Yogi Berra, the great baseball player of an earlier age, was known for his unusual and creative use of the English language. In giving directions to his home, for example, he often told people, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” His formula for success, as some heard it, was this: “Ninety percent perspiration, and the rest mostly just plain hard work.” Then there was the time he went to a restaurant by himself and ordered a large pizza. The waitress asked if he would like it cut into four or eight pieces. “Better make it four,” he replied. “I’m not hungry enough to eat eight.”
Yogi Berra may have had a few things to learn about food service, but those who followed Jesus into the Galilean hillsides were very pleased that Jesus was able to cut five loaves and two fish into enough pieces to satisfy a huge crowd. They were certainly hungry enough to eat more than just the original seven or even Yogi Berra’s famous eight.
Of course, as Matthew tells the story, he has some particular thoughts in mind that go far beyond merely the miraculous event itself. After all, he does not give as many details as John would in his later Gospel—talking about the boy who brought the food or the extended dialogue Jesus has with those who introduced the lad to their Master. Here Matthew spits out the story quickly and moves right on to another miracle. But that’s
the way he does it, over and over again. Matthew had lived with Jesus long enough to find what others might call unusual made ordinary, and things that most considered spectacular to be almost commonplace.
But that doesn’t mean Matthew is telling us about an event with no consequence. Much to the contrary, Matthew has some very important ideas he wants his readers to pick up.
Who Serves in the Wilderness?
First of all, we have to remember that Matthew is writing to a community that is primarily composed of Jewish Christians. He makes this clear in the way he opens the Gospel. Most other biographies don’t start out with a wander through a cemetery, but that is how we encounter Jesus here. The first
This, of course, makes us immediately aware that Jesus enters a particular history. He does not appear without a context, like a stone skipping across a pond that happens to flit and hit in some random manner and then dive into the pool at a chance spot. Jesus, according to Matthew, is the “son of David” and the “son of Abraham.” This is quite a loaded statement, for those two great figures were called by God to establish the character of the nation of Israel. Abraham received the first great covenant promise of God when God picked him out of the crowds of Mesopotamia and sent him on a journey to what would become the Promised Land (
Then, generations later, the great King David was divinely assured that he would always have a son of the family ruling as king (2 Sam. 6-
So when Matthew marks Jesus’ entrance into the human arena, he reminds those who own this particular portion of history that Jesus is one of them, that Jesus came as a member of the family, and that Jesus is heir to the unique promises announced to their forebears. Moreover Matthew goes on, in chapter 1, to describe Jesus’ unique birth. The child doesn’t show up in the usual way, Matthew declares. For Jesus’ parents it was not to be a prayed-for pregnancy in the first year after marriage, the kind that brings the family together for a big celebration.
Instead, Mary finds herself with child in a manner and at a time that appear unquestionably scandalous: she is pregnant without Joseph’s help and begins showing before their marriage has been publicly confirmed. Embarrassment and suspicion would entirely overshadow both the baby and the family were it not for the arrival of a divine messenger who announced this as God’s deliberate interruption of all their lives. While people from other traditions who read this Gospel may not easily catch it, for devout Jews it was a brilliant revelation. They would immediately place this birth alongside those of Samson and Samuel, two of the greatest deliverers their history had produced. In each instance a boy was born under unusual circumstances, and on each occasion an angel came to clarify God’s designs. Obviously this child was destined for greatness, and in His wake would flow deliverance and restoration.
To make the point unmistakable, just a few lines later in chapter 2 Matthew calls to mind the ancient conspiracy of Pharaoh to get rid of the male babies in Israel by relating King Herod’s plot to slay the infants of Bethlehem. While the other boys died, Jesus, like Moses, was divinely
protected. Once again Matthew’s Jewish Christian audience would draw out the parallel. In fact, Matthew reaffirms this comparison by relating that when Jesus began His public teachings (
stipulations that were earlier mediated by Moses to Israel at Mount Sinai. Jesus must be the new Moses for this new age in which God’s people find themselves.
In other words, Matthew wants us to know up front and all the way through that Jesus is the uniquely birthed and commissioned Messiah of the Jews. With this in mind, we are helped to understand why Matthew can quickly toss off to us the story of Jesus feeding the crowds in what might appear at first to be an almost cavalier way, from our point of view. If Jesus is indeed the Messiah, as all the signs indicate, He obviously wields divine power and purpose. Therefore, if the God of ancient Israel made it a concern to feed those who came out into the wilderness to experience God’s leading and provision, people in Jesus’ day could expect the same thing from Him. In the deserts of the Sinai Peninsula, God provided manna to the hungry tribes of Israel; Jesus, as God’s agent, makes sure there is food enough for the famished Jewish crowds. It’s a no-brainer.
But that only leads us to the second and more important thing Matthew wants us to think about. Who are these people Jesus feeds? Who would be so foolish as to go unprepared out into the wilderness, running after Jesus? Why would anybody do that in the first place?
I find a clue to that in books such as John Hull’s autobiography, Touching the Rock (Vintage, 1992). His is both a personal story and a spiritual saga. At age 17 Hull began to go blind in his left eye. One day he realized that the only way he would ever see his left shoulder again would be by turning to his side and catching his reflection in the mirror with his right eye. Later the blindness spread, and eventually John’s sight was gone entirely.
Hull writes that for a while he energetically tried to remember what he looked like. He thought about old photographs of himself and struggled to recall the face that peered back at him from the bathroom mirror when he shaved. After a while, though, his memory banks gave out, and he couldn’t remember his own face anymore.
“Who am I?” he thought, with a wash of panic. “If I don’t even know my own face, who am I?”
Worse still, however, was his daughter Lizzie’s question. She was only 4 years old when she asked him, “Daddy, how can a smile be between us when you can’t see my face?”
It was Lizzie’s curious questions that prompted Hull to write his book. He wanted to remember himself and re-picture the times and circumstances that made it important and unique. More than that, he wished for Lizzie to know him in his sighted and unsighted years. His biography was a journal to restore the smiles between them.
But then, as he surveyed his life in its spiritual dimensions Hull took his daughter’s query to a higher level. “How can a smile be between us and God if we cannot see His face?” he asked.
As he reflected, Hull came to realize that the only way we can see God is when we take what little God gives us to work with and use it as a kind of tarnished mirror to seek out God’s distant face. In other words, said Hull, we are all somewhat blinded; and we need to use things such as the Scriptures and the person of Jesus to help us take the first steps toward making a smile happen between ourselves and God. In this he echoed Matthew’s design in writing the Gospel. Those of us who did not originally stand with Jesus in that ancient wilderness are no less hungry than they were. We are all looking for meaning in our lives. To a person we are searchers on a quest for purpose or identity. The hunger is in every belly, and each of us finds ourselves in strange wilderness places as we look and seek.
But what will we find? And how will it become visible to us? Where will we see the smile between God and us? However it will happen, according to Matthew, it will be when we first believe that Jesus has what it takes to satisfy our cravings.
A friend called me one Saturday. He was a perennial student, far away from the town that shaped him and mostly at odds with his family. There was good reason for his mother to chide and nag and scold, for my friend had lost his faith, and his parents were worried. But the more they pushed the certainty of their beliefs on him, the more he chafed and backed away. He could no longer live in the simplicity of their dogma, even if it gave them shelter and safety.
So now he wandered in the wilderness of academia, hoping in each class to find a glorious utopia or a grand dream or at least a tiny map that might point toward some secularized Holy Grail. Every term he called me to describe his latest faculty mentor, a true savior, finally, who was worthy of his devotion. But this Saturday something was different. There was wistfulness in my friend’s voice and a trembling uncertainty in his words.
What if there was no big picture or all-encompassing thesis or unifying meaning? What if we were tripping with stumbling paces through the wilderness and there was no limit or signpost or way out? What if he was on a quest but there was nothing to find?
“I’m lonely,” he told me, and I was left to imagine his cosmic, spiritual aloneness, a void where both heaven and hell were silent and he was left in awful communion with only his inadequate self. There was no dream here; only an incessant heart hunger kept awake by an unrelenting nightmare.
Generations ago George Herbert penned a brilliant picture of the aching in each of our souls. In his poem “The Pulley” he portrayed God at the moment of creation, sprinkling His new human creature with treasures kept in a jar beside him. These were God’s finest resources, given now as gifts to the crown of His universe: beauty, wisdom, honor, pleasureÉ All were scattered liberally in the genetic recipe of our kind.
When the jar of God’s treasures was nearly empty, God put the lid on it. The angels wondered why God did not finish the human concoction, leaving one great resource still in its container. This last quality, God told the angels, is “rest.” But God would not grant that divine treasure to the human race.
The angels, of course, asked why. Herbert was ready with the divine answer regarding the best mix for the human spirit:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.
Herbert saw well that the strong talents and marvelous abilities of humankind would make us like impatient children, eager to strike out on our own and find our self-made destinies. Only if God would hold back a sense of full satisfaction from our souls would we search our way back home.
This remains a perennial theological paradox: it is the creative act of God that gives us freedom. Yet when we use our abilities for our own ends, we tend to lose what is best in ourselves and often demean it in others and push like adolescents away from our spiritual parent. Only if we become restless to find the face of God in some longing for home will we regain a glimpse of our own best faces reflected back toward us in the kindness and smile of God.
Here is where the hunger found in Matthew’s story connects with us. We are the people who go out into the wilderness seeking something to give us meaning. And like the crowds in Jesus’ day, we lack the resources to take along anything of lasting value. We would die in the wilderness, left to our own devices. As with the crowds around Jesus, there is no food to keep us alive unless God does a miracle. Desire leads us on the quest, but only a miracle of grace will keep us from dying there.
Food is a very big part of our lives. Hunger can be a time clock ticking inside, regulating the hours of our days with calculated passion. Or it can be a biologic need, demanding fuel stops on our restless race. Even more, hunger functions as a psychological drive, forcing us to crave chocolate when we lack love, or driving us to drink, drugs and sex.
But deeper than all of these things is our search for meaning beyond the drudgery and repetition of our daily activities. It is the spiritual need each person has to know that he or she is not alone in this gigantic and sometimes unkind maze of life.
Hunger is what the writer of Ecclesiastes meant when he said that God has “set eternity in the hearts of men” (
So life beckons us to follow the latest fad, to search for the newest fulfillment, to seek the richest treasure. We consume and devour until we are fed up with life, so to speak. And still we want more.
You are hungry, and you are what you eat. The cravings of your soul will not be stilled. A meal will reset the alarm of your biological clock. Food will keep your hungry body going. Potato chips and a soda will stop the munchies for a while. But what are you eating for your soul?
Augustine reflected on the spiritual character of our race. “Man is one of your creatures, Lord,” he said, “and his instinct is to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.”
What are you eating today? Tomorrow and next week those who are close to you will know whether there was any eternal nourishment in your diet.