It’s one of the few stories that appears in all 4 gospels. People are swarming to Jesus. People are so desperate for help, and so in need of hope. They will follow anyone or anything that even gives them the smallest glimmer of hope. Jesus was the Haven of Hope. People swarmed to him because he actually did something. There was no hype, and no sales pitch. They went away hearing, seeing, walking, forgiven, and amazed.
“Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.’ ” If you ask me, their thinking is practical, sensible, and logical. It’s thoughtful. They’re thinking about the people and their needs. Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” Wait a minute. They have just returned from a ministry tour where they did miracles of healing the sick and casting out demons. Perhaps this is intended to be the next step in their training, and the power of God in them and through them will continue.
Mind you, Jesus never asked anything of his disciples that they could not do. This is not a “trick” to make them feel stupid or inadequate, but a challenge to their faith for them to rise and meet. He wants them to make the mental and spiritual shift to understand the power of God that is in them and to think and live that way. Really, what does he expect from them? Are they expected to think through a plan (“Oh, what if we multiply the food by God’s power and feed everyone with it!”—because, frankly, God is able to do more than we can imagine), or are the plan and the possibilities beyond them, and they are expected to use the power of God? This is a new situation for them—one that has never been in the world before. We get in those situations all the time: brand new things that there is no precedent for and we don’t have a clue what to do or even what is expected of us.
So what does he expect from them? To live by faith and not by sight. (“O you of little faith.” Mt. 8.26 = Mk. 4.40; Mt. 9.29) They have seen much, and should know by now that nothing is impossible. But should they have come up with the idea of multiplying the lunch? No, but they could have turned to the Lord, in faith, and said, “We can feed them. Tell us what to do.”
As soon as he says, “You give them something to eat,” it was in the range of the possible. He was holding out to them the possibility of participating with him in his work and of doing a miracle. See also Mt. 14.29 when Jesus said, “Come.”
But instead, they looked at reality and the meager nature of their natural resources. “Uh, Jesus, we got close to nothin’ here.” Their recent ministry tour was supposed to have taught them that their natural resources were not the determinant of what they should think and do. The word “only” shows what they’re thinking and seeing. It’s limiting them.
So Jesus takes the lead without rebuking them. Mind you, again, we may have about 20,000 people here. “5,000 men…” Add women, with whom Jesus was very popular, and lots of children, because people in those days had lots of kids, and we’re probably talkin’ 20K or so. “Have them sit in groups of about 50 each.” OK, a simple management tip: break a job down into manageable pieces. This also lets us know that the count was based on evidence, not a wild guess.
“Taking the five loaves and two fish, and looking up up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to distribute to the people.” First of all, this thing is just dripping with Messianic overtones, undertones, and through-tones (?). Isaiah 25.6-8 provides the foundation for this banquet at which God will provide a rich feast for all peoples and remove the disgrace of his people. It became very popular at the time between the Testaments, and by NT times had become a prominent part of people’s thinking and expectation concerning the messianic age. A number of Jesus’ parables, miracles, and teachings, especially in Matthew, should be understood in that context (e.g., the Parable of the Wedding Banquet [Mt. 22.1-14] and the Parable of the Ten Virgins [Mt. 25.1-13]). Also, Jesus came to step into Moses’ position and supersede him, and what better way than to provide manna for all? Bingo.
(Just as an aside: Jesus is very tactile. He touched things and people. He was always making physical contact, even though the spoken word would be enough. Maybe this applies to the principle of laying on of hands. Just a curiosity.)
(Another aside, about things we’ve discussed before: The food came from a little boy, whose mother had mostly likely made the bread from supplies she raised or bought, and had bought the fish. But Jesus thanks God for the food. Even though we may get our food at the grocery store, God is the one to thank for the whole process that makes it happen.) We have to understand how things happen, how God works, how prayer works, and all of this stuff ties together. Usually when we pray for stuff, it only happens when people make it happen, which makes people say God didn’t have any part in it. And people attribute stuff to God that seems to have happened in other ways. We gotta get a grip on how things really work, and that we understand what it means to live by faith. But we’ve talked about this before. it’s just another sighting of it.
“They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.” Hmmm… 20,000ish people, 12 baskets left over, one for each disciple. In other words, Jesus planned the miracle perfectly, not only providing food for “5,000”, but in providing exactly the amount of food needed. There was no wastefulness. The Jews had a custom of leaving something for those who served. Bingo. It is miracle of omniscience as well as omnipotence. Also, when the disciples were ordered to pick up the broken pieces left over, this eliminates the accusation of the skeptic that when Jesus lifted up the boy’s lunch, everybody else pulled out their lunches, and they all ate and were full, making it only a perceived miracle. Not a possibility.
And, of course, you know what the disciples are thinking: “We gotta get the Lord to open a deli. We could make a fortune!” 🙂
What are we learning? Jesus is the new Moses, leading people to a new promised land, freeing them from a different kind of slavery. Jesus is sufficient for all needs. Eating and drinking is a figure of prosperity, and is often used to speak of God’s blessings. Also, the manna was regarded as the blessing of God, the supplier of needs both physical and spiritual. It portrays Jesus as the giver of the richest banquets to enjoy. He is setting himself up as THE spiritual food of which the bread is a symbol. And he is once again setting himself up as the king: the one who watches over his people, compassionately takes care of them, and provides for his people. It’s a declaration that He is God because He can do this miracle. It’s a declaration that he is the messiah, send by God to be their Bread. No wonder it’s in all four gospels.