Friday, July 29, 2011

Loaves and Fishes

Five small loaves and two fish
 Let us look at this story of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 or as it is sometimes called "the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes." It is essential to the Gospel writers as it is one of the few miracles that are retold by all four Gospel writers in the Bible. (1) Few of Jesus' miracles are so revealing as this. Here are some valuable lessons that we should note from this miracle.
Galilee was a small country, only 50 miles from north to south and 25 miles from east to west, but Josephus (a Jewish-Roman Historian in Jesus’ day) tells us that within that small area there were 204 towns and villages, none with a population of fewer than 15,000 people. (2)  It was tough for Jesus to be alone in a place like Galilee.

One of the few quiet places was on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. It is only 8 miles wide, at it’s fullest and shaped like a “harp,” which gives it its original name, “Kinnor.”(3) Jesus' friends were fisherfolk, and it would not have been challenging to embark on one of their boats and land on the east side of the lake.

Jesus, like all of us, needed to rest. He was tired from his healing and teaching ministry, and he was mourning the loss of his friend and cousin, John the Baptist. Matthew writes, “When Jesus heard what had happened (the news of the death of John the Baptist), he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. (probably Bethsaida) Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.”(4)
Jesus was seeking rest for his body and strength for his soul in these lonely places, but he was not to get it. The crowds flocked around the top of the lake and were waiting for him when he arrived. So Jesus healed them. (5)  When evening came, he decided to feed them before they took the long road home.  

You and I may feel worn out and tired from the pressures of life. To his disciples, Jesus makes an offer concerning rest. He says, “Come unto me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (6)
People on lakeside
When Jesus saw the crowds, he was moved with compassion to the depths of his being. That is a very beautiful thing. Jesus had come to find peace and loneliness. Instead, he found a vast crowd eagerly demanding what he could give. He might so easily have resented them. But Jesus was not like that. Far from finding them a nuisance, he was moved with compassion for them.
Premanand was a wealthy high-caste Indian who became a Christian. He says in his autobiography: "As in the days of old, so now our message to the non-Christian world has to be the same,  that God cares." (7) If that be so, we must never be too busy for people, and we must never even seem to find them troublesome and a nuisance.  We must never deal with people with one eye on the clock as if we were anxious to be rid of them as soon as we can.  Jesus never found any person a nuisance, even when his whole being was crying out for rest and quiet. Neither must his followers.
Matthew tells us, “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, Jesus gave thanks and broke the loaves.” (8) Jesus took the food and said a blessing. The Jewish grace before meals was very simple: "Blessed art thou, Jehovah our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth." That would be the grace which Jesus said, for that was the blessing which every Jewish family used. Here we see Jesus showing that it is God's gifts that he brings to men and women, boys and girls. Gratitude is rare enough to other people. It is rarer still towards God.
Open Hand
“Then Jesus gave them (the bread and fish) to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.”(9) Archbishop Lewis Garnsworthy once asked the clergy of the Diocese of Toronto to each take into their care twelve disciples. In the same way, Jesus could easily have himself taken the broken bits of bread and the little fishes directly to the people, but instead, he gave it to the disciples. He handed it to the disciples, and the disciples gave to the crowd. Jesus worked through the hands of his disciples that day, and he still does. The disciple is helpless without his Lord. If Jesus wants something done, if he wants a child taught, or a person helped, he finds a person to do it. He uses open people through whom he can act, and through whom he can speak. 
As a young man, Premanand came into contact with Bishop Whitley at Ranchi. He wrote, "The Bishop read the Bible with me daily, and we talked together in Bengali. The longer I lived with the Bishop, the closer I came to him and found that his life revealed Christ to me, and his deeds and words made it easier for me to understand the mind and teaching of Christ. I had a new vision of Christ when I saw Christ's life of love, sacrifice, and self-denial in the everyday life of the Bishop. He became the epistle of Christ to me."

When Jesus told the disciples to feed the crowd, they said to him that all they had was five loaves and two fishes. Yet with what they brought to him, Jesus wrought this miracle. Jesus says to us, "Come to me as you are, however ill-equipped, bring to me what you have, however little, and I will use it greatly in my service." Little is always much in the hands of Christ. As one of the Bill Gaither songs says, “Little is much when God is in it.”

“They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve baskets full of  leftover broken pieces. “ (9) Even when a miracle could feed people until they were full, there was no waste. To the Jew, bread was precious and never to be thrown away. Jesus and King David before him were born in Bethlehem or in Hebrew “Bet Lehm,” which means the “House of Bread.” (10) Jesus says of himself, “I am the Bread of Life.” (11) A wasteful extravagance is never right. God's generous giving and our wise use must go hand in hand.

The feeding of the 5000 is not some isolated event in history, but a demonstration of the constant, day to day operating power of Jesus Christ in our lives. Jesus applies these principles of life, saying, “he who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”(12) If only we would take up this generous offer of Jesus!

That's what I think anyway,

Rev Ron


(1) Parallels can be found in Matthew 14. 13-21, Mark 6.32-44, Luke 9.10-17 and John 6.1-13.(2)   Wikipedia “Josephus” (3)Wikipedia on “Galilee” (4) Matthew 14:13  (N.I.V.) (5) Matthew 14:14  (N.I.V.) (6) Matthew 11.28 (N.I.V.) (7) Dr. William Barclay, "Barclay's Daily Study Bible (N.T.)" on Matthew 14.13-21  (8) Matthew 14. (N.I.V.) (9) Matthew 14:13  (N.I.V.) (10) Matthew 14:20  (N.I.V.) (11) Wikipedia “Bethlehem” in modern Hebrew. (12) John 6.35a (13) John 6.35b

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Mighty Mustard Seed

Mustard Seeds in Hand
Jesus told the people another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches." (1)

Today’s Gospel reading contains the parable of the mustard seed.

I have in front of me a little package of mustard seed from the Holy Land that Madeline, brought back  in 1992. Its seeds are indeed like grains of fine sand.  If you examine a pot of Dijon Mustard from your fridge, you will see among its contents “mustard seeds.” They are very small but still visible in the yellowish paste. 

Mustard Seed
But which kind of tree and seed is Jesus talking about? Experts think  that Jesus was talking about was the black mustard (sinapis nigra L) because it was cultivated in gardens in New Testament times for its seed oil as well as for culinary purposes.

Others however think that Jesus was referring to the white mustard (sinapis alba L) Like the black mustard, it also grows to a height of about 15 feet. A different plant (salvadora persica L) which grows to about 10 ft. near the Dead Sea has also been suggested, but it is not found in Galilee where Christ spoke of this parable. The seeds of this plant are also fairly large in comparison.

Drop of Blood
Whichever mustard seed is intended, the mustard seed is still in the eastern world, "a proverb for smallness." For example, the Jews talked of a drop of blood as small as a mustard seed, or if they were discussing some tiny breach of the ceremonial law, they would speak of a sin as small as a mustard seed. Jesus used the phrase in this way when he spoke of faith as a grain of mustard seed. Like faith, the seed of a mustard plant can produce a great tree.

Mustard Tree
Jesus said, “when it has grown, it is the greatest of trees.” (2)
Thomson in “The Land and the Book” writes, "I have seen this plant on the rich plain of Akkar as tall as a horse and his rider." In another place he says, “A mustard tree was more than twelve feet high." (3) In this parable, there is no exaggeration at all. The mustard tree grows quite large. The greatest of movements often have a small beginning.  

William Wilberforce
The great Christian reformer William Wilberforce was responsible for the freeing of slaves. The idea came to him after he read an exposure of the slave trade by a certain Thomas Clarkson. He was at the time a close friend of William Pitt, then Prime Minister of Great Britain. One day, Wilberforce was sitting with him and George Grenville in Pitt's garden at Holwood. It was a scene of beauty, with the Vale of Keston opening out before them, but Wilberforce's thoughts were elsewhere. Suddenly Pitt turned to him. "Wilberforce," he said, "why don't you give a notice of a motion on the slave-trade?"  An idea was sown in his mind, and that idea through "The Slavery Abolition Act" of 1833 (which took 26 years to accomplish) as an Act of Parliament, changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. 

Small things do sometimes have great outcomes. I remember one day waiting in the municipal building in Norwood, Ontario to receive an N1H1 flu shot. As it happens, a man came and sat beside me and we started chatting. He asked me what I did for a living and I explained that I was an Anglican Minister. He said that he was a retired real estate agent who had owned a company in Peterborough, but he was interested in what I believed.

N1H1 Flu
Later, he wrote me a letter, "Reverend Ron, I was the fellow sitting next to you in the H1N1 clinic in Norwood. God was with us that day too! Thank You Lord! I am enjoying your website. May God continue to bless you and your work (and your lovely helper who He sent you)."  A chance meeting became an opportunity to share my Christian Faith with someone else. A small seemingly insignificant event brought blessing in the hands of God.

The Kingdom of Heaven starts from the smallest beginnings, but no one knows where it will end or how large it will become. One of the great stories of the Christian Church is that of Telemachus. He was a Christian hermit in the Early Church who lived in the desert, but the small inner voice of God told him that he must go to Rome. He went. Rome was nominally Christian, but even in "Christian Rome" the gladiatorial games went on, in which men fought with each other, and crowds roared with the lust for blood. 

Telemachus found his way to the games. Eighty thousand people were there to spectate. He was horrified. “Were these gladiators slaughtering each other not also children of God?” He leapt from his seat, right into the arena, and stood between the gladiators. He was tossed aside. He came back. The crowd were angry, they began to throw stones. Still he struggled back between the gladiators. 

The prefect's command rang out and a sword flashed in the sunlight, and Telemachus was dead. Suddenly there was a hush as the crowd realized what had happened. A holy man lay dead. Something occurred that day in Rome, for there were never again any gladiatorial games. By his death on the 1st January  404 AD, one man had let loose something that cleansed an empire. By an edict of the Emperor Honorius, there was never again gladiator fights held in Rome. Someone must begin a reformation. It need not begin in a nation. It may begin in a home or a workplace. Once it begins, no one knows where it will end.

Mustard Tree
The mustard tree was of great importance to the birds in Israel. Mustard bushes and trees were often surrounded by a cloud of birds, for the birds loved the little black seeds of the tree, and settled on the tree to eat them. In the Old Testament, one of the commonest pictures of a great empire is the picture of a great tree, with the subject nations depicted as birds finding rest and shelter within its branches. The Kingdom of Heaven may begin very small, but in the end many nations will be gathered within it. It is a fact of history that the greatest things must always have the smallest beginnings. As the tiny seeds provide food for the birds, so faith gives the disciple of Jesus the strength for the work that he has given us to do.

Mustard Tree
Jesus said, "and the mustard seed becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches" The parable of the mustard seed is one of the most personal parables Jesus ever spoke. Sometimes his disciples must have despaired. Their little band was so small and the world was so large to them. How could they ever change it? Yet in Jesus, an invincible force entered the world. 

A wise man once said, "Jesus is easily the dominant figure in history.... A historian without any theological bias would find that he simply cannot portray the progression of humanity honestly without giving a foremost place to a penniless teacher from Nazareth." (4)
Jesus is saying that there must be no discouragement, that his disciples must serve and witness each in his or her place in his or her own way, and that each one must be the small beginning from which the Kingdom grows until the kingdoms of the earth finally become the Kingdom of God.

Mustard Plants
There is one other interesting thing about the mustard seed. Unlike many seeds, it is so small that it contains in itself very little nourishment. It needs to be planted near the surface in rich fertile soil if it is to flourish. As soon as the tiny shoot emerges, it must obtain immediate food and strength from another source. It is totally reliant not on itself but on outside resources.

In this parable, Jesus is saying to his disciples and to his followers today, that he will provide the resources for the Kingdom of Heaven to happen in our lives. Of that we can be sure.

That's what I think anyway,

Rev Ron

(1) Matthew 13:31-33 (N.I.V) (2) Dr. William Barclay, "Barclay's Daily Study Bible (N.T.)" (3) Matthew 13.32 (N.I.V.) (3) Thomson in “The Land and the Book” (4) H. G. Wets