One of the crises in the modern world is hunger. Actually, it’s not new: There have always been people who are desperately hungry. In parts of Africa, crops have failed year on year, often because of a lack of rain. But even in our own country, some struggle to find enough to eat.
It’s Mothering Sunday. Even more desperate than hunger in general is the mother who cannot feed her children, or who feeds them by not eating enough herself. It’s a sad scene, and one that is far more common, and maybe far closer to home, than we often realise.
Over against the need of hunger is the joy of feasting. Christmas, Easter, Sunday lunch, a family wedding, a baptism – these can be occasions for a great feast, a banquet. Luscious food spread out in huge quantities. They’re good times. For some of us, there are good memories here of our mothers. Some of us had mothers who were experts at laying on the most wonderful feasts.
And yet this raises so many questions. Is feasting appropriate in an age of hunger? Will there ever be a day when people don’t go hungry?
The Old Testament painted many pictures to show how God would mend this broken world. And one of them was the picture of a huge banquet.
All the Old Testament promises revolved around one figure that God would send. The Messiah. God would send a kingly figure, descended from the great King David, to mend all that is broken in this world.
And one of the things this king, this Messiah, will do is to spread an enormous banquet, a wonderful feast, the messianic banquet. It’s something a number of the Old Testament prophets foretell.
Listen to Isaiah chapter 25, verse 6: “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines.”
There have always been hungry people in this world. God has a plan. And his plan is not just to give people a few crumbs. His plans is a feast, a royal spread.
If you’re someone who loves rather than hates Harry Potter, you’ll remember how the first book sees him discover the magical world he didn’t know existed. His jaw drops at the amazing things he discovers when he joins Hogwarts School. I love the description of the start of term feast:
“Harry’s mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled with food. He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, chips, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup and, for some strange reason, mind humbugs. … When everyone had eaten as much as they could, the remains of the food faded from the plates leaving them sparkling clean as before. A moment later the puddings appeared. Blocks of ice cream in every flavour you could think of, apple pies, treacle tarts, chocolate éclairs and jam doughnuts, trifle, strawberries, jelly, rice pudding.”
God doesn’t have a plan to solve this world’s problems by making things a teeny bit better. He has a plan to solve the world’s problems by bringing a day when we can enjoy all the good things he wants us to have, when we can enjoy this earth’s bounty.
It’s enormously appealing. It appeals if you’re hungry, that’s for sure. But a life that satisfies, a world that is overflowing with God’s goodness, the most royal banquet you could ever hope to attend – it appeals whoever you are. Who would not want to be a part of that banquet, a part of that new world order?
Jesus arrives on the scene, and performs many miracles. But amongst them are not one but two feeding miracles. Miracles where he feeds a vast crowd with the best food they could want, in limitless quantity. Back in Matthew chapter 14, we had the feeding of the 5000.
And now in Matthew 15 he does it again. This time, he feeds 4000. Men. Plus women and children.
The message is clear. Here is the Messiah. Here is the one who can bring that Messianic banquet. Here is the one who can spread a sumptuous feast for a hungry world. If you’re looking for a share in that glorious future, Jesus is the one you’re looking for.
The question is: Who is invited to the feast? Crucially we want to know: Are we invited?
Our instinct is to assume we are. Our culture works on the assumption that all people are entitled to the same things. If Jesus offers this to some, he should offer it to all.
If you were here a couple of weeks ago, we looked at the shocking story that came before this one. Jesus refused a mother’s request to heal her daughter. He refused her because she was not Jewish. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. He’s the promised Son of David. Those who are not Jews can claim no right to his help or kindness.
Only his refusal did not have the last word. Jesus was trying to teach her that she was not entitled to his help, but that he would help her anyway. He would help her anyway once she’d seen that she was not entitled to that help. We’ll return to that story in a minute or two.
We mustn’t assume we’re entitled to anything from Jesus. In particular, most of us here are not of Jewish descendancy. And Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.
So now we know that a place at the great banquet is not ours by right. Let’s look more closely at this story to see who is invited, to see if we might get a place after all.
As I said, Matthew told two stories. In chapter 14, Jesus fed 5000, and here he feeds 4000. You could be forgiven for thinking Matthew’s repeating himself. For thinking he’d somehow got himself in a muddle, having a bit of a senior moment, and he’s told the same story twice. And if Matthew did that, he’s got the numbers muddled up as well.
Except that isn’t it. It can’t be. For a start, Matthew was written while the eye-witnesses were still alive. They’d have set things straight if Matthew got muddled.
But also Jesus himself was clear that these were two separate miracles. Glance across the page to chapter 16, verse 9, a passage we’ll come back to next week. His disciples are being a bit slow to twig who Jesus is. So he asks them, verse 9: “Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered?” Two separate miracles.
The first time, he was in Jewish territory. This time, he’s in Gentile territory.
He does it twice, to show that the Gentiles, the non-Jews, are also invited to the banquet.
In the previous story, he dismissed the woman by telling her that the banquet was for the Jews. They are like children around the family meal table. It wouldn’t be right to feed the children’s food to the family dogs instead.
But the woman wouldn’t take no for an answer. She pressed Jesus: Surely even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the table. Surely there are some leftovers!
And Jesus praises her for her great faith. Jesus heals her daughter.
And next comes this miracle. It turns out the Gentiles don’t only get to eat a few crumbs of bread that the children have finished with. They can eat all they want. They can eat until they’re satisfied. They can eat until they, too, have leftovers.
Even the numbers point to what Jesus is doing in having this second miracle.
The first miracle fed 5000 people from 5 loaves of bread. Some people see significance in the number 5. Personally, I’m not so sure. But the number of baskets of leftovers is 12. The number 12 is a very Jewish number. There were twelve tribes of Israel. Loads of things in the Old Testament happen in twelves.
Whereas this time, there aren’t twelve baskets of leftovers, but seven. In Old Testament thinking, seven is the number of completion; it represents totality, everything. It’s why there are seven days in a week.
Seven baskets of leftovers, having started with seven loaves of bread. To feed a crowd of 4000. 4 is another number that is symbolic. Yes, it’s the number of thousands he fed. But it also represents the whole earth. There are 4 winds, 4 points of the compass, 4 seasons of the year.
This second miracle is not a miracle done for the twelve. It’s a miracle for the four, for the seven. The bread is not just for the twelve tribes of Israel; it’s for people from all four corners of the earth. It’s for all who will come.
So who’s invited to the feast? You are! We all are! You don’t need to be Jewish. We’re all invited!
This is a great passage to look at when we have a baptism. Baptism symbolises someone putting their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. It symbolises someone joining his people. Whenever we baptise someone, it reminds us that Jesus’ invitation remains open. Each and every one of us is invited to join him at his table, to join him at his feast.
What are your plans for your next birthday? On 12th June 2016, the Queen celebrated her 90th birthday. With 10,000 guests, in a street party on The Mall in London. It was the banquet of the year. Smoked salmon mousse, chicken roulade, a raspberry desert and more – with ingredients carefully picked from around the British Isles. There were two problems with it. The first was how to get in. Unless you were sponsored by a charity to attend, tickets were by ballot and very oversubscribed. They’d also set you back £150. The second problem was that when the day came, the weather was also imported from around the British Isles.
A royal banquet. That’s impossible to secure an invitation for. That lasts only for a day. Where the weather could disappoint.
Jesus also has plans for a royal wedding banquet. The invitation is extended to everyone. We don’t have succeed at the ballot. It’s totally free of charge to attend. His death on the cross paid the full price, so admission is free. Nothing will disappoint, not the weather, not anything, because this is one component of his grand plan to restore the whole world. And his banquet is not just for a day, it lasts forever.
Sadly, we live in a world where there is much hunger.
Indeed, there is much in this world that is sad and broken. That’s because we think we know better than God how to live our lives. We think we can live life without him.
There is an end to hunger. Better than that, there’s a feast. Jesus is the one who came to bring that feast. One day, he’ll return to this earth, and he’ll set the table. He’ll make life great again. Better than we’ve ever known.
There are some people we’d expect to be invited to share in that future. Good people. Religious people.
The wonderful news is that Jesus casts the net wider. Much wider. So wide that every one of us here is invited to the feast. Jesus invites us to follow him now; that’s the way to be admitted to the banquet.
So it doesn’t matter what your background is. It doesn’t matter what nation you’re from. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been good or bad. Jesus invites you. He invites you to let him come and take over your life, take control. He invites you to let him come and clean up all that’s broken. He invites you to live with him through life, and then to feast with him for all eternity.