Here’s a challenge for you – some game day during basketball season, take five loaves and two fish to the Kennel at Gonzaga and offer to feed all the people in the stands. That’s our mind stretching Gospel story for today. Jesus’ disciples feed five thousand men plus women and children and have twelve baskets of leftovers. It is a story that all four of the gospel writers share. I haven’t been able to duplicate Jesus’ miracle. How about you? Does it bother you that, despite your best efforts, all the resources you can muster will never be adequate to meet the needs of others?
13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”18And he said, “Bring them here to me.”19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
What immediately precedes Matthew’s account, the disciples of John have just buried their leader and they came and informed Jesus of the brutal slaying. That was the reason Matthew gives for Jesus’ desire to withdraw to a private place. According to Luke 9: Jesus’ disciples have just experienced having the power and authority to overcome devils and cure diseases. As they traveled they told the good news and healed the sick. They returned to Jesus burning to tell him all they had done. That’s when he took them with him into what he evidently hoped would be seclusion. That is consistent with the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Mark as well where we are told that the apostles after having been sent by Jesus into ministry rejoin him to report all they had done and taught.
Despite his best efforts Jesus wasn’t able to escape his public. And the ministry of his disciples had most likely added to the growing adoring crowds. Though wanting to deal with his own grief Jesus exhibits great compassion in curing the ill among them. But it had grown late and even had there been a Seven-Eleven or a McDonald’s close by the resources commercially available wouldn’t have made a dent in the needs of this multitude. And the rendition of the story as told by Mark and John suggests that the sum required to feed that crowd would have run into thousands of dollars- which they did not have and could not have raised.
If we take all we know into account, Jesus had wanted to be alone to process what Herod had done to his cousin and mentor John. The disciples want to be alone with Jesus to debrief about their exciting experiences of ministry. So it was with a great deal of compassion for those who had followed Jesus into that deserted place to be healed of their afflictions and to hear what wisdom he had to share that Jesus’ disciples respond to the needs of the immense gathering. Their best solution was to send them to neighboring villages to buy food.
But their compassion wasn’t great enough. Jesus counters their suggestion with a challenge: “They need not go away;” he tells them, “you give them something to eat”. “You give them something to eat” – what was Jesus thinking? Hadn’t he just sent them out in pairs with nothing for their journey beyond a walking stick and sandals, not even a second coat. They had nothing to give.
First they needed to know what resources they actually had to work with. You’d think that among that immense gathering you could find at least enough food for stone soup. But, the people had been there all day and whatever food they may have brought with them had long since been eaten. After a diligent search, all the disciples could find was the meager remains of a little boy’s lunch. It was a lost cause. “See, we were right, before it gets any later we’d better send these people on their way”.
Of course, with hindsight we know that a few loaves and fish in Jesus’ hands, covered with prayer, equals thousands fed with twelve baskets filled with leftover broken pieces of bread and fish. Of course the scientists among us want to know whether the miracle is reproducible. It’s not. Try as we might, it can’t be done – well at least by you or me. Yet haven’t you experienced this same challenge, even when you know that you’ve got nothing left of yourself to give: “You give them something to eat” And it’s not a matter of lack of faith. That is a dangerous road to be on. For you or me to assume responsibility for the failure of a miraculous feeding or a miraculous healing is deadly as failing to understand that we can’t fix people.
What can we take away from this much loved account from the life and ministry of Jesus? The truth of the story lies in the reality that despite all of our best efforts—and we aren’t let off the hook for doing our dead level best—the resources you can muster will never be adequate to meet the needs of others. The disciples were full of themselves – ‘look at all we were able to do, we healed the sick, we preached good news, we even overcame devils’. They were overtaken themselves by what was happening in and through them – and the important thing for them to know was it wasn’t them. After great elation Jesus’ challenge to them was humbling. At most, at best, they were conduits of God’s grace. But this wasn’t their situation alone. Jesus acknowledged that of his own self. We find in John 14:11, in what’s called Jesus’ farewell address, that he tells those around him: “…I am not myself the source of the words I speak to you: it is the Father who dwells in me doing his own work”. He goes on and tells this closest followers that they to will do what he does; and even greater things. I think that’s why the three synoptic Gospel writers each included one seemingly insignificant detail in their telling of this story. “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven”. John simply says he took the loaves and gave thanks before distributing them to the people.
The point is that neither we nor Jesus can, in our own abilities or resources, meet the needs of the world. Whatever is accomplished is God’s work. We are honored to be servants –mere conduits–distributing to others what Christ has placed in our hands. And, what it is that Christ given you – his forgiveness, his mercy and his grace. And maybe, being a person from the developed world you’ve been blessed with abundant resources that to ‘have nots’ seem extravagant.
“They need not go away;” Jesus said: “ you give them something to eat.” Fascinating isn’t it that their reply sounds much like our own: “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”