The apostles returned to Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a lonely place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 35 And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the hour is now late; 36 send them away, to go into the country and villages round about and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he commanded them all to sit down by companies upon the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 41 And 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 to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And they all ate and were satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men. (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Matthew 14:13-21, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-13
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Fourth Sunday after Assumption), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
We find within the four Gospels six accounts of Jesus feeding thousands with just a few fish and loaves of bread: four accounts of feeding 5,000 (see references above) and two accounts of feeding 4,000 (Mark 8:1-10, Matthew 15:32-39). Clearly, this is a significant event in the life of Jesus and the disciples, offering profound truths for the Church until today. In fact, Matthew’s version of Jesus feeding the 5,000 was the Sunday Gospel reading on the sixth Sunday following Pentecost, July 1, 2018. Click here to read the themes written for that day.
Sheep Without a Shepherd
Prior to the account of Jesus feeding the five-thousand, Mark tells the story about the brutal death of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, while at the same time giving us a glimpse of the person of King Herod who imprisoned John and eventually had him beheaded. The story of Jesus feeding the five-thousand serves as a contrast between Jesus and King Herod, beginning with Jesus desiring to get away with his disciples to be alone and get some rest, perhaps wanting to contemplate the death of his cousin, to be alone in prayer with his Father. Jesus’ plan was interrupted due to his own popularity. Thousands of people caught wind about where Jesus was heading next and got there ahead of him, undoubtedly needy and desperate for healing, mercy, or simply to hear firsthand what has been spreading throughout the towns – his radical, but hopeful teaching. Some may have been there to witness his power and compassion in the form of a miracle.
What is the reaction of Jesus upon seeing the great crowd that interrupted his plan for down time and rest? Instead of expressing anger or frustration, the Gospel tells us “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” How many of us would respond the way Jesus did in such a situation? Right away he began his ministry, what he came to earth to do, to teach and to heal.
To say the crowd was like “sheep without a shepherd” (see also Matthew 9:36) was a way of describing Israel without a king (see Number 27:17, I Kings 22:17, Ezekiel 34:5, Zechariah 10:2), and so Jesus looks upon his people as in need of a King. Unlike Herod, Jesus sees people who are hungry, in need of salvation and compassion, and he has come particularly for this kind of ministry, to be this kind of King. He far surpasses Herod, and by feeding the five-thousand, Jesus even surpasses the prophets, both Elijah who caused a multiplication of the widow’s oil and flour (see I Kings 17:8-16) and Elisha who multiplied an insufficient amount of food for one-hundred people (II Kings 4:42-44). Furthermore, this story recalls the story of Israel in the wilderness. Jesus, the Son of God was the one who fed Israel for those forty years. There they were instructed only to eat what was needed on a daily basis, but here in the plush green pastures of the Promised Land, there is abundance (John 10:10). In the story of feeding the five-thousand, before the very eyes of the crowd, and to us today, the Scriptures are fulfilled: Jesus is Priest, Prophet, and King, the Shepherd-King!
Jesus is always ready to hear our prayer, always in a state of compassion, never wanting us to go away hungry. Do we know others without a Shepherd and show them the same compassion as does Jesus? Just as he instructed the crowd to sit down on the green grass, Jesus is the Shepherd that leads us to green pastures and still waters. He is the one who restores our souls, leads us in the path of righteousness, walks with us through the valleys of life with its shadows of death surrounding us (see Psalm 23). Through his compassion and creative power, Jesus, the Bread of Life, feeds us his own Body and Blood as we share Holy Communion. Are we without a Shepherd? Pray the words of St. Gregory of Narek to return to our Shepherd, to rest in green pastures with him:
Turn with compassion toward me
and make my soul return to you rejoicing.
For without you I cannot be transformed anew,
and if your will is not in sympathy with me,
I am unable to save myself since I am condemned to death.
And if you, my guide, did not show me the way,
marking the footsteps on the path that leads to you,
I would fall into the abyss on the right and the left.
Broken to be Distributed
The Gospel reads, “And 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 to set before the people.” Does this sound familiar? Later in Mark’s Gospel we read very similar words (14:22): “And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.” Of course, these are the words describing the Last Supper. They are the words the priest prays every week during Badarak just before he elevates the bread and the wine: “Taking the bread in his holy, divine, immortal, spotless and creative hands, he blessed it, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his chosen, holy disciples, who were seated.” Blessed, broken, and distributed to those who were seated. The connection between the Lord’s Supper (Holy Badarak) and Jesus feeding the five-thousand is without question, but is there any significance of the bread being broken before it’s distributed?
The disciples were right. They were concerned about the people being hungry as the hour was getting late, but their faith was small. The idea they brought to Jesus for his approval was their first offering, which turned out to be extremely inadequate when compared to the vision and compassion of Jesus. Testing their compassion, he tells his disciples, “You give them something to eat!” Not at all what they were expecting when they brought their first idea to Jesus. The disciples come up with their second inadequate offering: the five loaves of bread and two fish, clearly not enough to feed five-thousand hungry people who skipped dinner a few hours ago. Jesus, not at all troubled by this, instead wanting to teach his disciples compassion and stewardship, transforms both inadequate offerings into something abundant. But before Jesus gives the bread to the disciples to distribute, he breaks it.
Just before the account of the Lord’s Supper (14:3-9), at which Jesus breaks the bread before it is distributed, we read about an encounter a woman had with Jesus at Bethany: “And while [Jesus] was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head.” In order for the ointment to be used or distributed, to fulfill its purpose, the box had to be broken. That’s when the fragrance filled the air. In the epistle reading for this Sunday (II Corinthians 2:12-3:3), we find the following passage:
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.
Think about the individuals to whom we look as pillars of faith. Are they spoiled, shallow, inexperienced in suffering and trials? Or do they know the meaning of the Cross? Do they crucify their will for the sake of Jesus Christ? Think about the depth of the Armenian Church, the tradition based on the faith-experience that has been carried and passed down for almost two-thousand years. Our depth comes from experiencing brokenness, whether that comes from humility, suffering, or both. Our brokenness can be turned inward, transformed into self-pity, or, through the power of Jesus, it can be turned outward, transformed into compassion. When we offer our feeble lives to Jesus, he takes them and transforms them, and touching them with his compassion, he gives them back to us of more value, with more power to accomplish his will, ready to be distributed to others. To offer ourselves to him is sacrifice, its brokenness. St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans (12:1), “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
Everything we do, our healing and creative power, the compassion we have toward others, flows from our life of worship, for when we unite with God sharing his broken Body and Blood in Holy Communion, we also unite with one another. We take into our bodies the love of Christ, we literally embody his compassion, his sacrifice, and we are nourished to bring that compassion to the world around us. The experience of Badarak does not end when we sing “Orhnetseets uzDer hamenayn zham,” but continues the moment we step into the coffee hour, where we show compassion to others. It continues when we leave the church building and enter the world where we distribute the compassion of Jesus to others, to those without a Shepherd. St. Cyril of Alexandria writes about the continuation of the miracle of feeding the five-thousand:
Nor did the miracle end there. There were also gathered twelve baskets of fragments…A plain assurance that hospitality receives a rich recompense from God. The disciples offered five loaves. After a multitude this large had been satisfied, there was gathered for each one of them a basketful of fragments. Let nothing, therefore, prevent willing people from receiving strangers…Let no one say, “I do not possess suitable means. What I can do is altogether trifling and insufficient for many.” Receive strangers, my beloved…The Savior will multiply the little you have many times beyond expectation. Although you give little, you will receive much.
This is true participation in the Badarak, true participation in the divinity of Christ (II Peter 1:4). The disciples gathered twelve baskets of leftovers. The compassion of Jesus overflows as he transforms our own sorrow into deeds of compassion. Our resources will always be inadequate for what we need to accomplish in the name of Jesus and his Church. To accomplish what Jesus’ plan for salvation, it cost him his life. Jesus wants to include us, his Church, this parish, in his plan of salvation, his plan to Shepherd and feed the world, but we must first offer what little we have, and be willing to let him break it and make it ready to distribute in ways that we could never imagine. That small idea, that empty budget line, can be transformed into what seems like an impossible proposal. Is that really what we want? Are we ready for Jesus to do what he really came to do?