Today, Thanksgiving 2009, we are going to explore the familiar story of the feeding of the 5000, which is recorded in all 4 gospel narratives. It is one of the only passages which all four writers include in their accounts, so it must be pretty important but instead of really digging into the story, I would like to focus on one part – Jesus’ blessing of the loaves and fish.
The setting of the pericope is a deserted place where lots of people are present and John 6:4 tells us that this occurs near the Passover celebration. We know that there are 5000 men present and we can assume that at least some of these men brought there wives and children. Lets say, 2000 of the men are traveling with their spouse and average 3 kids in tow. That means there are approximately 13000 people in this deserted region, far from the cities and villages, without food.
The disciples want Jesus to divorce himself from this mass of wanderers. That is the force of their words, send the crowds away, separate yourself from them, divorce them, and get away. It is a pretty strong word the disciples use, but Jesus has different thoughts. He says, They need not go away. Essentially, I don’t need to divorce them, in fact, he even uses a softer word than divorce, they don’t need to leave he says, you feed them. You give them something to eat. It is a command.
There response is telling, in the Greek, the emphasis is upon the word nothing. Nothing we have is how is literally would be translated Nothing except 5 loaves and 2 fish. Figuratively, it would be like saying …
And what’s more, is the detail we are given about the 5 loaves and 2 fish in the gospel of John 6:9. John tells us they were 5 barley loaves and 2 small fish. Barley loaves were considered the worst bread around, and the 2 small fish are really 2 small fish, akin to 2 anchovies or sardines that we would get out of a can and eat with bread. When the disciples comment that they have nothing, they literally mean, that compared to the 13000 folks present, all having been traveling to reach Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, all tired and worn down, at the end of the day from having been in the late spring sun. Compared to the crowd, 5 pieces of hard tack and 2 stinky fish is Nothing.
Isn’t that so like us. Don’t we frequently look at the situation and then size up our resources in comparison. Sometimes we are happy with the situation, we have more than enough. Sometimes we are relieved with the circumstance, we have just enough. But frequently, I think we are concerned with our affairs for there isn’t enough to make it all around. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about money to make it through the month, time to complete all the tasks that need to be done, intelligence or wisdom to solve our problems or emotional energy to relate with another person, or anything else. Don’t we often run into situations, more often than we would like, when the resources available are insufficient for the problems at hand?
I remember one such time when I was working in construction. It was a bid day, the days I hated and loved more than any others. Bid days meant the possibility of new work, but they also meant a lot of stress and emotional capital. Bid days normally exhausted me and at the end of the bid, I went home, regardless of whether it was 10 a.m. or 5 p.m. But this bid day there were 2 major bids due within 1 hour of each other followed up by a number of little bids due at the end of the day. Intellectually and emotionally I didn’t have the resources to make it. I dreaded that day for a week, I kept trying to get ahead so the day would be easier, so I could manage it better with my skills, but it just wouldn’t come together and my subcontractors just wouldn’t cooperate. At 9 a.m., 1 hour before the first bid was due on a $1 million dollar job, I had Nothing. No mechanical, no electrical, no plumbers, no painters, no drywallers, no flooring. Nothing. Of 40+ lines in my bid, I had 3 items. At 9:30 I had 7 items, at 9:45 I had 13 items, 9:50 I had 20 items, and in the last 8 minutes I received 100 bids which I had to sort, evaluate and decide upon for the remaining 20 lines, enter them into my spreadsheet, fill out a form and get it faxed with a timestamp no later than 9:59:59 a.m.
Then I got to repeat the whole thing in the next hour with another job, only this time the project was a couple million dollars. You can probably relate. We all have times when we are overwhelmed and the needs are monstrous compared to the situation. Frankly, I think this is how the disciples felt looking at the situation in the desert: 13,000 people, 12 disciples, 1 Jesus, 5 measly loaves and 2 fish.
But Jesus has a completely different way of looking at the situation. Where the disciples want to solve the problem by removing the items causing the problem, in this case the people, Jesus wants to solve the problem by looking to heaven and blessing God. Where the disciples see what is lacking and how little they have, Jesus sees the Father, the giver of all good things. Where the disciples are unsure of the situation, Jesus trusts that the situation is exactly as God would have it.
Jesus takes the resources that have been provided, he doesn’t ask for more, he doesn’t cajole the crowd into being more generous. He accepts what is present, even though it appears to be insufficient and of substandard quality. He accepts it from the hands of the disciples. Then he looks up to heaven. He looks to the hand of the one who gives everything, every bit of life, every bit of good, every bit of sadness, every bit of joy, every bit of sorrow, every bit of life. Jesus looks to heaven, to the throne of the Father Almighty and blesses or praises the Lord.
It is the same thing he taught his disciples to do in the Lord’s prayer, to pray “Our Father, who ar’t in heaven…” Jesus recognizes from where even these apparently insufficient morsels came from and he praises God for them. In fact, he probably prayed the prayer that was common in that day and still common today among Jews sitting down to eat: “Blessed are thou, Jehovah our God, King of the Universe, who causes bread to come forth from the earth.”
Jesus praises God for what he has. He thanks God for the provision and trusts God for the result. Paul Stevens in his book Down to earth Spirituality captures this truth with the following words, “[The practice of thanksgiving allows us] to see that God has given us what we need and that God (not a perfect situation) is our portion (Ps. 73:26).”
Jesus is our illustration of this truth, thanksgiving and blessing for what we have, even for the little things in life, allows the Father to do amazingly beyond what we ask or imagine. The story concludes by informing us that everyone ate and was filled. Everyone was satiated and the resources God had provided were more than enough to accomplish the work God had in mind.
Isn’t this a wonderful picture of the gospel? A simple man, born in a manger, the son of a carpenter, and a Carpenter himself was pitted against the needs of the world: sin abundant, arrogance supreme, apathy unmatched, violence and anger, hypocrisy and selfishness. All of this was the situation that faced the God man named Jesus Christ. And add to that list, the wrath of God. The situation surely seemed daunting and the resources at hand surely seemed lacking, but Jesus didn’t call for angels to bear him up, though he had been tempted to do so, he didn’t rely on his own authority as the 2nd person of the God-head to take control of the world, though he had every right to. He didn’t even demand that more people step forward to ensure that adequate quantities of offending blood were offered. On the contrary, he went to the garden and this time “fell with his face to the ground and prayed.” Whether looking to heaven or bowing one’s head, the truth is the same, Jesus went to God and sought his glory. And the resources of God flowed through that simple man and in his death; the sins of the world were atoned for. The guilt of humanity was erased and the wrath of God was appeased, all because the focus was on what God could and would do in inestimable circumstances.
So on this thanksgiving day, look to heaven and bless the Lord for everything he has given you, including the ability to commune with The Almighty God, and the next time you are tempted to think that the resources at your disposal aren’t enough, remember the feeding of the 13013 with 5 measly loaves and 2 small fish and bless the Lord for what He has in mind. You may find yourself against ghastly odds, but like Jesus you too can be the conduit of God’s grace to the world.