“And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children” Matthew 14:21
The story of the feeding of the five thousand is one that challenges us, it asks questions of us as Christians; it asks us about rest and responsibility and response.
“Now when Jesus heard this”, we are told in Saint Matthew Chapter 14 Verse 13. When Jesus heard what? When he heard of the murder of John the Baptist by Herod. Jesus must have been moved to anger at such a crime; he must have been filled with a sense of deep grief at the death of John; but his reaction is not the reaction many of us might have shown. He doesn’t go to be with others, instead, we are told, “he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself”.
Faced with a moment of crisis, Jesus seeks quietness, he seeks rest, he seeks time for reflection. How readily would we follow his example? Our natural reaction in difficult times is to panic, to become busy, sometimes to speak or act without thinking. Sometimes, there are moments when, looking back, we might regret saying what we did at the time, we might regret acting hastily.
If Jesus’ first reaction to a crisis is to seek rest, then how should that shape not only our own lives, but the life of our church, the lives even of our communities and our nation? How differently might history have turned out if people had been prepared to take time for thought, time for reflection?
In our own times, if a leader did as Jesus did and sought quietness, sought time to pray about things, it is hard to imagine how the media might react, but how much better might the world be if there were to be more time for prayer and less time for words, more time for quietness and less time for noise? Would things have been done the way they were if leaders had been prepared to follow Jesus’ example?
The story of the feeding of the five thousand teaches us about the need to rest in the face of difficulty, in the face of a crisis, to take time to be still, to take time for thought.
The second thing the story teaches us is about responsibility. Rest gives us time to think, it does not make problems go away, they must still be faced. Jesus has taken time to be quiet, but now must face the challenges.
The people discover Jesus has gone across the lake by boat, but they are not to be dissuaded from looking for him. Verse 13-14 tell us, “they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick”.
Rest prepares Jesus for the responsibility of dealing with the vast crowds that have gathered. He has “compassion” for them Saint Matthew tells us. The word Matthew uses literally means he had a feeling in his guts for them. Gut feeling is something that cannot be avoided, it is how we feel instinctively, and Jesus instinctively cares for those who have gathered. Among them there were probably many difficult people, many people whom others would have avoided, but Jesus turns no-one away.
Jesus assumes responsibility for caring for this great crowd of people, and he challenges his disciples to share in that responsibility. The disciples realize that a difficult situation is developing, they realize that something needs to be done. In Verses 15-16, we read, “When 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.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ The disciples must have been taken aback at this response. What are they to do?
They answer Jesus in Verse 17, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” It is a negative answer. They might have said, “we have five loaves and two fish, that is a start”, but instead they meet Jesus’ challenge by saying “we have nothing.”
Isn’t that often our own answer to God? We face challenges and, because our resources are limited, we say to God, “we have nothing.” Do we ever look at what we do have and say to God, this is what we have, how might you use it? Jesus gives the disciples a sharp lesson in taking responsibility for themselves; we have infinitely greater resources than that group of wandering men, what might Jesus say to us when we are being negative?
Rest, responsibility and then response: how confident are we that God will respond to situations?
Jesus responds directly and Saint Matthew describes that response in Verse 19-21, Jesus tells the disciples to bring him the loaves and the fish and we read, “Then 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. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children”.
What an extraordinary moment. Jesus has moved from rest, to responsibility, to response. It is a response that should inspire us, but many Christians would play down this moment,try to give it some natural explanation. For some writers, the feeding of the 5,000 becomes seen as perhaps an early version of the Holy Communion service, people sharing in a symbolic meal where they are fed spiritually rather than physically; or it seen as a moment when the generosity of the giver of the loaves and fishes, in handing over his food, prompts other people to follow his example and to share with those around whatever they had brought with them—the whole thing becomes a big picnic.
The story of Jesus’ response to the crowds asks us about what sort of God we believe in. If he is a God who is bound by the laws of physics, if he cannot multiply loaves and fishes, then in what sense he is God? If the reality of Jesus is going to reflect the words we use in our worship, the words of our hymns, of our prayers, of the Creeds, then that reality must be someone who finds feeding 5,000 to be no trouble whatsoever; otherwise our worship is nonsense. The miraculous runs against both our intuition and our experience, both of these tell us these things don’t happen, but if the idea of God is going to mean anything at all, then he must be a God of miracles, a God who is not bound by scientific laws.
The story of the feeding of the five thousand is a challenging story: it challenges us about our need for rest, for reflection; it challenges us about our need to accept responsibility, to be prepared to use the gifts God has given us, and it challenges us about our need to consider God’s response to us and our response to him, in what sort of God do we believe?