we be a part of shaping a world where we all sit down and eat together, as the thousands did in the presence of Jesus so long ago? What might it look like for you and me who have been so fed, to seek to ensure that all are fed to the point of being satisfied all the time?

And how might this story be heard differently by beginning with sitting on the grass by a people who are often frenzied, so much so that they cannot even accurately identify the hunger they are feeling?

Indeed, how might we be called to bring this familiar story alive in the days to come? More than this, perhaps, how might we be called to live into it for ourselves?



  1. Beth Olson says:

    A thought that came as I re-read your take on this marvelous story was that in telling the people what to do and simply feeding them, Jesus let them have a break from the decision-making that may have filled every day life for our ancient faith ancestors. I’m sure that our experience this past spring, of people showing up with food, is informing part of my response. It was so nice, our daughter said, to not have to think about what we were going to fix or make decisions about meals. I don’t know if this will find its way into my sermon, but it’s part of the text I hadn’t really noticed before.

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