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The starving of the 5000

by Jaynan Clark Egland (President, WordAlone Network)

August 1, 2003

The Sunday lectionary for the past weeks sat us down upon the grass to consider again the familiar account of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000. It is a story of scarcity, impossibility, abundance and leftovers. It is the story of the church . . . little to offer, nothing much to give but when blessed by Jesus possessed of abundance and leftovers to boot.

If we considered John’s account of the feeding frenzy, we might be courted into believing that the church’s primary mission and ministry are to feed the bellies of the hungry. Stuff the starving with bread, so to speak. The paradigm for mission would be the multiplying of the loaves, meeting the needs of the needy and developing the under-developed.

But remember Mark’s telling, it is telling indeed of what Jesus’ primary mission was and is. Everybody had needs. The disciples were tired and hungry before the crowd ever arrived. Then, the more than 5000 empty stomachs growling in unison must have made quite a ravenous ruckus! Yet, first Jesus started right in teaching . . . giving himself over in his own words to not only feed the crowd but also to quench their thirst, clothe their naked bodies and house them with him for eternity. This is Jesus paradigm’ for mission . . . to teach and preach and deliver the Word to the needy—his very self.

Then he fed them.

One of my main concerns for the ELCA has to do not only with its declining number of missionaries, but also with its present “paradigm” for mission. For many years now the focus for the ELCA’s Division for Global Mission has not been on evangelism through the ministry of teaching and preaching but on giving aid and relief and engaging in development—all crucial and necessary efforts, but not the primary calling of the church.

While serving as a missionary in Tanzania, I had the opportunity to work with those development and relief workers sent out by a variety of government and private agencies. What they did was vitally important and worked to improve the quality of life for many people in need. However, as Christians we are called to do more than extend our hand to aid and serve as we live out our faith. We are also called to speak the Word of life that is the only act of mercy that will give life and extend the benefits eternally.

If the church shirks it’s responsibility and does not give over Jesus and his promises to those starving for the only Word of hope and life, then we are distributing the leftovers and leaving the abundance of God undelivered. To assume this form of secondary mission as a church is much like being the hostess who calls someone offering the tasty leftovers that remain from a dinner party she had for her family and special friends the night before.

Though the food will be nourishing and delicious and an individual should be thankful for her generosity, surely that person will wonder why he or she was not invited to sit up to the table for the first course and to share in the abundance when it was first passed and enjoyed. The food does not become “leftovers” until the event is over and the table is cleared.

Didn’t Jesus have something to say about inviting individuals to the banquet itself? I don’t remember his offering the leftovers only.

If we, as members of the ELCA, will embrace as our primary mission the delivery of God’s abundance—Jesus the Living Lord—to a world in need, then sharing the leftovers can and will make a world of difference.