Today’s Gospel is a familiar story—the feeding of the 5000. Jesus takes a few fish and loaves and feeds the crowd with them and there are twelve baskets of leftovers. When a story is this familiar, it is easy to tune out, to think there is nothing more to know about it. We think we know the point: that Jesus works miracles and that he gives us what we need.
But is that all there is?
One part of the story that is frequently glossed over is that it is set near the city of Tiberius. What does that matter? If we read its history, we will see.
Josephus was the great historian of the first century. He wrote this;
(Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews 18.2.3;)
When Herod Antipas took over Galilee in Jesus’ time, it was a rural region. Larger towns such as Bethsaida could hold as many as 2-3,000 people. But most people lived in small villages, such as Nazareth and Capernaum. The populations of these towns were usually less than 400 people.
But, archeology has shown that 8-12,000 people moved into Tiberias and its sister city Sephhoris within just one generation—that generation being the time of Jesus. This mass migration had an effect on the land and people. More farmers were needed to provide more food. More land was needed for this farming. Farmers also would have needed to hire more day laborers to till their fields, pick their crops and tend their flocks and herds. Does this sound like any parables you’ve heard? Herod also would have needed more taxes to build and maintain the cities, so more tax collectors would have been necessary.So, the city of Tiberius isn’t really a place where anyone would want to move, if they had a choice. There’s not much in terms of employment and the crime rate is really high. City-life is unstable. Food riots aren’t unusual. So, why would anyone call that place home?
No Jew wanted to live in that city because Herod built the city on top of a sacred burial ground. So, that meant that the city was unclean for all Jews. Since no one wanted to live in his great city, Herod forced poor people from rural Galilee live there. And he also populated it with freed slaves and even criminals.
And, when Herod could sense the masses were ready for a revolt, he would set up temporary bread-distribution centers to pacify the hungry people.
And this is the sort of people Jesus and the disciples see approaching in our story today. A mob of bitter and poverty-stricken people make their way out of the city of Tiberias and toward the shore of Galilee where they heard Jesus might be. It’s a different picture than is often painted of the scene—well-groomed, smiling people sitting politely on a hillside.
So, why did they want to find Jesus? Well, they had heard about him and the things he was doing. And maybe they thought he just might be able to give them something. They didn’t want to be just beggars that depend on Herod’s offerings. They want to be their own people with their own king.
So, they go out of their city to find him. And then Jesus provides bread and fish enough for everyone, with more left over. And, the thought that they might no longer need to sit at Herod’s feet waiting for a hand-out was a dream come true. “Surely this is the prophet who is to come into the world,” one says. And so, they try to make Jesus their king.
But, what happens? Jesus retreats. “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”
The crowd tried to force Jesus into being a king, to be the kind of leader they hoped for, one who would be mighty against Rome. But Jesus will have none of it. Jesus withdraws.
And here’s the important part about location: Jesus doesn’t lead the crowd back to Tiberias. Jesus heads toward the hills.
The path of Jesus leads into the hills.
Jesus takes a different path, and invites us along.
We are invited to turn away from Tiberias. We turn away from glory and victory. And instead, we go into the hills, into the world around us.
Lord of Life goes into the hills every time we build a Habitat house together, every time we work for Home For Awhile. Every time Lord of Life feeds the hungry and seeks out the marginalized. Every time we live out our Reconciling in Christ identity by affirming all people whether gay or straight, old or young, Black or White.
Lord of Life is a community that is fed every week with bread, abundant bread…love, abundant love…life, abundant life. And after the meal, we gather up the leftovers…the leftovers that would normally be thrown away and follow Jesus into the world, knowing that the shattered and broken pieces of our own lives are gathered as well.