Friends, I’m delighted to unpack this story about Jesus that has had such an impact on Coracle’s season of corporate discernment and now on our vision moving forward. This reflection was originally offered at one of our Second Wednesday gatherings and was part of a larger time of sharing about that corporate discernment process and “The Next Journey” for Coracle. If you’d like to get the big picture of where we’re headed, you can watch or listen to the full remarks Here.
While reading the Gospels, it’s a powerful thing to slow down and look carefully at Jesus, to gaze on him like we would our beloved. We not only read to see and understand what Jesus says, but also to see what he does, why he does it, and what might have been going on in his heart.
When we read the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 this way, we are able to unpack and see what’s really going on in one of the few stories of Jesus’s earthly ministry that’s told in all four of the Gospels. The Passion week stories are in all four Gospels, and we pay attention to them because they really matter. Similarly, when there’s a story that appears in all four Gospels, it’s like the Holy Spirit wants us to pay attention, because it too really matters. And this is one of those stories.
Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, and John 6 all recount when Jesus fed 5,000 men, as well as, no doubt, many women and probably children as well. This particular 24 hours of Jesus’ life is the entirety of John 6. Remember that almost half of John is about Jesus’ last week on earth. That means that 12 chapters or so are all about the first 33 years of Jesus’ life, minus one week. So when John gives a whole chapter to something in that time period, it’s good to pay close attention because there’s a lot going on there, and there’s a lot going on here.
So, if I were to stop you on the street and ask you the question, “What did Jesus do at the feeding of the 5,000?” What would you say? You’d probably say, “Well, he fed people.” And you’d be right.
Yes, he fed people, but he did four other things as well. We see the other, less-remembered things, when we take all four of these Gospel accounts together, and they begin to sing like a chorus in four parts. We want to hear that song.
But first let’s start with the context of the feeding of the 5,000, because the context helps us see Jesus. It helps us care for him. It helps us love him all the more. Let’s look at Jesus and see what’s going on with him and in him.
Jesus is well into his ministry at this time, and he’s in the midst of doing a lot of ministry. Three things have just happened:
- He’s been rejected from his hometown again. We see that at the beginning of Mark 6. Can you imagine how that would have felt? To go back to the place where you grew up, to where people know you from childhood and through adulthood, and to be rejected again?
- The religious leaders want to kill Jesus. He is literally being hunted by the religious leaders in Galilee, where he actually was—Matthew 12:14 says, “They conspired to destroy him.” But the religious leaders from Jerusalem, 90 miles away, also sought to kill him—John 5:18 says the religious leaders there “were seeking all the more to kill Jesus.” The religious leaders of the whole nation are trying to destroy Jesus.
- Jesus has just learned of the death of John the Baptist, the one person who really knew him, outside of his mother Mary (Joseph has probably passed away by this time). John the Baptist, his cousin, who knew who he was, had given his life for him, bore witness to him, and had now lost his head because of him. Jesus had been alone on the receiving end of this news; the apostles had been sent out and about by Jesus, as Mark 6:7-13 tells us. (By the way, they were out and about doing all sorts of things like Jesus was doing—but that’s another sermon.)
So the context of the feeding of the 5,000 is: Jesus is alone. He’s rejected. He’s under tremendous scrutiny and serious threat, and Jesus is grieving.
Friends, to be crystal clear, I do believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who is God, fully divine, creator of all things, redeemer of all things. I believe in the divinity of Jesus! And, friends, I believe in the actual humanity of Jesus! He was as fully human as he was divine, and he would have experienced things like a human actually experiences them. Jesus didn’t walk through all of his life or this context stoically or without emotion. He would have felt the rejection, he would have felt the threat, he would have felt the grief.
What is his reflexive response, then, in that emotional state? What does he know he has to do when he’s under tremendous emotional strain? Where does he want to go?
The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?”
And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.Mark 6:30-44
Jesus’s reflexive response under great emotional strain is to be with his Father. “The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place, and rest awhile.’” (Mark 6:30) Matthew tells us that his intent was to go alone: “Jesus withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself” (14:13). But we know that Jesus actually invited the disciples to come with him, because they had been busy. While he wants and needs to pursue solitude with his Father, he’s still caring for those in his midst.
Many translations use the word ‘desolate’ to describe the place Jesus was wanting to go, but it’s not the only or the best translation. “Desolate place” sounds hard. It doesn’t sound inviting. It sounds like it’s full of deprivation. In his book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Mark Comer very simply unpacks the Greek word eremos, which is the word we find in this verse: “Eremos has a wide variety of meanings. It can be translated as ‘desert,’ ‘deserted place,’ ‘desolate place,’ ‘solitary place,’ ‘lonely place,’ and… ‘a quiet place.’” A quiet place. Comer continues, “As the Gospels go on, you quickly realize that the quiet place was top priority for Jesus. Jesus often ‘withdrew.’ He frequently got away. He made a point to sneak off to pray on a regular basis. It was a common habit in his repertoire.”
The desolate place that Jesus wants to go to–the desert, the quiet place–was not an experience of deprivation. It was actually a place to experience intimacy. That’s where Jesus is going. That’s what he wants.
But he gets in a boat with the disciples and they go across the Sea of Galilee to be alone. What happens? Mark 6:32:
“And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Now, many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of him. So when he went ashore, he saw a great crowd.”
Now, if you were in that frame of mind, and you saw a great crowd of people in front of you, what would you do? What would I do? Or, maybe put it this way: In situations like that before, what have you done? What have I done?
Well, unlike me, “When he saw them, Jesus had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (verse 34). What is a sheep without a shepherd like? What state are they in?
- They are lost.
- They are hungry. In ancient Israel and Palestine, the shepherd would lead sheep out of their pen to the green pasture, because most everywhere else is a desert. The sheep needed to be taken to where there was food.
- They are in danger. Back in that day sheep faced threats from lions, bears, and other animals, as well as thieves.
- They are burdened. A few years ago in Australia, a wild sheep which had been wandering without a shepherd for years was found, and it had 75 pounds of wool on it. It could barely move because it hadn’t been shorn in years. It was burdened because it had not had a shepherd.
When Jesus sees the crowd, he does five things. Each of the Gospel accounts pick up one or the other of these; taken together, we see all that Jesus was doing:
- He has compassion on them. (Mt and Mk) He felt compassion, and it was the primary motivation of everything he was about to do.
- He welcomes them. (Lk)
- He teaches them many things and speaks to them of the kingdom of God. (Lk and Mk)
- He cured those who were sick and healed those who needed healing. (Lk and Mt) Teaching and healing is what Jesus has been doing all day.
- And then, after all that, the fifth thing that Jesus does at the feeding of the 5,000 is… he feeds them. (Mt, Mk, Lk, Jn) Jesus feeds everyone real, actual, literal food.
It’s the last one, the feeding, that gets all the attention, but friends, the other four matter just as much. The compassion, the hospitality, the teaching, the healing, and also the feeding.
So, after a long day, the people are hungry. They’ve been out there for a long time. Notice, they came to Jesus because they were spiritually hungry. Then they became physically hungry, and we’re going to see Jesus meet both hungers.*
Five thousand men and more women and children are a lot of people in a place that is not particularly inhabited. There’s no food for them! This is an immediate and obvious need. What was the disciples’ reaction to this?
Unlike Jesus, they get annoyed and become selfish. They’re ready to get rid of the people as quickly as they can. And, they get snarky with Jesus.
In Mark 6 and Matthew and Luke, they tell Jesus, “Send them away to buy food for themselves.” The apostles are tired, they’re done, they can’t get to where they’re going until the crowd leaves.
In John 6, Jesus says to Philip, perhaps with a wink, “So, Philip, where are we to buy bread?” Philip, representing the other disciples, gets snarky and says, “More than six months of wages wouldn’t buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
The other disciples, as recounted in Mark, say, “Shall we go and buy 200 denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?”
And Jesus says to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” In John 6, we’re told, “Jesus said this to test them because Jesus himself knew what he would do.” In other words, Jesus, knowing he was about to feed this crowd of hungry people, first gave the disciples a chance to exercise their faith in him.
So, let’s get this straight: Jesus tells the disciples to give the crowd something to eat—“You give them something to eat”—something that they cannot actually accomplish. He’s commanding them to do something that is impossible. Jesus knows that they can’t feed them, he knows that they don’t have the resources, and he still tells them directly to do it.
Jesus is forcing them to rely on him in order to provide for the needs of the people who are directly in front of them. He’s making them do something that will require them to look to him for the ability to actually obey. I find that to be very compelling and scary, that it is within Jesus’s prerogative to tell us to do stuff that we can’t actually do on our own strength. But that’s what’s going on here in this story.
So they bring forward a boy from the crowd who has five loaves of bread and two fish. Andrew, in John, says, “Well, there’s a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” You can imagine Andrew saying that with something of a shrug. And in Matthew it is, “We only have five loaves here, and two fish.”
But Jesus works with the resources from that community. In other words, it wasn’t that the disciples were trying to find something that they had, rather the resources came from among the people who were about to be served.*
In verses 41-42, Jesus did the miracle. Jesus took a little and he made it a lot. He took the very little that they had and he made much, to overflowing abundance.
In all of the accounts, but especially in Mark, notice that the feeding is eucharistic. It’s prefiguring what Jesus is going to do at the Last Supper, prefiguring what is going to be given to the disciples soon and to the church for all time. “And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people.” Do you see it? It’s exactly like the Last Supper. There is the taking, the blessing, the breaking, and the giving which happens week after week around the world by the whole church.
What did the disciples do then?
They got down to work doing exactly what Jesus had told them to do. Matthew 14:19: “Then Jesus broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.” Remember?
“You give them something to eat.”
“We can’t on our own resources.”
“I can on mine. Here it is – Now, you give them something to eat.”
And the disciples gave them something to eat. It’s beautiful.
Jesus commanded. Jesus provided. The disciples obeyed. People’s needs were met. And they were all blessed. Verse 42 says, “The people all ate and were satisfied.” Verse 43 tells us that it was abundant, there was food left over. Where there had been essentially nothing to eat and a great need, Jesus provided so abundantly that there was food left over.
Then Jesus sends the disciples away. Jesus then made the apostles “get into the boat to go to the other side.” Why?
Remember what Jesus had come to do in the very first place. He had come to be with his Father, and then that’s exactly what he does.
He goes back up the mountain to be alone with his Father, and that’s how Jesus spends his night. Jesus gets to do what he originally set out to do: Spend intimate time with his Father in the quiet place.
And that sets up the story of Jesus walking on the water, which sets up those same crowds following Jesus again and finding him, which sets up the same crowds he just fed directly challenging him, wanting him to do something even more special, which sets up Jesus getting explicit about his death and the Eucharist, which sets up many of his disciples walking away from him, which sets up Jesus’s question to Peter: “What about you? Are you leaving me, too?” To which Peter says, “Where else would I go? You have the words of eternal life.”
That’s the story of the feeding of the 5,000. It is quite a bit more than just a miracle story about a lot of people getting fed! There’s a lot going on.
With this story and the whole of the Gospels, I would encourage you to read as if you are gazing on your beloved, paying very careful attention to everything that he’s doing, saying, feeling. It’s beautiful, because Jesus is beautiful.
*I’m grateful to Amy Rowe for these insights
Many of the themes from this story show up in the vision for where Coracle is headed. We’re calling it “The Next Journey”. In this vision there are themes of:
- Seeking time to be with God
- A group of disciples going on retreat with Jesus
- Compassionately seeing people, actually seeing them with empathy
- Providing hospitality, teaching, healing for people, all motivated by love
- Being given a vision that feels impossible on our strength
- Seeing resources coming from within a local community
- Providing actual food for hungry people
- Being fed by the Eucharist
- Watching God multiply a small amount of resources to meet great needs
- Continually seeking to be with the Father