A few years ago, my husband and I used to host a monthly social event. Around a dozen couples used to attend. We studied the bible together and then enjoyed supper and chat until around midnight. As you can imagine, it would have been quite a challenge to provide food for such a big group of people. To make the catering easier, we provided French bread, butter, cheese and some salad and fruit. Our guests brought food to share.
Everyone really looked forward to those Saturday evenings. The company was excellent. The amount and variety of food was amazing. When supper time came we were spoilt for choice. If you’ve ever been to an event where everyone brings some food I think you will have noticed that there always seems to be far more food than is needed, even if each person only brings a little. There is usually a lot left over. Our children were always eager to see what was in the fridge the next morning as our guests usually generously left any extra for us.
When considering the feeding of the five thousand, many have suggested that something like our monthly meals occurred. The disciples provided five loaves and a couple of dried fish. When those were passed around other people added the food that they had to the collection so that in the end there was more than enough for everyone.
Although it’s not impossible that people might have shared their food, I think we have to wonder why the disciples were so sure that the people needed to go and buy food. They must have been pretty certain that at least the majority had nothing with them to eat. Had they noticed that the people had food but were so busy listening that they forgot to eat, the disciples could have suggested that Jesus take a break from teaching and encourage the people to eat their food.
The alternative is that Jesus actually did what the account says: he took a very small amount of food and made more, enough to feed around 15000 people probably. Of course, such an event appears to defy the laws of physics. Even people who lived two thousand years ago and whose knowledge of science was nothing like ours would have known that this sort of thing cannot happen. Unlikely though the event may be, it is recorded in all four gospels which suggests it is a very important and significant event.
The miracles which Jesus performed are of two types. We have many healing miracles in the gospels, either individual healings when we are given details of the affliction and how Jesus dealt with it, or more general healing as in this passage when we simply know that many people were healed. Healing was something which the Messiah was expected to do. Hence healings demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah rather than just a rabbi or even a prophet.
The second type of miracle Jesus performed were those where Jesus demonstrated his power over the natural world. Making enough food to satisfy so many people is an act of creation. It shows that Jesus is Lord of creation. In Colossians 1:16 we are told that everything owes its existence to Jesus. Yet if we read Genesis we are told that God created all things. The feeding of the five thousand demonstrates that Jesus and God are one.
As the psalmist tells us, God is loving and merciful and makes provision for his people. That is exactly what we see Jesus doing here. God’s provision is not scant but abundant. He is a God of great generosity. Likewise Jesus’ provision for the people was not ‘just enough’ but more than enough. Twelve baskets of leftovers were collected after all were satisfied. These may denote the twelve tribes of Israel which Jesus is able to provide for. As Lord of creation, Jesus is not limited to providing for one or two people, or even 15000 people; he can supply the needs of all.
It’s obviously important for us today to have evidence of who Jesus is by reading about this event in the gospels. It’s also important to note how Jesus provided for the people then because that gives us insight into how he continues to work now. When Jesus first saw the crowd, despite his own need for time to mourn the death of his cousin John, he had compassion on them and set about healing the sick whom they had brought to him.
Perhaps the disciples were copying Jesus’ compassion when they went to him and said that the people needed food. Jesus took the opportunity to follow up on his many parables of the kingdom of God by showing how that works out practically. The first thing Jesus did was to hand the problem back to the disciples: ‘You give them something to eat’. Their resources were meagre: five loaves and two fish. Even if they had kept the food for themselves, it would hardly have been enough to satisfy their appetites. You can hear in their response that they thought things were hopeless: ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ However, when invited, they gave what they had to Jesus who blessed their contribution and gave it back to them. The disciples were then able to feed all who needed to eat using what they had given to Jesus. A miracle took place.
Here we see a model to help us. We bring many concerns to Jesus in prayer: someone who is ill, problems between nations, natural disasters, personal difficulties and so on. The very fact that we mention them to Jesus is because we don’t feel capable of dealing with them ourselves. Jesus is likely to hand the issue back to us, at least some of the time: ‘You do something.’ And so, like the disciples, we have to look at what resources we have. However inadequate they are, Jesus says, ‘Bring them to me.’ When he has blessed what we have given he gives it back to us, transformed and ready to make a difference.
It’s easy to forget when reading of this miracle, that the disciples had to have faith in order for it to happen. Jesus handed the loaves and fish to them and the disciples gave them to the crowds waiting expectantly there on the grass. Think – there were now bits of five loaves and two fish given to twelve disciples and they were to give that food to the people. Imagine what faith it must have taken when looking down at that tiny amount of food to actually break it even smaller to give someone something to eat. What if that person wanted more than the little bit they were given? What if there was barely anything for the next person? And what about the third person? How was this going to work? There was no way to prove that it could work without setting out to do as Jesus had said.
It’s the same for us. Some of the problems in the world are so huge that they look totally impossible. It takes faith to offer our meagre resources – money, time, expertise. It takes faith to believe that Jesus has accepted and blessed what we have offered. It takes faith to then go and use our blessed and transformed resources to do what we can to address the problem before us. It may mean volunteering with a charity, or welcoming strangers and lonely people in our own neighbourhood, or sitting and listening to someone who is struggling in life, or writing to a prisoner. Those are such small things compared to the issues, but so were the loaves and fish compared to 15000 people.
With Jesus’ blessing our little can go a very long way.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor