|“Feeding the Multitudes,”
Bernardo Strozzi, c. 1600.
In my last post (June 10, 2013), I wrote about how Jesus gave his twelve disciples some “internship training,” sending them out two-by-two to “preach the Kingdom of God and heal the sick.” The next event recorded by the Gospel writers is when they come home and report to Jesus about their experiences. While I would love to know what they said to Jesus, the Bible doesn’t tell us. Apparently there are no major issues – at least according to the four Gospel writers.
The disciples are probably exhausted because the Gospel of Mark tells us that after Jesus hears their reports, he says to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31). But in John’s Gospel, he notes that at this point Jesus is informed of the beheading of John the Baptist and, when Jesus is told about this execution by Herod Antipas, “he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (John 14:13). But neither Jesus nor the disciples can get away for some R&R (rest and relaxation).
When the crowds find out that Jesus and his disciples are leaving the area in boats and heading for another place on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, they follow on foot. As their boats come near the shore, Jesus sees the crowds and has “compassion on them” (Matthew 14:14) – which seems to be Jesus’ default position. He cares deeply about people, especially those in need, even when he is grieving himself over the death of his cousin.
All four Gospel writers describe what happens next – it is the only miracle recorded by all four of them, except for the resurrection. I encourage you to read about this miracle in the Gospel of John (6:1-13) or the Gospel of Mark (6:31-46). Why is the feeding of the 5,000 – actually closer to 10-15,000 – recorded by all four writers? Perhaps because it shows that Jesus cares deeply about both spiritual and physical needs. And he not only cares about hungry people, he does something about it!
The Gospel of John gives us a few important details not covered in the other reports of this event. When Jesus sees the size of the crowd, estimated at 5,000 men (if women and children are also counted the crowd was probably much larger), Jesus realizes that his desire for a retreat just turned into a large convention. The size of the crowd is important to note because the population of the nearest cities was only 2-3,000 people each, so this crowd came from some distance to be with Jesus.
Since it was getting late in the day and they were in an isolated area, Jesus speaks to his disciples about feeding the crowd. The disciples are surprisingly abrupt in their response to Jesus. They do not begin with an appropriate reference to him as “Lord,” as they often did, but simply tell him what he should do – “Send the crowds away” (Matthew 14:15).
Jesus’ patience with his disciples is as remarkable as his care for all these people. “Bring them here to me,” (Matthew 14:18) is Jesus’ response, and he instructs them to ask the people to sit down on the grass and organize themselves into groups of hundreds and fifties. Then, with the assistance of his disciple Andrew who finds a young boy with five loaves and two fish, he takes the boy’s food, offers a prayer of thanksgiving and divides up the loaves and fish. The Gospels record that everyone is fed and there are twelve baskets of bread and fish left over!
This last detail is interesting. Not only are all of these people fed by Jesus, the twelve disciples also each get their own picnic basket of food so their needs are lovingly met as well. What an amazing Lord!
But the story is not over yet, at least according to the Gospel of John – which is why it is helpful to read different Gospel records of the same event, since the writers often add insights not mentioned by the others. The Apostle John tells us that when the people see this miraculous feeding of the crowd, they want to “make him king by force” (6:14-15). Jesus, knowing their intentions, leaves them and goes off to be alone on a nearby mountain – finally!
- What strikes me about this story is the disciples’ response to the pressing problem of how to feed so many people, who are in such an isolated place. These are smart guys – they know they have a real problem, so they respond like I am inclined to respond in similar situations – “Send them away!” I can identify with these disciples. “We are tired, we have just finished demanding ‘internships,’ we don’t need this right now.” But what is Jesus’ response? “Bring them here to me.” There is a powerful lesson in this.
- The way in which Jesus meets both spiritual and physical needs is another important lesson from this story. He does not just pass out tracts or Gospel brochures to these hungry and sick people – he heals them and feeds them, thereby teaching all of us in the church to respond similarly. He also tells them about the Kingdom of God and how their spiritual needs can be met. Why do we often separate these two powerful responses to pressing human needs?
- The demonstration of Jesus’ power is also remarkable in this story. On the one hand, his power is evident as he takes five loaves and two fish and makes them into enough food to feed everyone; on the other, his power is also clear when he simply walks away from their efforts to make him king. This is not God’s plan and their desire make him a “celebrity,” a political force in Galilee, is not going to detract him. This is another “teaching moment” for his disciples – and for us.