The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.
If Jesus were a consultant or life coach working today, he’d call this exercise “Faith Building, 101.”
The disciples have a problem: Jesus has grown a little too popular. After they came back and told their teacher of their exploits, he called them away to a deserted place for a time of rest and renewal. But it didn’t last all that long; in fact, it’s hard to tell if it ever actually happened, as Mark tells us that the crowds saw where they were headed and scurried around the shore line to beat them there. So when they come ashore they are surrounded.
Jesus isn’t angry, or disappointed, or frustrated, as one might understandably expect given his desire to retreat. Rather, he has compassion for the crowds and so teaches them, instructing them in the ways of the kingdom and uplifting them in spirit. By the end of the day, however, the disciples have a lot of hungry people on their hands, people who have traveled some distance with little or no provisions.
And so the disciples have a problem.
They also see a solution – “Send them away,” they tell Jesus, figuring that only he has the authority to disperse this mob. It’s easy to hear the disciples’ reaction as rather churlish, but keep in mind that they’re tired, probably also hungry, a little overwhelmed by the crowds, feeling definitely ill-equipped for the situation, and probably a little bummed out if their promised time of retreat was either cut-short or preempted entirely. In this context, “Send them away” actually seems rather charitable.
But Jesus doesn’t agree. “Give them food,” he orders. And then ensues the faith-building conversation. “No way – we don’t have enough.” “Before deciding that, why don’t you count your assets.” “We have – it’s five loaves and two fish.” “Offer it, and it will be enough.” And it was.
It’s easy to point to the disciples’ lack of faith in Jesus. After seeing Jesus cast out demons, heal the sick, even calm the storm, they still don’t really know who they’re with and so don’t turn to him with a request to feed the crowd but only to send them away.
But Jesus doesn’t chastise them, as he did at sea. Rather, he turns them back to their own resources. Because the disciples’ problem isn’t just that they don’t have enough faith in Jesus, but also that they don’t have enough faith in themselves, in what God can do with, in, and through them if they simply offer who they are and what they have to God.
I wonder if that’s always the way it is. Does faith in God also expect, even demand, faith in what God can do through us? I mean, it’s one thing to pray that God would enter into a troubled relationship of friends or family members and bring peace, and it’s another altogther to ask that God enter into the relationship through us to bring peace. Faith in God, it seems, implies a willingness to be the instrument through which God works.
So Jesus throws them back on themselves twice – “give them something to eat” and “go see how much you have.” And when they do, an amazing thing happens: God uses what little they have to accomplish an astounding thing. May it also be so with us.
Prayer: Dear God, you ask us for ourselves – our abilities, our resources, our faith – nothing more, nothing less. Grant us the faith to give ourselves to you that you might use us to bless and care for your people and world. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Post image: “Feeding of the 5000″ by Justino Magalona (detail)