1 Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near.
5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
Don’t miss the power of this familiar story. Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes is one of his best-known miracles. To some it sounds too far fetched to be credible in any literal way. To others it is too familiar to listen to again carefully. But in its audacity we will find an abundance and a potent message.
In God’s Kingdom there is no scarcity. There is no need for force or violence. There is no effort required. We simply come to dine at a table set up in an oasis in the wilderness of our life’s journey. We don’t even have to serve ourselves. The Risen Jesus comes to serve us the real meal that we’ve desired all of our lives. All that we must do is come hungry and eat to our heart’s fill. As we walk from this table, we are invited to return and bring others with us. There will always be enough for us all.
Do you believe this? Or are you caught up in the scarcity of the world around you?
As our world continues to meander forward waiting for the end of the seeming never-ending economic difficulties, we have grown accustomed to belt-tightening and living with less. Real estate markets continue to teeter. Families struggle. Jobs are tough to find. Workers toil harder for less. More and more people fear that the future will not be better than the past. It is a temptation to believe that scarcity defines our lives. This would be a mistake. Let us engage Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 with fresh eyes and find renewed hope.
A People Looking For Abundance
Our text finds Jesus in the company of a great multitude. The crowds have gathered precisely because in Jesus they have experienced something alien to their normal existence—powerful signs from God and authoritative teaching that offers more than the typical fare received from the religious leadership of the day. In Jesus they recognize one in whom they can find a real meal of substance and true sustenance for the journey of life. Later in the Gospel, Jesus will say, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
The gospels consistently present Jesus as the One sent from God for those who are desperate for that which only God can grant. Already in John’s Gospel, Jesus has transformed the life of a Samaritan woman and a healed man who had been sick for thirty-eight years. Following on the heels of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, these actions served as signs to the dawn of a new era of God’s work in the world. In response, the crowds gather around Jesus hoping to see the abundance of God’s salvation. They will not be disappointed. Significantly, the time to celebrate Passover was near. God’s people would be remembering God’s mighty deliverance of his people from Egypt. This action was the decisive saving event in the Old Testament. The Exodus demonstrated God’s love, mercy, and power. In Jesus’ day God’s people celebrated the Passover in remembrance of the original Exodus and in the hope and anticipation that God would again act to bring renewed hope, peace, justice, and good in the present. The stage is set. In this season of anticipation and remembrance, Jesus stands ready to reveal a new outpouring of God’s salvation.
But our text reveals much more than Jesus’ readiness to perform a sign during a key season. It also demonstrates his willingness. Close to 5000 people have followed Jesus to a mountain near the Sea of Galilee. They have gathered in expectation of more signs. But Jesus is going to do more than merely heal the sick among them. He was to touch personally each life before him. There has been no request for food but Jesus demonstrates God’s care for all and the truth that God knows what we need before we even ask. Just as God fed the Israelites in the Wilderness after they had been delivered from Egypt now Jesus stands poised to offer not simply bread for the day but bread for all eternity to those who have gathered.
Expanding the Imagination of His Closest Followers
After seeing the large crowd Jesus calls together his closest followers. He inquires about purchasing bread for them to eat. Our text calls this a test. As usual, the disciples are clueless and experience an epic fail. Philip comments that a half year’s pay wouldn’t be enough. Andrew, probably with sarcasm, observes a small boy with five loaves and a couple of fish and adds wryly, “But what are they among so many people?”
This cuts to the root of the problem. Jesus sees and offers possibility but too often his followers are blind to all but scarcity. Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi said, “Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off of the goal.” The disciples have already witnessed Jesus turning water to wine. They watched him cleanse the temple. They heard him reveal truth to Nicodemus. They observed him transforming the Samaritan woman from a confused person with a compromised life to a transformed witness to God’s truth. They had just seen him heal a man who had lived in bondage to an illness for 38 years.
Let’s ponder some even deeper truths revealed in John’s Gospel: Jesus has come to make God known. He has come to offer abundant life. He has come to show the way to the Father. If these mysteries are within our grasp through the mission of Jesus, how can the feeding of a multitude present any real problem?
This story invites us to expand our ability to trust and rely on God for answers to the biggest struggles in our lives. His first disciples ultimately learned this truth and gave their energies and talents to proclaim the good news to the known world of their day.
A Theology of Enough
Five loaves and two fish may have seemed only enough to feed a small boy. But Jesus knew differently. In the hands of the Son of God, these rations would be plenty for all. Jesus performs a miracle in order to proclaim the abundance that is found in God.
Many of us know Psalm 23 from its frequent use. Reflect on some of its lines: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures…You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…my cup overflows…Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of our life….” In feeding the 5000, Jesus tangibly demonstrates the truth of these words. Jesus embodies all that it means for God to act as a shepherd. Jesus has the crowd sit down in the grass. Jesus himself takes the food, gives thanks to God, and distributes the meal personally to each person.
Jesus offers the crowd no mere snack. It is a feast. Each receives as much as each one desires. All ate until their appetites were satisfied. But there is more. Jesus didn’t merely feed 5000 with a few loaves of bread and fish. He has enough for the world. He is the true bread of life. Later in John 6, he will exclaim, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” The disciples gathered up twelve baskets of leftovers. This number represents the totality of God’s children. As there were twelve tribes of God’s people, there are twelve baskets of food. With God, there is always an abundance. God’s working of a miracle for one group of people in no way limits God’s ability to touch others. There is enough!
In response, the crowd recognizes Jesus as a prophet who has come into the world. Indeed he is and so much more. As the bread of life, he will give his own life and be raised anew in order to offer us an even greater abundance—a transformed life and reality.
A Warning to the Crowds
Our text ends with a warning. We cannot force the hand of God. The response of the crowds to the abundant feast was to attempt to make Jesus king by force. Violence and human scheming are not the pathways to abundance. Let’s be clear: abundance is the will of God. But it cannot be taken—it can only be received. It cannot be hoarded—it must be shared. It cannot be purchased—it is free. There is no scarcity in God’s kingdom—there is always plenty.
The abundance offered by Jesus is the answer, but it begs us to ask this question: How hungry are we? Jesus offers us a feast. There is enough. Come and eat to your fill. Once we’ve eaten let us go forth into the world, live the abundant life that Jesus empowers us to embrace and embody, and serve as witnesses to God’s goodness.