From the Lectionary: 5,000 Companions

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I'm blogging with the lectionary this year, and this week's reading comes from Matthew 14:13-21:

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves;  Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’  They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 

Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

When I was a little girl, the story of Jesus feeding the great multitude was my very favorite of them all.  

I loved it because, according to John’s account, it was a little boy who provided the disciples with his own packed meal of five barley loaves and two fish that Jesus miraculously multiplied into a feast to feed 5,000, complete with baskets of leftovers to spare. 

In that boy, (who I imagined boasted a face of freckles and a mess of black hair smelling of sea salt), I could see a little of myself. I liked to believe that, had it been me, I would have marched right up to those intimidating disciples, Rainbow Bright lunchbox in hand, and volunteered my lunch for the good of the people, fully trusting that Jesus had the situation under control. 

And so, whenever the preacher arrived at this text, I found my mind wandering to that little boy. I imagined what happened to him that day, and the day after that, and the day after that—what he told his mother when he rushed home breathless with excitement, how he felt when his best friends didn’t believe him, why he almost ran away from home so he could follow the miracle-working carpenter himself.  One of my first handwritten stories, scrawled across the wide-ruled notebook I carried under my arm every summer, was a creative retelling of the Feeding of the 5,000 from the perspective of the little boy who helped make it happen. …. Which basically means I was doing midrash when I was in fifth grade, but I digress….

It’s an enlightening exercise, really, envisioning a story like this one from the perspective of a single, seemingly minor character. Within this legendary story hides more than 5,000 othersthe story of the skinny orphan, the skeptical tax collector, the despised Samaritan, the curious fisherman, the struggling widow, the disdained prostitute, the wealthy mother, the angry zealot, the ostracized Canaanite, the banished leper, the suffering slave, the repentant sinner....and ultimately, the story of you and me. 

It is the story of a crowd of people who had little in common except that they were hungry—for food, for healing, for truth, for Jesus. And it is the story of a crowd of people who were fed. 

No questions asked. 

No prerequisites demanded. 

No standards of holiness to meet first. 

“The gospel story that makes the most sense to me about the Eucharist is the feeding of the five thousand,” writes Nora Gallagher. “Jesus didn’t ask those thousands of people camped on that hillside whether they had confessed their sins or how clean they were. He fed them.” 

In the story of the feeding of the 5,000 we see Jesus once again addressing the most essential, physical needs of his fellow human beings - hunger, thirst, companionship - and once again, breaking down every socially-constructed barrier that keeps us from eating with one another. 

He did the same thing when, much to the chagrin of the religious leaders, he dined with tax collectors and prostitutes and told his more well-to-do hosts that  “when you give a banquet, invite the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”

The English word companion, is derived from the Latin com (“with”) and panis (“bread”).  A companion, therefore, is someone with whom you share your bread.

So when we want to know about a person’s friends and associates, we look at the people with whom she eats, and when we want to measure a someone’s social status against our own, we look at the sort of dinner parties to which he gets invited.  Most of us prefer to eat with people who are like us, with shared background, values, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, beliefs, and tastes, or perhaps with people we want to be like, people who make us feel important and esteemed.  Just as a bad ingredient may contaminate a meal, we often fear bad company may contaminate our reputation or our comfort. 

This is why Jesus’ critics repeatedly drew attention to the fact that he dined with the wrong people. By eating with the poor, the despised, the sick, the sinners, the outcasts, and the unclean, Jesus was saying, “These are my companions. These are my friends.” 

It was just the sort of thing that got him killed. 

Nora Ephron once said that “a family is a group of people who eat the same thing for dinner.”

All who feast on the Bread of Life are family. All who dare to feed the hungry, fellowship with the suffering, and befriend sinners are companions of Christ. This, after all, is the Kingdom: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered together, not because we are rich or worthy or good, but because we are hungry, because we long for more. And just as the fish and the loaves continued to multiply, so have the companions of Jesus. The family just keeps growing and growing.  

So whoever you are in this ongoing story,  these feeding of the many multitudes, if you are hungry, come and eat. You don't have to earn a spot. It is given. 

The baskets are overflowing and there’s always room for more. 

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