We tend to forget that Matthew and Mark have not one, but two accounts of feeding a multitude; our Gospel reading today is actually the second account, the feeding of the 4,000. (The feeding of the 5000 is in Matthew 14:13-21
.) When we examine these two stories, well…it’s all about the details.
The Matthew 14 account has some similarities to today’s reading–there are clearly too few loaves and fishes for the size of the crowd–but there are some distinct differences, the main ones being the backdrop, and the amount of leftovers.
In Matthew 14, even though mention is made that they are in a deserted place, there seem to at least be some towns and villages nearby, because the disciples suggest sending people away to get food. In today’s reading, Jesus points out that the people have been following them for three days and is worried that if the crowd were to go back and get food, they might become faint on the way. Although one might wonder why the disciples were just as dumbfounded at the second feeding miracle as the first, clearly the ante had been upped. There was good reason to assume this crowd was even hungrier–and possibly meaner.
The other distinct difference in the stories–the amount left over afterward–is somewhat obscured when we read them in English–but clearer when we look at them in Greek. What we read as “twelve baskets” in Matthew 14:20 and “seven baskets full” in Matthew 15:37 gives us the appearance that the first feeding miracle has more leftovers. However, the word for “baskets” in Matthew 14:20 in Greek is kophinos, which is generally translated as a wicker basket that held roughly a day’s rations. The Matthew 14 story results in 12 days worth of leftovers (for twelve disciples, perhaps?) The Greek word used for “large baskets” in Matthew 15:37 is spyris, a reed basket that was used to carry the harvest on the back of a donkey. The other place this word is used in the New Testament is in Acts 9–a spyris basket is what is used to lower Paul over the wall when he escapes from Damascus.
In short, the Matthew 14 story yields twelve day packs of bread and the Matthew 15 story yields seven baskets of bread big enough to smuggle Paul.
Perhaps the bigger lesson from all these details is that we human beings are forgetful creatures when it comes to the times we’ve been faced with scarcity and hunger, and God has a delightful irony with how to respond to our failed memories. Did the disciples say, “Oh, we’ve seen this one before?” and display trust that once again, Jesus would provide? Oh, noooooo. It’s (cue dramatic whining for extra effect here) “How in the world are we going to find bread in this God-awful desert?” No doubt the disciples felt a little sheepish when they saw those seven big baskets of bread come back to them, and I suspect Jesus could barely contain his laughter. When given the chance, God scarcely misses a beat to turn what we see as God-awful into God-aweful.
As is so often the case, when we see what the disciples are doing (or not doing) we so often see ourselves. We have met the disciples and they are us, to paraphrase the old Pogo
The hard truth is, we forget. We forget the times God has helped us weather the hard patches in life, and when a similar hard patch presents itself, our tendency is to slide back into our usual pattern of fear and despair rather than remember and trust the abundance of God’s grace in our lives. Yet this is exactly when God’s delightful irony shows through, giving us more than we could ask or imagine–and if we didn’t pick up on it the first time, we’ll very likely get a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) chance to learn to see abundance rather than scarcity. I don’t think God ever tires of reminding us how much we are loved, despite our fears, even if we are a little slow on the uptake.
When is a time you’ve reacted from your old pattern of scarcity and fear, only to have been handed back abundance and love?
Image: By Bernardo Strozzi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons