According to the story, Jesus had had a pretty rough time. The Pharisees were after him again, arguing with him and trying to test him to prove that he was as claimed. By this time Jesus was probably pretty frustrated. He was rather curt in telling them that continually asking for a sign was not going to make one happen and would not for that whole generation. He then got on board the boat that was waiting for him. I think he hoped it would be a bit of rest for him.
Disciples are supposed to follow their teacher and to take note of what the teacher does and says. They are supposed to remember lessons that they have heard and seen. They are supposed to think of what the master will need and provide for it, like fruit, water, or wine. Jesus’s disciples seem to have racked up some failures in this particular category. If I were grading their report card, they would probably get an F. I guess it is a good thing that Jesus was more lenient in grading than I would have been.
At last the disciples and Jesus were on the boat, but the disciples had forgotten to re-provision it. There was one loaf of bread to be shared among all of them, which would probably only equal a mouthful or two per person. Naturally, they talked about it, and Jesus overheard them. He asked them if they had forgotten what they had seen and heard. He questioned them as to whether they could not remember first feeding the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, and at another time on the plain, sharing seven loaves with 4,000 men.
There were women and children present at both feedings, but they were not counted, although I am sure Jesus would not have let them go hungry. That was a total of over 9,000 people with twelve loaves of bread and a couple of fish. That seems to me that would be a pair of miracles that would be pretty hard to forget. But they had the recollection of having twelve baskets of leftover pieces of bread – far more than the loaves they had started with.
The lesson is not necessarily about being able to do the math of how many pieces of bread you started with and how many were left over at the end of an event. It was about having faith and also about the power of God. Jesus would not have done this by himself; it would have required God’s will for either, if not both, of those miracles to have happened. It was also an excellent opportunity to show that if faith is strong enough even impossible things can happen.
I know that I was taught to put implicit trust in the Bible verses that said that if I had enough faith I could move mountains, or that whatever I asked in Jesus name would happen. I do not have any problem having faith, at least most of the time, but no matter how fervently I have prayed for something, the mountain has not moved, not by so much as a millimeter. Does that mean my faith is not strong enough? I am sure the disciples had faith, but perhaps they did not really understand what they were supposed to have faith in.
Jesus was not trying to teach math, although the disciples do get credit for remembering how many baskets of leftovers came at each feeding. They remembered the facts but not necessarily the lesson behind them. A literal reading the Bible can give us what we believe are the facts, but unless we look deeper, we often miss the lessons Jesus wanted us to learn—having faith, trusting, and placing emphasis on feeding the hungry rather than just taking what loaves and fish are available and feeding it to only certain individuals.
In our modern times, we often forget that there are people who are going hungry, or who are cold, or homeless, or ill. They may have tried faith, but their needs have still not been met. There is no Jesus on a hill to take a small amount of something and bless it so everyone could be fed. Jesus did not travel with a 7-Eleven or a food truck. He took whatever was available and shared it. That is what we are supposed to do: take what we have and share it with others. We waste a lot of food every day, food that could be used to feed others. I am not saying we should take the leftover spaghetti and broccoli from dinner, put it on a plate, and hand it to the first homeless person that we see, although that might not be a bad thought. We cannot think of ourselves alone, and we certainly cannot expect Jesus to do everything for us if we are not willing to at least take the lesson from what he has done and use it to benefit others.
This week I think I am going to have to concentrate less on how much I have and think about what I need. I also need to look around to see who and where the need is and do what I can do to help meet that need. I do not have to look for baskets of leftovers, just help supply the demand and leave the rest to God.
Image: The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. Author: James Tissot, painted between 1186 and 1894. From the Brooklyn Museum, found on Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.