His power was not the measure of his miracle, but the people’s hunger. Had his miracle been measured by his power it would have been a victory beyond all measure. Measured by the hunger of thousands, there was a surplus of twelve baskets full. — Ephrem the Syrian.
Why is Jesus in a deserted place? Could it be that he went there to mourn John whom Herod had just killed? Was he himself withdrawing from Herod’s reach?
Jesus had been rejected by his own in Nazareth. He now withdraws beyond the lake though it seems that the crowd, some presumably from Nazareth since that is where last was, knows exactly how to find him. Could it be that, like Herod, the Nazarenes were actually fascinated with Jesus but could not and would not let it show lest they loose faith with one another by permitting Jesus, one of their own number, to be Messiah? This is what killed John the Baptist. Herod could not let his heart that loved to listen to John in amazement win over the conventions of his day and the demands of honor and custom. He killed John out of obedience to custom and the will to power and acclaim.
Jesus in Nazareth did no great signs, though it was obviously in his grasp, because the people’s hearts were buried in custom and convention as well as in a deep sea of self interest. “if you are from here, Jesus,” they said and thought, “do your work for your own, those who raised you, those to whom you are indebted, and for those who deserve your first and best because of who they are.”
Nazareth and Herod have a lot in common. Luke goes as far as to report that Nazareth did attempt to kill Jesus but failed. (Lk 4:29) Herod was just lucky to be dealing with a prophet who was not going to just walk out of his palace while his guards stood by powerlessly.
What is more ironic is that no one would have blinked an eye at what Herod and Nazareth did. This is how one behaved. One kept one’s oaths. Just ask Jephthah’s daughter. (Jd 11:34) One cared for one’s own first because that is all one actually had as security. Naomi sends Ruth back to Boaz’s village for that very reason.
Yet, we also recognize that the ulterior motive of power and greed were no less present. Herod had power. Maybe not what the tempter had put before Jesus: “all the kingdoms of the world” but he had power no less. Nazareth had supplies for itself. It might not have been rich but it was probably not starving either so as to need the rocks in the street to be turned into bread. The miracles they ask Jesus to perform among them echo the tempter’s taunts: Be useful, be powerful, be amazing in our midst — so we might be amazing too because your are one of us.
No wonder Jesus withdrew. In Nazareth and in the palace the temptations of his desert days are alive and well, and worshipped and glorified.
In the no man’s land of the deserted places the hearts of the travelers are worried about different things. Who are the fellow travelers I am with? Can I trust them? Am I prepared? Who is this Jesus and will he help me? Here they are all powerless beggars to some extent. (Luther) Jesus has compassion upon them and heals their diseases — whatever those may have been. More than that, here in the place beyond the village bounds he created a new community. He even commands his disciples to do likewise by telling them: “They do not need to go away, give them to eat.”
Yes, they can go to the villages that surround them. The disciples plan on how to deal with the multitude that had gathered was not irrational. The villages were there to be accessed and the travelers, if they had the means, could have talked someone into selling them food or by virtue of state extend hospitality to them. It might have worked. But what was gathered here before Jesus was a multitude led away from those places and away for the allegiances and entanglements that they represented. They did not need to go away. The church could be their community, their family right there, though claimed from many places and families and status. (Rev 7:9)
I know what you are saying: But this is about a miracle of feeding! Well, yes, but that miracle does prefigure the feeding of the multitudes that will gather to be fed with the healing power of the one heavenly food: The Body and Blood of the Lord. That moment, the Eucharist, is when “ . . . there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” (Rev 7:9)
The feeding in the wilderness is more than a miracle. If it was just that, it would merely be charming. No, the feeding of the multitudes is a hint that people will be led out to Jesus and are not to be discouraged to gather as a new family. All that go out, “ . . . who [have] left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matt 19:29)
This new community is not a convenient new patch one sows unto an old garment. That community will not fit neatly into the palace of Herod or into Nazareth. It is a new allegiance to the very heart of God and it will care for its own beyond their capacity to need. (14:20)