Text: Matthew 14:13-33
13 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. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 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.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 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. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Reflection: An Abundant Imagination
The narrative lectionary skips us around the Gospel of Matthew a bit here, and to put the text for tonight in context, I need to back us up for a moment. Our text starts with, “Now when Jesus heard this.” The “this” here is about John the Baptist’s death. King Herod, who was pretty much a puppet king with very little actual power outside maintaining order in Judea, was celebrating his birthday with a great feast. Prior to this, Herod had arrested and imprisoned John because John had been speaking out against Herod’s relationships with his brother’s wife. At the party, the daughter of Herod’s brother’s wife danced— and Herod, likely a bit drunk, promised to give her whatever she wanted up to half his kingdom. Her mom prompted her to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. And thought Herod grieved it, he had to save face and pride, so he had John beheaded in prison and he fulfilled the gruesome demand.
John’s disciples buried John’s body then went to Jesus and told him what had happened. That is where our text tonight picks up. Jesus has just learned of the horrendous circumstances of John the Baptist’s death. There are multiple layers, certainly, to how Jesus was processing this. Jesus and John were cousins, though from the Gospels it seems like they didn’t know one another until Jesus came to be baptized. Their ministries paralleled and sometimes conflicted— with John wondering in prison if he had pointed to the right person as the Messiah. But they were related and in relationship, even if distant. Jesus on a very personal level was grieving. At the same time, Jesus was involved in an equally dangerous call as John. Jesus was gathering followers, healing, proclaiming difficult teachings to powerful people, and eventually, he knew there would be a collision. John’s death was a poignant reminder of what those collisions look like— when a prophet and a prideful king crash.
So Jesus gets in a boat and goes to a deserted place alone— he withdraws to the wilderness. For quiet, for prayer, to grieve, to be outside of the forces of Herod. But the crowds follow him on foot from their towns into the wilderness…they beat him to where he’s going, and when he arrives ashore in his boat, there are people gathered there waiting for him, pleading for him to heal their sick, to meet with them. And Jesus does. He has compassion— in midst of his suffering, he meets the people in theirs and he heals them.
The disciples come to him after—it seems—a long time, and in a way that the disciples rarely do, they give Jesus a recommendation. It’s getting late, we’re in the middle of the wilderness, there’s nothing for all these people to eat— you should send them to nearby villages to buy food. There are some commentators that are skeptical of the disciples here, reading unbelief or selfishness into this— but I don’t see that. The disciples are learning to love and care for the people, who are drawn to and cared for by Jesus. This is the way they know how to provide for them— give these people an out, tell them it’s time to go and get food. It’s reasonable, and it’s caring. But Jesus has a better way.
Jesus throws his own feast in the wilderness that is the ultimate contrast to the feast of Herod just verses earlier. From the guests— the people from surrounding villages, the oppressed, the poor, the sick, who come not with their riches and their skills and performances, but only with their need— to the food— not a lavish meal catering to the king, but a meager amount of common food shared until it grew into an abundance— to even the distribution of power— the King here, Jesus, prays and blesses but then, he hands over. There is no pride at work in this feast. The hands of the disciples work the miracle. Everyone is fed, and there is enough left over for twelve baskets— symbolic of the tribes of Israel, of the disciples, of abundance. There is enough to feed Israel. There is enough to feed everyone at God’s table made in the wilderness.
Now, the wilderness or deserted place in Scripture is not just meant as a geographical location. Wilderness is a dangerous, unknown, often times threatening space, as well as a place that is removed from the structures, the expectations, the ways of society. It is a place where in fear, scarcity, and uncertainty, people in the Biblical narrative encounter God and God’s provision. Likewise, in the second story for tonight, water has a deeper meaning than just geography. Water, too, is dangerous, unknown, and often times threatening. It was a shorthand for chaos. Yet, it too is a space of encounter with God and God’s creative provision. Jesus and the disciples moved from wilderness to water— and the disciples experience God’s presence and abundant provision in dramatically different situations.
Jesus walking on the water and Peter trying to walk out to him is such a strange story. And it is hard to see any connection with what just happened. But this is what I see. Jesus’ feast in the wilderness created a new imagination for the disciples. Jesus demonstrated a completely different way of power acting in the world from Herod, a healing rather than violent posture, a humble rather than prideful way of being. He created a feast in a deserted place. Abundance where there is thought to be nothing but scarcity. Free food to the hungry, healing for the sick, attention for the outcast— a people who were fed, not because of what they had to give, but because of their need. And most importantly for the disciples, they were the workers who multiplied the bread through their sharing. Yes, it was through Jesus, but the disciples participated— they worked the miracle. And these things expanded their imagination of not only what could be, not only what ought to be, but of what they could be a part of bringing about.
And so when in another scary, dangerous, unknown situation, Peter sees Jesus walking on water— his new imagination opens up. If that is Jesus, perhaps, Peter, too, can walk to him. And he does. He eventually sinks and Jesus doesn’t let him drown— but those steps are the testing of the imagination of God’s abundant kingdom that has been formed in Peter.
May it also be formed in us. Amen.