"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." --Matthew 14:13-21
Immediately before the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is a description of a very different sort of meal: John the Baptizer's head on a platter. And just as women and children are included among the multitude fed on the beach (a detail unique to Matthew's version of the story), the female sex is also represented in the account of John's demise: Herodias, sister-in-law of Herod, asks for the head of the Baptist; her nameless daughter, with no detectable squeamishness, delivers the request to the king and serves up the plated head to her mother. (That women in all of their moral complexity are present throughout Matthew's gospel -- recall also the women who appear in the genealogy of Jesus in chapter one -- is an observation worthy of closer scrutiny. See, for instance, Jane Kopas's 1990 essay in Theology Today).
Also interesting is the juxtaposition of fear and death (in the story of John's beheading) with that of fulfillment and abundance in the feeding narrative. The murder of John the Baptist is a result of power confronted and hypocrisy exposed. Where fear reigns, violence cannot be far behind. Herod's birthday party is an occasion for the casual disregard of human life to come to a head (forgive the pun) in the expedient execution of a political troublemaker. And while this blood-tinged birthday banquet represents the old order with its fear-mongering and death-dealing ways, the feeding of the five thousand heralds the new order: fullness of life and health for all (even women and children).
But abundance in the biblical sense is not gross excessiveness. The 12 baskets of leftovers do not stand in for our tendency to accumulate and hoard; rather, they are a reminder that in God's economy there is always more than enough. And yet the "more" comes not from our own meager reserves (or from treasure stockpiled in fear or panic) but from God's endless supply of goodness and generosity. Our unimpressive resources, like the disciples' modest supply of bread and fish, become material abundance for those in "deserted places" (Matthew 14:15) when we make them available to the transforming power of a God always on the lookout for the vulnerable. And in our willingness to share our stuff (our food, our money, our time, ourselves) we find our own transformation -- sometimes a joyful process, often a costly one, always a consequential one.
I think of an insight from Frederick Buechner's Wishful Thinking: "Greed is the mathematical truism that the more you get, the more you have. The opposite of greed -- the selfless love of God and neighbor -- is based on the truth that the more you give away in love, the more you are."
We know this from our experience of the Eucharist, which is never a private meal for me, but is instead that holy (yet also wholly mundane) moment when what is taken, blessed, broken, and given becomes the occasion for the gathered community to understand its very life as gift. (The feeding narrative prefigures this four-fold Eucharistic action; see Matthew 14: 19).
In a modest meal that looks as skimpy as Matthew's seaside sack lunch, the body of believers eat and drink their fill because they eat and drink their Lord. And in so doing they become his body anew -- taken, blessed, broken, and given for a suffering world.
[This post is an edited version of one that appeared on bLOGOS in August, 2008.]
Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture and Politics and at ekklesiaproject.org.