First-World Excess and the story of Jesus feeding the 5000

My family often jokes about our “first-world problems”: The ice maker on one of our two refrigerators is jammed, the local fiberoptic internet is unusually slow today, or the kids are lamenting that there’s “nothing to eat” in our pantry with dozens of food choices readily available. We American-born Christians certainly understand excess because we benefit from a culture and economy that are full of it. We are rarely like those in the crowds who followed Jesus. Most of them were the poorest of poor, the oppressed, and the outcasts who often did not have enough even to meet their basic needs. On the contrary, we usually have far more than we need. We constantly live at a level of excess, and yet we are not nearly as generous as we should be.

Yesterday I preached a sermon about Jesus feeding the crowd of 5,000+ in Matthew 14:13-21 and its implications in this season where many of us are tired and are not sure we have anything left to give. In such times, our compassion and empathy towards others are usually among the first things to falter.

Though He was exhausted from days of ministry and also in deep grief because of the loss of his beloved cousin John, Jesus “had compassion” on the hungry crowds who followed him for healing. In this text Jesus demonstrated excess in compassion. In fact, the word used for compassion (splagchnizomai) means something like a “gut-wrenching” level of compassion for the plight of others felt in one’s inner most being. Then he brought his disciples into the act of compassionate serving that the poor might receive bread from his closest followers’ own hands. As modern-day disciples are we not called to do the same?

In this short post I want to share a modern-day parable by the Irish Christian philosopher Peter Rollins. His upside-down reading of the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 is a sobering reminder that our “first-world problems” and culture of excess themselves often come at the expense of the poor, oppressed, and hungry.

Jesus and the Five Thousand (A First-World Translation) by Peter Rollins

Jesus withdrew privately by boat to a solitary place, but the crowds continued to follow him. Evening was now approaching and the people, many of whom had traveled a great distance, were growing hungry.

Seeing this, Jesus sent his disciples out to gather food, but all they could find were five loaves of bread and two fishes. Then Jesus asked that they go out again and gather up the provisions that the crowds had brought to sustain them in their travels. Once this was accomplished, a vast mountain of fish and bread stood before Jesus. Upon seeing this he directed the people to sit down on the grass.

Standing before the food and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks to God and broke the bread. Then he passed the food among his twelve disciples. Jesus and his friends ate like kings in full view of the starving people. But what was truly amazing, what was miraculous about this meal, was that when they had finished the massive banquet there were not even enough crumbs left to fill a starving person’s hand.

From The Orthodox Heretic (Paraclete Press), 10-11.

[Featured Image: “Jesus Feeding the 5000” by Melanie Pyke]

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