Feeding the five thousand
Are you ever overwhelmed by grief? By crowds? By needs?
Jesus and the disciples were facing all three in Mark chapter 6.
They have just learnt of John the Baptist’s beheading (cf Matthew 14:13). In response, Jesus says to them:
“Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat. And they departed into a desert place by ship privately. And the people saw them departing, and many knew him, and ran afoot thither out of all cities, and outwent them, and came together unto him. And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people…” (Mark 6:32-34)
Can you picture the scene? Physically hungry and desperate for a place to grieve in peace, they take drastic steps to get some space. They steal away by boat to “a desert place.” While sailing along, one of the disciples sees movement on the shoreline. He nudges his neighbour – Look, the crowds have spotted us. Not just scores, not just hundreds, thousands of them.
There they are scrambling across the desert, pointing ahead to the place where the boat would land. As the disciples pull in to shore, the “desert place” is heaving with a jostling crowd of needy people.
If you were in their shoes, what would you be thinking?
I’d be thinking, “For crying out loud, leave us alone! You’re not the only ones with needs! We’re tired, we’re hungry, we’re hurting. We’re not public property. Give us some space. We have nothing more to give!”
That’s not Jesus’ attitude:
“Jesus, when he came out, saw much people and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things.” (Mark 6:34)
“Moved with compassion” translates a Greek word meaning “gut-wrenching pity.” His stomach is turned for these people. It’s a visceral compassion for these crowds.
I would only be thinking about my stomach, Jesus is turned in His stomach. His love for the crowds trumps every other need He feels. Let’s remember that Jesus’ hunger, His grief, His physical and emotional tiredness were at least as strong as any of His disciples’. He was not immune to any of those weaknesses just because He was the Son of God. In His full humanity He felt those needs strongly. But He felt compassion even more strongly.
And notice what the Good Shepherd thinks the sheep need? Teaching. He feeds them on His words first. Only later does He serve their physical needs.
Often Christians will minister to needy people the other way around. They will put on a soup kitchen and then, perhaps, teach the words of Jesus to those who come. Jesus gave the crowds His word first. And in that context He provided for their physical needs.
Well the disciples have had enough.
“When the day was now far spent, his disciples came unto him, and said, This is a desert place, and now the time is far passed: Send them away, that they may go into the country round about, and into the villages, and buy themselves bread: for they have nothing to eat.” (Mark 6:35-36)
“Send them away” they urge. “Their needs are far beyond us now. We must tell them, they’re on their own.” Jesus disagrees.
“He answered and said unto them, Give ye them to eat. And they say unto him, Shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread, and give them to eat?” (Mark 6:37)
Interestingly, Jesus does not tell them “O ye of little faith, I can feed them.” He says “Why don’t you feed them?”
Someone must have been good at maths because they calculate the cost as somewhere in the region of 8 months’ wages. That’s a lot. Between 12 of them it works out at about 3 weeks’ wages each – just to feed a mob of strangers one meal. That’s too much. Jesus has found their limit. This sacrifice is beyond them. But that’s the point.
“Jesus saith unto them, How many loaves have ye? go and see. And when they knew, they say, Five, and two fishes. And he commanded them to make all sit down by companies upon the green grass. And they sat down in ranks, by hundreds, and by fifties. And when he had taken the five loaves and the two fishes, he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and brake the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before them; and the two fishes divided he among them all. And they did all eat, and were filled. And they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments, and of the fishes. And they that did eat of the loaves were about five thousand men.” (Mark 6:38-44)
Notice the ways Jesus involves the disciples in this miracle. First He asks them to scout out the available ingredients (cf John 6:9). Then, once He’s multiplied the bread and fish, He uses the disciples to distribute it. Finally the disciples are tasked with collecting the left-overs, “that nothing be lost” (John 6:12). Therefore each of them had a testimony to the Lord’s super-abundant provision – one basket-full for every grumbling disciple.
Here was a situation of overwhelming need. Each one of us, in this situation, would have been tested beyond breaking point. Yet right at our weakest Jesus steps in. He takes what we have and makes it more than enough.
Are you facing burdens far beyond you? Jesus is with you, bringing you to the end of yourself, then pointing to the mundane in your midst. He will prove Himself the great Provider, and no doubt in a very surprising way. In the end we will be overwhelmed, not by the demands, but by His grace.