Standing in the Disciple’s Sandals.
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.
This is such a familiar story that it’s hard to hear anything new in it. Even so, while for the most part these are not ‘original’ thoughts on this story, these are what come to mind today…
When Jesus said ‘go and make disciples’ he was addressing people, like himself, who were Jews communicating in a Semitic dialect. They fully understood what the word disciple meant. For us, our struggle is that that over a couple thousand years and through translations into various languages and dialects what the disciples of Jesus day understood has changed. What did the word disciple mean to the followers of Jesus in that day and time? The story plainly shows that there was a great difference between the disciples and the thousands of men, women and children who had pursued Jesus to that remote sea shore.
Today, we have board certified surgeons, licensed electricians, biochemists. psychologists and psychiatrists, school teachers and college professors. Common to each profession are long periods of study, training, mentoring, on the job training and continuing education. In each case the person has placed themselves under the oversight of another or others who have established proficiency in an area of interest.
In Jesus day it was the Rabbi who was person with established proficiency in the area of how by doing the right things one would honor God. Scrupulous behavior was the standard for being a ‘righteous person’ not the condition of one’s heart. The Rabbi was the authority to interpret the oral and written law for the living of a righteous life – defining what behavior did or did not please God.
A person allowed to become ‘a disciple’ of a Rabbi agreed to totally submit to the rabbi’s authority in all ares of interpreting the Torah for his life. This was something all observant Jewish young mem wanted to do. As a result, each disciple came to a rabbinic relationship with a desire and willingness to surrender to the authority of the whole law as interpreted by his Rabbi.
The group of students would discuss in depth their Rabbi’s view of the meaning of Torah on a particular aspect of life. The oral tradition was needed to accompany the written Law, because the Torah alone, with its 613 commandments, was an insufficent guide to Jewish life. They would memorize most of the written Torah and learn from the Talmud and Mishna about how those words were interpreted.
Here’s an example why that was the case. Exodus 20:8, the fourth commandment says “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy.” That makes it clear that the Sabbath is an important holy day. Yet when you look for specifics in the written scriptures that regulate how to observe the day all you find are injunctions against lighting a fire, going away from your dwelling, cutting down a tree, plowing or harvesting. Would merely refraining from these specific activities fulfill the commandment to make the Sabbath holy? Jewish Sabbath rituals, including reciting the kiddush and reading of the weekly Torah portion are not found in written scripture but in the oral law. Studying their rabbi’s view of the written and oral law to comprehend God’s way for the conduct of their life was the main task of a disciple. The issue was not what specific words were found in the scroll but rather what did it mean and how was it to be lived out.
In this intimate relationship the rabbi would ask questions of the disciple as he closely observed the their daily life, or the disciple would initiate a discussion by raising an issue or asking a question based on some aspect of his daily life. A disciple would expect the rabbi’s consistent and persistent question, “Why did you do that?” The emphasis was always on behavior, not just the imparting of wisdom and related interpretive information. In this interactive manner, the rabbis functioned to clear up gray areas of understanding and difficult areas of textual interpretation for their disciples.
Real life questions were the fodder for these sessions. A real-life question regarding marriage might be, “Can I divorce my wife if…” Another regarding tax collectors would be, “If I know my taxes are going to oppress our people, should I pay them?” The rabbi would authoritatively address such daily practical concerns around righteous living as defined and interpreted by the rabbi. As part of this how-should-we-live interactive process, the disciples would debate various rabbinic interpretations of a real life issue. This might involve weeks of dialogue and debate. However, when the rabbi ultimately declared his authoritative interpretation on an issue, all further debate ceased. His declared interpretation was now binding on his disciples’ lives for the rest of their days. As such, the rabbi was the lens through which every life issue was viewed.
By always asking questions, the rabbis were concentrating on developing discernment in the mind of the disciple, not the imparting of “how to” formulas. Notions of three principles of prayer or four steps to prosperity would be abhorrent to a first-century rabbi.
Disciples had a deep desire to emulate their rabbi. This often included imitating how and what their rabbi ate, how he observed the Sabbath, what he liked and disliked, as well as his mannerisms, prejudices and preferences. A story is told of one disciple who so wanted to emulate his rabbi that he hid in the rabbi’s bedchamber. That way he would be better able to emulate with his own future wife how the rabbi was intimate with his wife.
The first-century disciple willingly submitted to his rabbi’s interpretive authority regarding what pleased God in every area of his life. Thus, to say you were a disciple in the name of Gamaliel, meant that you totally surrendered your life to Gamaliel’s way of interpreting the whole law. As a result, you conformed all of your life’s behavior to his interpretations. There was a passion together with zeal to give up any and all of their preconceived notions of how to live one’s life and then to embrace the behavior that their rabbi deemed best to honor God. It was a radical, willing, and totally conforming submission to the interpretive authority of their rabbi.
I can’t imagine a more practical question than Jesus’ disciples raised with him that evening by the remote lake shore. They weren’t telling Jesus anything he didn’t know when they said that it was late and the people were growing hungry. It was a way to raise the real question. Rabbi, these people have needs that need to be met. “What would please God?” they wanted to know. Their best solution they had come up with was to send them to villages in the area so they could find food to eat.
“No”, Rabbi Jesus said. “You give them something to eat”.
This is where this passage gets uncomfortable for us. I know what it feels like to be told, “You give them something to eat…” and to feel as though there is so little to give, it’s hardly worth starting to prepare the meal.
Of course this story in Matthew’s telling occurs right after Jesus hears about the gruesome and pointless death of his cousin, John the Baptist. It would make perfect sense that, in response to this horrific news, Jesus was trying to escape the crowds to mourn. I can’t imagine a more appropriate moment to seek such solitude. But it wasn’t going to happen. The word was out. Jesus has something to offer that can’t be found anywhere else. The crowds with their sick and suffering in tow catch up with him. And then they don’t leave. Like unexpected guests with no manners, they don’t leave. And a handful of disciples are left to carry out the ministry of hospitality which Jesus personifies.
And there it is. Opportunities to be about the work to which Jesus calls us don’t necessarily come at convenient times. Matter of fact they are most likely to come when we are most tired or sad or fearful for the future. More times than not all there is to do is just start doing that to which Jesus calls us. Most times we are unable to see the ending — in fact most of the time we surely can’t — but if we don’t at least start, we will certainly never get there. For the disciples in this story, the only logical thing to do was to send that hungry crowd away. They could not, at first, have fathomed the possibility that all those growling stomachs could be satisfied with what began as five loaves and two fish. But they trusted Jesus enough to hand what they had to him and pretty soon it was a party.
This really is a story about scarcity and abundance. I live in a time and place where it is seldom that I worry about a scarcity of food. That is not true, of course, for all of my neighbors — but it is true for most of the people I interact with much of the time. I can’t remember where I read it recently but it was a quotation from a woman who said “I can’t think of anything else until I know from where my next meal is coming.”
And what about the guy at the back of the crowd. The one who hardly knows why he is there. There is no big screen projection to give him a sense of what is going on down front. He only hears what’s going on because the one in front of him is telling him. In fact, he may never fully comprehend or appreciate the actual source of the meal he is enjoying. He may never realize it is actually a gift from God’s own hand. But that doesn’t make it any less so. Indeed, I wonder how many moments in how many days I am like that. A lot, I would expect. I need to remember that and give thanks even when I can’t quite put it all together.
And there is this, too. How does one end up with more than that with which one started? Twelve baskets full. How does that happen?