Jesus feeds 5000

Jesus feeds 5000
Mark 6 : 30 - 44

I must confess that this miracle story causes me a few problems. Why did Jesus do this? What did it mean? How did he do it? It makes sense that Jesus healed the sick. But why organise a kind of ancient T in the Park, a spontaneous large scale picnic like that in Glasgow on the day of the royal wedding when thousands turned up in Kelvingrove Park via face book invitations and without the Cooncil’s permission. The good natured party descended into some drunkenness and fighting with the Polis. No change there then. We don’t know if Jesus got the permission of Tarichaea Cooncil where his big party took place either but we know that it did not descend into farce and crime. The story of the feeding of the 5000 appears in all four Gospels and it is the only miracle to do so. It must have made a great impression on the disciples.

The disciples had gathered together after their missionary exploits, preaching and healing the sick. People had followed them back. They had not even had the chance to get something to eat. Jesus suggested getting a way from everyone for some quality time together. So they got into a boat and crossed the lake - about 4 miles. Jesus understood the need for what we call a good work - life balance. Spiritual work may seem easy to some - people are always telling ministers that we only work one day a week. But times of quiet are times of replenishing and refreshment, necessary in the ongoing work of the Gospel.

However, the people could see where Jesus was going to and they were able to walk and run round the top of the lake - about 10 miles journey - and meet him on the other side. This is what many did. And, as they went, they gathered up interested spectators from the villages and towns in the area. It was a bit like the crowds descending on London for the royal wedding. Jesus and the disciples created interest and excitement wherever they went. Far from retreating for a quiet meal and discussion and prayer, when Jesus disembarked, he was faced with a crowd which would half fill Livingston Football Club stadium. Was he scunnered? No - he was not. The text says he had compassion on them. He did not look down on the people. He was not patronising towards them. He did not think of them as the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, born in Ecclefechan in 1795 (he died in 1881) thought of the people of London as he looked out of his window and said, 'Four thousand cross London bridge every day - most of them fools'. The American hotel owner Leona Helmsley who was imprisoned for tax evasion once said 'Only little people pay taxes'.

Jesus was not like that at all. He saw the people as lost sheep. He was reminded of the words of Isaiah, 'We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all'. Sheep without a shepherd invariably cannot find their way. They need to be led. They cannot find pasture or water. Sheep without a shepherd are in danger from wild animals and thieves. Jesus was sometimes a very edgy and critical preacher not slow to point out sins to people, but here, he is the good shepherd who cares for his people. So - he gave them a long sermon. The text says he began 'teaching them many things' then it adds 'By this time it was late in the day'. Jesus put the spiritual welfare of folk first. The Tent Hall mission in Glasgow used to put on breakfasts for vagrants and down and outs. But before the - mostly men - got their porridge and bacon and eggs on a Sunday morning they had to listen to sermons telling them to repent of their sins and turn to the Lord and be saved. But by all accounts the people were enthralled by Jesus’ teaching because none left to go home.

The disciples came to Jesus and suggested that he send the people home and so that they could get something to eat on the way. There would be food stalls in the streets of these towns and villages just like you seen on TV pictures from the middle east today. They probably did not have the ancient equivalent of mobile snack bars selling such Scottish delicacies as morning rolls with fried potato scones and bacon and plastic cups of tea with four spoonfuls of sugar for less than £2. But the disciples expected them to buy their own evening meals. Jesus told them to give the people something to eat. They replied questioning whether Jesus expected them to use up all their donations, eight months wages - £12,000 to us - to feed so many. Jesus then asked What food have you got? In John’s Gospel, it is Andrew who finds a little boy with five loaves and two fishes. In Mark’s account the result is the same but the source is not given. The type of loaf described was not one of these huge things you can buy on the shelves of Tesco or Scotmid. They were more like our morning rolls. And the fish too might have been very small - maybe even as small as Mediterranean sardines - just a spreading to give some relish to the dry bread. Barley loaves were the food of the poorest. Barley bread was the cheapest and least refined. Tarichaea - the town outside of which this miracle occurred was called the Salt-fish town. Maybe it was a bit like like Saltcoats.

An interesting technical point in the story is found in verse 39. The Jesus directed to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. The grass was green - an authenticating point of detail remembered by Peter who gave this account to Mark for his Gospel. Grass is not green for long in the middle east. This miracle took place in Spring - in mid-April to be exact. The disciples organised groups of fifties and hundreds.

Jesus then performed this miracle of multiplying the loaves and fish sufficient to feed the crowd of 5000. How this happened I have no idea. Jesus turned an equivalent amount of water into an equivalent amount of wine at a wedding in Cana. He created a chemical reaction and the transformation of one thing into another. Here it is a greater effort. First he prayed with thanksgiving for the little he had available. Then he multiplied the bread and fish keeping going until everyone had something to eat. Not only so - they had more than enough to eat - a proper meal - not just a snack until they got home. This is a mind-boggling miracle - hard for us to understand and impossible to rationalise. Scholars have tried unsuccessfully to explain what actually happened. Jesus perhaps only gave crumbs to everyone - but - as with the small portions of the elements in our Holy Communion - his spiritual presence filled the souls of the people. William Barclay is reputed to have suggested that everyone had brought a snack with them and when Jesus began sharing what he had, they all brought out their own snacks and shared them and so everyone had enough for everyone. That is not what the text says. The four Gospel writers do not say that this was a tale of dishonest manipulation. They do not say that they are turning a reasonably based large scale picnic into a transcendent miracle just for the effect. The Gospel writers are not liars and Jesus was not a magician or an illusionist. However Barclay may not be completely wrong. The texts says the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. This is interesting because every orthodox Jew carried what today is called a ‘man bag’. It was a little basket narrow at the top and widening at the base. It carried kosher food which was ceremonially clean. If each of the twelve disciples had his own basket with him, that’s where the baskets came from. Why so much food was left makes sense when we think there were 5000 or more present. This food was too precious to waste. The disciples would eat royally that evening and on the morrow.

Dos this have any relevance to us today? There are certainly lessons in it for us. Jesus was concerned for people’s physical welfare as well as for their eternal souls. God our Maker knows what we need for this life and intends to provide it not miserably but generously. There are some here part of whose childhood was spent in what today would be called poverty. And yet - somehow - there was food on the table - sufficient to survive. Provided that mother and father were good - large families survived and many of the years growing up were happy. The sense of providence is overwhelming to us even in this day and age. We depend on the planet and its capacity to grow food for our existence. Everything is there for us. No-one needs to starve. There is an abundance of food in the world. All that is needed is to share.

If you have a relationship with God everything has an added dimension of blessing. Life itself is deeper and fuller, invested with meaning and purpose beyond the necessities of life and work. If you know Jesus Christ in your heart, everything has a spiritual colour to it. Nothing is drab or dull. The disciples initially had a bad attitude. They wanted to send the people away. They wanted peace. Jesus accepted responsibility for the people and their human requirement for spiritual teaching and for food. The disciples did not want to spend their savings on the people. Jesus was willing and able to provide generously from seemingly inadequate resources. We may underestimate what contribution we can make to the cause of Jesus in the world. But he can take what we offer and multiply its consequences. We use that kind of prayer over the weekly offerings frequently. The offerings are not sufficient for all that is needing to be done in the world - but Jesus can make disproportionate use of them when they are given to him.

The prophet Elijah when he was on the run for fear of his life found refuge with a widow in Zarepath. He asked her for food and lodging. She told him that she was making her last meal for herself and her son because she had no food left due to drought and famine and they would now die. He said, "For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD sends rain on the land.’” Jesus was greater than Elijah. By feeding the 5000 he showed his credentials. This miracle though was also something else. It was a conscious act of the Messiah. For the Messiah was expected to feed the people in this way as God had provided manna in the desert for the wandering Israelites. Jesus was therefore claiming to be and demonstrating that he was the Messiah - the Son of God. In that context, the feeding of the 5000 makes sense.

Today it is the spiritual feeding of the 5000 that is needed. And so we can pray that in our spiritual need, with the Church struggling and membership declining - that Jesus will multiply our witness by the thousand and more so that many will accept Jesus as Lord and be saved and serve him and witness for him into the centuries to come. What spiritual loaf, what spiritual fish are you carrying in your bag or pocket? Will you share it - use it employ it- give it to Jesus to multiply?

Robert Anderson 2017

To contact Robert, please use this email address: