Give the people what they need
What are we going to do with these crowds of people who are airing their grievances, saying
"We are dying out here on these streets. We need to be freed; to be healed. Healing for our bodies, and for the systems which continue to inflict harm on us."
That’s what the crowd is saying in the middle of the night nearby where Jesus is sitting, grieving the loss of John, the prophet at the hands of Herod, the tyrant.
Send these crowds away, the disciples say. Let them take care of their own needs. Grab their own bootstraps. Address their own problems. They aren’t ours to fix. Let them clean up their own messes. If I’m not suffering under the weight of this world, certainly they can make due if they work hard enough; if they just clean up their act.
The disciples approach the Lord in this desolate place...this boarded up city...this nation, torn... and say to him:
Please make this go away.
And Jesus said, No.
They replied, We don’t have enough. We don’t know how to address these issues: poverty, lack of health care, lack of housing, the pandemic of racism, the racism of the pandemic.
We got nothing here to fix this, the followers of Jesus said. Just a little food.
And Jesus said, “Bring them to me.” And then he gave the suffering people what they needed. For free.
I learned this story as a child. “How did he do it?” I wondered. How did he take these loaves and fish, and feed the 5,000? Was it magic? Or just something only Jesus can do? Evidence that he is God?
Because who else but God could take something that’s not enough and make it enough? Who else but God could stare at the unsolvable problem and solve it? Who else but God could know what to do about hunger and poverty and racism?
But when the followers of Jesus ask him to solve this problem, Jesus does what God has always done: he invites them to give the suffering people what they need. For free.
To an American Christian, the miracle may not so much be about food, but about economics.
Who gives suffering people what they need for free besides Jesus?
We live in a nation–a world–that, at this point, is so privatized that the very thought of giving people what they need for free is, for many of us, unthinkable.
How out of step that makes us with Jesus.
Jesus gave the suffering people what they needed for free. Isaiah says that’s what God does:
“You that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
Who practices that kind of radical generosity but God?
I have seen this community do it. This very sanctuary is used for prayer and to prepare food boxes, because each day there are more furloughs and evictions. The unemployment benefits may be gone, but people still need to eat.
We do this when we prepare hot meals or sack lunches for our Saturday morning guests who simply cannot do what the disciples–and maybe some of us–would have them do; go somewhere else and buy their own food.
We give freely from what we have, and we do it because God did it first.
God’s grace is free. God’s love is food for the masses that comes without charge. This kind of generosity could only be thought of as “radical” in a country where the poor are bankrupted by hospital bills and insurance costs; a country where corporations overcharge people to live and then profit from their dying.
This is not the way that Jesus responds to the suffering of the world.
Jesus is gracious and merciful, as the Psalmist writes about the Lord God. He is good to all. His compassion is over all he has made. He upholds all who are failing.
Not some. Not the deserving.
He raises them up and he gives them food.
God gives this suffering world the love that it needs for free; not because we’ve earned it, but because that is simply who God is, and who God is calling every human being to be.
So, can we respond to the cries for equity by saying, “Give the people what they need”?
Can we advocate for the poor by saying, “Give the people what they need”?
Can we be honest about our own personal sins and our complicity in the sin of this nation, by saying, “Give the people what they need”?
What do we need? Justice.
What do we need? Healing.
What do we need? Repentance.
When do we need it? Some disciples would say, not now. Maybe some other, less inconvenient time.
But Jesus says, no. Bring them to me.
Then God puts what little we think we have back into into our hands and tells us to give it away, for free, to all who need it.
And by God’s grace, they will all be fed.