“Food For Thought”
This morning our attention is drawn to a story that can be found in all four gospels. This alone tells us how important it must be. For this event to make it through the final cut in every gospel sets it apart for closer scrutiny, which has occurred down through the years.
In this particular account, this story is used to introduce a new unit of material. Just as the first section opened with the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, so this unit begins with the miraculous feeding of the masses.
What these two stories have in common is that Jesus took the ordinary and turned it into something special. It appears the writer is urging his readers to follow Jesus’ example.
Listen as I share details of our text.
Jesus and his disciples went to what they thought was a secluded place around the Sea of Galilee to get some rest. The demands of the people were already taking a toll on them, and they needed some time away to replenish their spirits and bodies.
People came looking for them, however, and walked along the shore until they found them. Jesus could not turn them away and continued teaching late into the afternoon.
As the day drew to a close, Jesus knew the people were hungry. He singled Philip out and asked him where food could be found to feed everyone on the hillside. It appears Jesus did this because Philip was from that area and would know the shop keepers.
It is obvious from Philip’s response he was shocked that Jesus even asked him this question. “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little,” he replied, and he was right.
I cannot be too hard on Philip. I am fairly certain I would have responded in a similar fashion. Like Philip, I would have run out of answers and compassion that late in the evening.
As this dialogue with Philip wound down, Andrew brought a little boy to Jesus who was willing to hand over to Jesus his lunch of five loaves of barley bread and two fish. Andrew had no idea how this meager amount could be used to feed this large crowd of hungry people, but that did not keep him from presenting it to Jesus. At least it was something to work with, as futile as it seemed.
Jesus instructed the disciples to have the people to sit on the grass in groups of fifty. After they did, Jesus offered a blessing for the boy’s lunch. No doubt he thanked God for this little boy’s generosity and asked God to use it to feed the people before they departed for home, which God did.
Before long, everyone had eaten, and there were twelve baskets of food left over. So impressed were the people that day, they said of Jesus, “Surely, this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.”
How does this story speak to us today? I gave this much thought last week, and here’s what I think.
People of faith don’t ignore the needs of others—physical, mental, emotional or spiritual—and neither do they walk away from intimidating challenges, regardless of how daunting they seem.
What are the two most striking features of this story? It is the size of the crowd, probably close to seven or eight thousand people if you count the women and children, and the size of that little boy’s lunch, five barley loaves and two fish.
The contrast is undeniable, and the challenge is overwhelming. This is a no brainer. No amount of compassion and good will was going to bridge this gap, as the disciples believed.
What did the disciples want to do? They made that very clear. “Send the people away,” they told Jesus.
Why did they say this? They were exhausted. Compassion fatigue had overtaken them.
Remember, this was supposed to be a quiet retreat for them after returning from their first mission trip. They came to this remote section on the shore of the Sea of Galilee to rest and to recharge. They had been with these people all day. Now, it was their time.
Besides, there was no way they could feed this many people. As Philip reminded Jesus, even if he knew where to purchase food, they did not have enough money to buy food to feed everyone.
Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Surely Jesus would agree, but he didn’t. He was unwilling to throw his hands up in the air and give up like the disciples.
As the prophets before him did, Jesus identified a pressing need and then asked God’s people what they were going to do about it. For Jesus, indifference was not an option.
This was why Jesus responded favorably to Andrew when he brought him a little boy with an uneaten lunch of five loaves and two fish. Jesus had what he needed to feed the people before sending them home.
So, how did he use it? There are two schools of thought, and I lean more toward the second one shared by religion professor, theologian, biblical scholar and friend, Dr. Colin Harris.
The first is the miracle of multiplication. Jesus took this little boy’s lunch and multiplied it over and over until all the people ate. Everyone ate the same thing, which seemed to satisfy them and to give them strength for their journeys home.
Certainly, this could have occurred. Jesus was quite capable of providing enough food to feed everyone.
Why would he have needed this little boy’s lunch to do this, though? Were his fish and loaves necessary?
Would a miracle of this nature have made it into all four gospels? Turning water into wine did not. Why would this one be different and repeated four times?
The other viewpoint is the miracle of sharing. Feeding the people that day was not just the result of what Jesus did but what others did, too.
Instead of Jesus miraculously multiplying the fish and loaves, is it possible Jesus used the little boy’s generosity to inspire others to do what he had done by sharing what he had left at the end of the day. After all, in that culture no one left home without food if he or she was going to be gone for any length of time.
For the most part, Jews did not want to patronize the Gentile shopkeepers, so they never left home without a full food pouch. Even if they had been willing to buy food from a Gentile, shops were few and far between in the countryside.
Surely, this little boy was not the only one who had food left as evening was approaching. In all likelihood, many held some food back in case they were gone later than anticipated.
Could it be that Jesus encouraged the people to sit in small groups and to place before them the food they had left? As soon as people revealed what they had, they began passing it around the circle, making it possible for everyone to find the nourishment they needed at the end of a long day.
Sounds reasonable to me, especially in this gospel where Jesus solves problems in unconventional ways. It appears to me this might have been the first pot-luck!
I know this interpretation is not as sensational as Jesus mass producing thousands of meals, but I agree with Dr. Harris that it merits consideration. If this is what happened that afternoon, it could have been Jesus’ most profound and unforgettable lesson of the day.
What was that lesson? If we share with our neighbors like we did today, no one will ever go hungry!
When compassionate and generous people work with God and others, all things are possible. All things! No personal problem or global challenge is too intimidating when all hands are on deck.
When facing a big challenge, it is human nature to discount what we have and to echo Andrew’s words as he voiced his skepticism while looking at the loaves and fishes. “But what are they among so many people?” Rarely do we feel we have all we need to succeed, and we’re probably right.
However, when we offer God what we have and ask God to bless it, we become a channel of blessing through which God can work. A little becomes a lot when God is in it, as a Southern Gospel song reminds us.
Look what God did that day with just five barley loaves and two fish that a little boy was willing to share. Allow God to inspire and motivate others through your willing spirit, compassion and generosity.
I encourage you to look in your basket this morning to see what you have. Don’t get discouraged because it may be small, but rejoice over the fact you have something to offer. Never underestimate what God can do with what you make available to him.
Out of all the people in the crowd that day, who was the unlikeliest person to be used by God to feed all those people? It had to be that little boy.
We know from the contents of his lunch he came from a very poor family. Only the poorest of the poor ate barley bread. It was held in contempt by anyone able to afford better.
However, he was the one who made it possible for everyone to eat, as unlikely as that seems. What if he had not been willing to share his food? Would the people have gone home hungry? It appears some, if not most, would have.
I wonder how many turned Andrew down before he found this willing lad. How many laughed and told Andrew he had to be kidding or held tightly to what they had to insure they would have enough nourishment for the journey home?
How many times have you walked away from a problem because you felt you had too little to offer? Don’t do that again.
In God’s eyes, there is no gift too small to matter, and there is no viable excuse for refusing to make it available. So, as a person of faith, will you offer God what you have in the way of time, talents and resources, and will you ask God to bless it? Will you roll up your sleeves and work with others to tackle life’s biggest challenges instead of walking away?
I hope so, and I am confident there are many around you who do, too.