In Buenos Aires, you might pass a small café and see a refrigerator outside on the sidewalk with a sign that reads, “Take freely, what you need.” The premise is, people can walk up to that fridge, open the door, take what they need and walk away. And it’s free. They’re called “solidarity fridges,” or “social fridges,” and are a way of showing the poor and needy they are, in fact, people who care about them, stand with them and want to help.
The sidewalk fridges cut down on the need for the poor and homeless to beg for food. And it’s not like a soup kitchen where people have to line up, hold out plates and a worker gives out a predetermined amount. No, in this model, the homeless or poor can get food themselves, take what they need and leave the rest.
The food itself is put into the fridges by café and restaurant owners and sometimes by concerned citizens. By putting food in curbside fridges, restaurants are redistributing food that otherwise would’ve been thrown in the trash and wasted, while at the same time, helping to feed people in need.
The movement has spread to other countries: Chile, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Spain, India, and even places in the U.S. And thousands of people are being fed. But it’s not just their bodies that are being fed. Their souls are being fed.
Luis Pondal, who owns a restaurant in Buenos Aires, explains: “I was tired of seeing how food got thrown away and then shortly afterward, people were foraging for it. Why not feed people this food with some dignity?”
And what comes from dignity? Compassion, encouragement, and hope.
A similar donation of food to hungry people happened in our text for today. And like those who benefit from these “solidarity fridges” their bodies were fed, as well as their souls.
In this account of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus has been teaching people in the countryside, drawing a large crowd. The afternoon slips by like one of those magical days when we lose all track of time.
Now we don’t know what Jesus said to these people who had followed him to a “deserted place.” But we do know both the crowds and Jesus were linked by one common desire: They both needed compassion, encouragement, and hope.
As I mentioned, Jesus had just lost his cousin, John. Chapter 14, verse 1-12 tell us this account and conclude saying, “His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.”
Then verse 13 tells us that when Jesus heard it, he ran for a boat and paddled off for a “deserted place,” probably hoping to be alone. But even when Jesus cast off from shore to escape the crowds in order to grieve over the death of John, they trooped around the lake on foot to find him— no easy task considering the size of Galilee. And they succeeded. They found the man who, according to this same gospel writer, said, “Come unto me, all you who are weary, and I will give you rest.” The crowds saw in Jesus someone who could make their lives better because he would give them needed compassion, encouragement, and hope.
Now Jesus could have been incredibly annoyed or even angry about this intrusion after getting the news he got, and needing to do what he was trying to do. But instead of being irritated when the crowds arrived “on foot” to his “deserted place,” Jesus saw them and had compassion—their urgent need got him in the gut—and he spent the afternoon with them, healing the sick, and feeding them.
His presence and words were the needed compassion, encouragement, and hope their minds and hearts were hungry for. He taught them the about the Kingdom of God, of God’s divine presence and love.
Now there’s nothing in our Matthew text to suggest Jesus sat on a nice rounded boulder, or on a grassy tuft of a hill and expounded to an expectant crowd like in the romanticized view we have of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Matthew says nothing at all about any scripture teaching. All we read is that “he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (v. 14).
Despite grieving over the loss of his cousin, childhood friend and his colleague in ministry, Jesus still had compassion and spent an entire afternoon working the “great crowd,” curing their sick. Perhaps working with the people who needed compassion, encouragement, and hope, fed Jesus’ soul and strengthened him for the work that was to come.
Now what needs to be taken from this text is the context of everything—particularly the people who had gathered, and just how many were there. These were common folk who had a hard life. They toiled in the fields of this arid land under a blistering sun, eking out an existence as they worked the soil. Children labored alongside their parents—if not in the fields then in the carpentry shop or over the hot fires of a blacksmith’s forge or the like.
Bottom line: Life was hard, too often void of compassion, encouragement, and hope. And all the while, they worked in the shadow of their Roman oppressors.
Yet, even so, here they were, out in a deserted place, listening to this man Jesus. And why? Because he was meeting them where they were and giving to them just what they needed—compassion, encouragement, and hope. Jesus was feeding them. He fed their bodies. He fed their souls.
Although this story— a story found in all four gospels—is usually called “The Feeding of the 5000,” the feeding was just part of the story, and it happened only at the end of the day— and the number is far more than 5,000 because women and children were not counted.
The primary focus of Jesus’ work was not feeding the body, but feeding the soul. And when Jesus did this, he touched something deeper, something in the soul that realigned them with God. And he did it by doing some things, and by not doing other things.
The things he did, was he meet people where they were. And when they did come to him, he received them as they were. He then fed them—physically and spiritually —meeting needs that were deep. And he cured the sick.
But what he didn’t do was… he didn’t tell them to sign a doctrinal statement. He didn’t tell them to go to synagogue next Sabbath…didn’t tell them to register as a Pharisee or Sadducee…or a Republican or a Democrat. He didn’t ask them if they’d been divorced…didn’t ask them if they were for or against gun control…didn’t ask if they were pro-life or pro-choice…didn’t let them in, or keep them out, because of gender, race, or sexual orientation. Jesus gave them compassion, encouragement, and hope, and he did it by feeding their bodies, and by feeding their souls.
When the sun was sinking, the disciples realized the people would be getting hungry, so they suggested that Jesus send the crowds away in order to get into town to get something to eat. But Jesus said to his crew, “No, let them stay. You feed them.”
This was Jesus’ approach: You don’t send people away; you ask them to stay. And then you find out what they need, and then you meet that need. But the disciples say, “We have nothing— except five loaves and two fish.”
And in a tone we don’t know, Jesus says, “Bring them here to me.” But whatever tone he took, my guess is it was a sort of subtle way of throwing shade at his disciples who still didn’t get it. Jesus says, “Bring them here to me.” He says, “Bring what you got. And I will do the rest.”
Don’t know how to meet others where they are—that’s ok, Jesus says. “Show up, and I’ll do the rest.” Don’t know how to offer compassion, encouragement, and hope—that’s ok, Jesus says. “Show up, and I’ll do the rest.” Don’t know how to feed souls—that’s ok, Jesus says. “Show up, and I’ll do the rest. And, oh, by the way—I’ll feed your soul too.”
In this text, we learn a lot about Jesus: He experienced sorrow (the death of John). He needed down-time and understood the importance of rest. He had a strategy in dealing with crowds. He had clear priorities; he was not driven by the expectations of others; he always made time for individuals; he delegated (giving the bread and fish to others to distribute). And he had a trusted inner circle of colleagues to help him with the work. These are all models and examples for the church to emulate.
The crowds of today—i.e. the nominally churched and unchurched—need the Church to show up and feed them, now more than ever, because the crowds of our text were facing the same “life” the crowds of today are facing—the toil of hard life too often void of compassion, encouragement, and hope.
So on this welcome Sunday, when we get back to our normal schedule, and when things start up again for a new year in the life of the church, may we set our sights on not just doing church stuff, but on being the Church the crowds around us need us to be.
The Church—this church— needs to act as “solidarity fridges” in our neighborhoods.
The Church—this church—can meet people where they are, just as they are.
The Church—this church— must be a place where people are fed, both body and soul.
The Church—this church—must feed people what they need compassion, encouragement, and hope.
So may we, in this new church year, set ourselves to do just that. Let us show up, to do just that. And know that when we do, Jesus will take care of the rest. Amen.