Feeding a Crowd – Not Counting Women & Children

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed much of the structural inequality and precarity that is endemic in the United States. Health disparities for people of color, immigrants, and people living in poverty (many of whom form our essential workforce) are being exposed. Again. The degree to which so many people live one paycheck away from homelessness and financial disaster is laid bare. Again.

The evening news brings us images of lines for food banks that stretch on for miles. Those who stock and staff our grocery stores have become frontline heroes. Feeding healthcare workers with takeout from struggling restaurants has become emblematic of communities pulling together in a crisis. World Central Kitchen, the field hospital of food founded by renowned chef José Andrés has come to the rescue as it has in previous national disasters.

The attention to food, agricultural laborers those who work along the food supply chain, and the desire to feed scores of people in need, either because they face food insecurity or because they are in need of nourishment during exhausting and isolating work, has invited me to return to the passage in Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus feeds the crowd that has stayed with him for days to listen to his teaching.

Matthew 15 is about the spectacularly miraculous. The lectionary in the Catholic Church though, stops prematurely, at verse 20, “They all ate and were satisfied. They picked up the fragments left over—seven baskets full.”

There are remaining verses of chapter 15, and they are worth hearing, “Those who ate were four thousand men, not counting women and children.”

When I hear this passage about a miraculous feeding of thousands, I confess that I usually roll my eyes a bit. Jesus and the disciples have been with the crowd, ministering, teaching, and healing for three days. They have been doing important and transformative work that turns the world upside down. And I think, how can people who claim to be so attentive to what Jesus is doing somehow forget the food? And then, in the befuddled way of the disciples, they wonder how they will ever manage in such a deserted place. I roll my eyes because I am a mom. I prepare, and over prepare, for real and imagined deserted places. I am never without snacks, drinks, and even distractions to pass the time on a journey. I think ahead about how long and how far it will be. I worry, unreasonably sometimes because I enjoy a lot of privilege, about whether I will be able to find what I need or replace what has been forgotten. How could they have forgotten about the food? Perhaps they neglected this detail because worrying about that has always been someone else’s responsibility.

I do believe that Jesus performed miracles. But I am also open to playing with ideas about how these miracles worked. I wonder in this case, about whether the disciples had discounted the women and the children from the get-go. The disciples thought that resources were scarce and that the place was deserted and desolate. But that was only because they had not counted the women and children. I wonder if the real miracle happens in counting them. Counting on them to do what they always do: prepare ahead, make the most of what they have, and share. Count on them without taking them for granted, hidden in the shadows of the gospels and our everyday 21st century lives. I wonder that the women and children, who likely had very little, in turn counted on Jesus and so, there was enough, there was indeed more than enough, abundance to overflowing. Their preparations and generosity were transformed by grace and multiplied beyond their wildest dreams. Those who prepare the lectionary, perhaps focused on a miracle worked by Jesus alone, left off the verse about women and children. They even left off a verse that tells us that women and children were not counted in the first place. Not counted, over and over again with each telling of the story.

In times of scarcity, we have seen so many people who know what it means to rely on others for our daily bread, give of what little they have to find that it sparks movements to do the same. The small miracles are scaled up. These are miracles, moments of transformative grace. They are not magic. They happen through hard and all too often unseen work. It is time they were counted!