Author: Fr George Dimopoulos
Source: Orthodox Sermons for all the Sundays of the Year – Volume I
Publisher: Christian Orthodox Editions
“And they did all eat, and were filled and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full” (Matthew 14:14-22).
Matthew starts the fourteenth chapter of his Gospel narrative, with one of the saddest historical events of his time – namely the beheading of St John the Baptist. They who committed this heinous crime were not men of the streets, men of low birth, men of the ordinary way of life, but were those who were supposed to be responsible for keeping watch over the moral and political laws of society.
They were the blood-thirsty Herod Antipas and his sinful mistress, Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas’ brother, Philip. Why did they kill this Prophet? Because they could not endure the truth which was spoken by this courageous Prophet everyday – that is, that Herod and Herodias were scandalous and hypocritical in their adulterous state. St John was tenacious in his principles and continued to harass the leaders by saying: “It is not lawful for thee to have her”. The Prophet lost his head in prison and so Herod seemingly rid himself of the voice which persisted in telling the truth, which was determined to utter God’s law in spite of all dangers.
Although the Prophet’s earthly voice was brought to an end, his language continues to censure the behaviour of all similar immoral leaders who continue – even to this day – to live in disgusting adultery and hypocrisy. St John was relentless, and still is, in his demands that exemplary people should live exemplary lives.
Thus, brothers and sisters, we have before us a superior example of the mission of the Prophet, of the priest, of the man of principles. The road to truth is a difficult one; speaking truth is dangerous and unpopular. It loses would-be friends, makes dire enemies, and demands that the apostle of God’s words be without ulterior motives. Vote-getting, profit-making, comfort, self-agreements, cannot be concerns, for they do not come to those who have the courage of their convictions. Just as John lost his head for such a role, you too must think in terms of suffering for Christ and the truths that He preached.
The mission of a true leader is to open new avenues of his followers, to be exemplary in word and practice, in short, to be a shepherd of high standing, as were Jonas, Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah, Moses, Hezekiah and others of the Old Testament.
The news of the atrocity – the beheading of the one who went before Jesus Christ – was brought to our Lord. “When Jesus heard this, He withdrew by boat to a desert place apart”. However, Christ did not escape from the mass of people, men, women and children, who followed Him anxious to hear His words. Again the words of the Prophet are fulfilled: “Rejoice O desert and be happy O Desert and flourish like a carnation”.
Our Lord busies Himself teaching of the Kingdom of God to the religion-thirsty crowd. Time moves on toward evening and the disciples become anxious, urging Jesus to allow the people to go off to the cities in order to eat and refresh themselves. However, Christ says no; “they need not depart, give ye them to eat”. In similar fashion, my friends, we are too often concerned about our bodily needs instead of our spiritual requirements, which are indeed of a higher order. Christ is quite clear, if not forceful, about the fact that the people at this moment need spiritual guidance and leadership. He is uncompromising about His position as a responsible and devoted preacher of truth and justice.
Notice how lyrically St John Chrysostom states the meaning of the scene: “Although the place is a desert, He who feeds the universe is present. Although the day is over, Christ and His words are ever-present, never submitting to time or element, never yielding to mortality”.
Notice how negative the apostles’ reactions were. “We have here but five loaves and two fishes”, they said regarding the Master’s plan to fee the multitude. In like manner, we too are often negative about the means of the Lord. Instead of being positive and offering Christ the five loaves and two fishes for His distribution no matter what their own wonder might have been, they somewhat shied away from being committed to the principle of being helpful to the human community. We too do not wish to get involved when the cry of the needy goes up for aid. We too want to leave the work to “the other fellow”. “Why doesn’t Rockerfeller help the poor; he has more money than I?”
We tend to want to build our little costly nests and not worry about “the little children”, about whom Christ so tenderly talks. We would rather not “get involved” for it might be complicated; it might take some time. We would rather take care of our own family, our own self-interest, our own little worlds. Unlike St John the Baptist, who took it upon himself to get involved in God’s mission, and Christ who bore the inconvenience of talking to the thirsty and hungry throng of people who needed Him (even though He wanted to be alone and mourn for the loss of His baptizer), we would prefer to spend our excess money eating steak and lobster, while others go without anything to eat. We would rather live in our palaces, while others live with rats and cockroaches. We would rather buy new clothes and hide our hungry souls in them, while others scarcely have enough rags to wear. We would rather spend our extra time going to foul movies, and watching idle television programmes than give of our time and effort to help the sick, the needy, and the destitute.
We call ourselves Christians and do not act like Christ. We talk of our neighbour’s hypocrisy, if not his adultery, and do nothing about our own. Such are not the ways of the Lord!
Finally, brethren, as Christians could we not find it in our hearts to give our excess to the hungry, the naked, and the cold? Is it too much to ask of an of us to give that which he has stored away in his closets, in his cellars, in his attic? Our responsibility to love does not stop with our friends and loved ones, but includes our enemies as well, for they too are creatures of God made in His image, according to His likeness, and will share His eternal goodness. St John Chrysostom finds a beautiful mystical meaning in the number twelve, he says: “There were twelve baskets left-overs in order that Judas should have one too”. If one Who was to be so painfully betrayed could consider His betrayer with such love, could we not find it in our hearts to practice philanthropy and goodness for all God’s creatures?