He's No Joe Friday
Pentecost, the Church season of vibrant, green colored paraments, is the season of growing in Christ, and just when it seems you can't grow anymore, you're surprised by growth. Our text, the feeding of the 5000, is the only miracle Jesus does that is recorded in all 4 Gospels, so you would think we've learned all we can by now. But reading Matthew's account it dawned on me that Jesus is no Joe Friday. Joe Friday was a character on the 60s TV show "Dragnet." When speaking to witnesses of a crime, he would say, "Just the facts please." Joe Friday was only interested in facts nothing more. Jesus shows us in this account of the feeding of the 5,000 that He's no Joe Friday.
The facts of the case are impossible. I didn't say they were difficult, hard, challenging or any other positive sounding thing. I said the facts of this case are impossible. It opens by telling us, "When Jesus heard what had happened, He withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place." Do you know what it is that Jesus heard had happened? That John the Baptist, His cousin, His forerunner in the ministry, had been brutally beheaded at the request of King Herod's teenage stepdaughter.
Friend, you just haven't experienced enough death if you don't see how this fact alone completely turned Jesus' world upside down. You don't know how the death of someone close to you can leave you feeling empty, helpless, hopeless, defeated. It's all the worse when they seem to die pointlessly or brutally. It's worse still when they are murdered simply because they preached a Word of God that bothered someone else. So Matthew tells us that Jesus "withdrew." This can be translated "take refuge." This is the same word Matthew uses to describe what the wise men did after being warned in a dream about the evil king.
Since Scripture tells us that it's a fact that Jesus felt just like we do, yet without sinning, I can say Jesus is down; Jesus is feeling overwhelmed; Jesus just needs to get away. So He does, but the crowds follow Him. Here are some more facts that make this an impossible situation. The crowd follows Jesus out to a deserted place. No towns nearby, no markets nearby, no Lubys, or McDonalds, or Taco Cabanas down the road. Nothing.
The crowd is huge. Matthew tells us there were 5,000 men beside women and children. Figuring one woman for every man there and two children (I'm being very conservative.) for every couple, that means there were upwards of 20,000 men, women and children. Figuring an average of 3 ounces of fish per person, and 2 ounces of bread, you would need 3,750 pounds of fish (that's 10,000 cans of tuna) and 2,500 pounds of bread (that's 1,667 loaves of HEB Hill Country Fair bread). At today's prices it would run you $5,000 for the tuna and $1,317 for bread. At today's working man's wages that would be 153 days of work.
These statistics bore you? Well, this is exactly the sort of math the disciples did. The other Gospels tell us that when Jesus presented the problem Philip quickly did the calculations and came up with just about what I did. He tells Jesus, "Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them get a little." A denarii was a day's wage for a working man. So Philip had calculated that it would take 200 day's wages where I came up with about 153. While Philip was doing his math, John tells us that Andrew had checked the available resources and came up with 5 loaves and 2 fish. The disciples knew all the facts. They did the math; figured the calculations; thought of the different scenarios, and they concluded that the facts make it impossible to do what Jesus had said, "You give them something to eat."
You know the facts of the problems that confront you, don't you? You know that 2 plus 2 equals 4, and 2 fish barely feeds two people let alone 20,000. You know the facts of your illness, and the medical history of your family. You know the facts of your sinfulness: how much you need to be forgiven of, how much you can forgive others, how much temptation you can take, how long you can go on, when you will give up. You know all the facts; you've done all the calculations. But Jesus is no Joe Friday. He doesn't go by the facts of impossible situations.
If Jesus went by facts, He would've just given up. The ministry of John the Baptist was easily brought to an abrupt end by a teenager's dance. What's the point? What's the use of going on? But go on Jesus did. When the huge crowd followed Him what did He do? Though He was in need of compassion, that's what you have for someone who just lost a loved one so brutally, He showed compassion. Though He had to have been feeling quite "sick", He healed the sick.
The situation is impossible. Thousands upon thousands need food and there is no money to buy it and no food around even if you had the money. But Jesus doesn't go by the facts of the situation. He commands the disciples, "You give them something to eat." Within this command is a latent promise. Unless you think Jesus is lying? Of course not! If Jesus commands them to give the thousands something to eat, He is promising His disciples that they have a food supply they are overlooking. They have a hidden resource for food, not the 5 loaves and 2 fish, what is that among so many? They have Jesus, and so do you and I.
Jesus is the Lord of impossible situations. If really want to talk impossible situations, if you really want to talk about where the facts lead you to the conclusion that your problem is unsolvable, then you must start not with this or that going on in your life, but with your sins and sinfulness. There is no more impossible situation than our fallenness, our sinfulness, our damnableness. The Law of God had justly and rightly promised us temporal and eternal punishment for our sins. The facts of our case had us so far down in hell that our screams never reached the top. Our lust, our greed, our pride, our worry, our misbelief and our unbelief are ever present facts to us. No amount of trying, no amount of determination, no amount of promising to do better could nullify, address, or even mitigate our damnation.
If Jesus went by facts, He would have stayed in heaven, but He didn't. He became a flesh and blood Man. He took upon Himself all the sins and the sinfulness of our flesh. He took all of our lust, greed, pride, worry and unbelief and went all the way to the depths of hell to pay for them. But that's not all. He took all the commands, all the requirements of the Law and kept them perfectly in our place. In Jesus, as we are through Baptism, through the forgiving Word, or through Communion, the impossible happens: sinners are declared saints and the Law that hangs over us is declared fulfilled, done, complete.
If you don't think your sins that bad, if you don't see the Law of God as absolutely impossible for you to do, then what Jesus did for you is no big deal. He hasn't rescued you from the impossible but just from the difficult, the challenging. Then you don't see what a breath of fresh air Jesus brings to other impossible things in your life. Then you don't see that since your Lord and Savior doesn't go by the facts, you don't have to either.
Jesus shows us in this parable that we don't have to live by the facts about food. As the Lord of life, death, heaven, and hell, Jesus isn't governed by the laws of supply and demand. Neither is He governed by the laws of meteorology, medicine or economics. Jesus doesn't let the weathermen determine how much rain His people get. He doesn't let doctors tell Him what the progress of a disease will be. He doesn't listen to economic forecasts before He commits to taking care of you and your family.
Dear friends in Christ, we live by the Gospel not by what we calculate, do, reason, or even believe. We live by what Jesus can do and give, and in this text, we find that He can give far beyond what even His disciples think or believe. The last thing the disciples say to Jesus before the miracle is that 5 loaves and 2 fish are no use with so many. They don't think Jesus can feed the multitudes with so little; they don't believe it. Does their puny human reason and their lack of faith stop Jesus? Nope. Jesus takes what little they bring to Him and gives and gives and gives. He enriches His disciples so much that they in turn can give and give and give to others.
The disciples said, correctly according to the facts, that it wasn't even enough so everyone could have a little, but Jesus gave and gave till they were all satisfied. Matthew uses a word that's normally used for animals being satiated. You know cattle have had enough to eat when you see them lying down contently chewing their cud. It's a fact that you seldom see that in Texas in July, but look what the Lord has done this year with that fact.
Go back again to the fact that even unbelief doesn't stop Jesus. John makes it plain that the multitudes don't believe Jesus. They don't look at Him as Lord. Yet, Jesus feeds them; Jesus has compassion on them. Friends Jesus wants us who know His compassion to live by that compassion, to count on that compassion. The disciples were factually right when they said that Jesus should send the crowd away so they could go to the villages and buy some food. The crowd should have planned ahead. They shouldn't have went out into such a deserted place without taking food. Yet, Jesus still feeds them even though they failed to calculate and plan properly.
Do you think your Jesus has any less compassion for you whom He has saved by His grace? Do you think Jesus only helps those who help themselves? This was one of the chief errors of Catholicism that Luther dared to preach against. He said that grace isn't grace if it only comes to those who plan properly, calculate rightly, or try persistently. Grace means that the Lord deals with us not based on what is going on in our heads or our hearts or our lives but based on what is going on in Him. Look into the heart of Jesus and do you find anything there but forgiveness and compassion for sinners?
Didn't you listen to the Collect that we prayed? We asked that the Lord's "continual mercy...cleanse and defend" us, His Church. We don't rely on our goodness, our uprightness but His mercy. We go on to admit that we "cannot continue in safety without" His help. It's not our planing, our calculating, our right eating, right living, or even right believing that keeps us safe but His help. Finally, we pray for the Lord to "protect and govern" His Church not by our goodness, but His.
Do you see how we regularly, habitually turn this prayer around? We live as if our continued efforts are what cleanse and defend us, as if we will be safe as long as we do our best, as if the Lord protects and governs things by our goodness not His. Such a view is in accord with the facts of our situation. Such a view agrees with human reason; that's why it is preached in so many churches. But Jesus is no Joe Friday. He doesn't go by the facts, but by His mercy, His helpfulness, and His goodness. We can go that way too, and what we will find is far more than we ever thought possible. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XI (8-4-02), Matthew 14:13-21