The apostles returned to Jesus excited, energized, eager to tell Him all about their little adventures. Demons exorcised, diseases healed, good news preached. It was a smashing success. They were tired and excited at the same time. So many stories to tell. Jesus takes them on a little retreat, off to a wilderness place, far from the clamoring crowds. A chance to recharge and reflect and rest. And so they went away in a boat, off by themselves. But the crowd followed them.
The crowd grew larger. Word got out. People were running from their houses with their sandals barely strapped on, chasing after the boat with Jesus and His disciples. They came from all the surrounding towns and villages, a huge mass of people by the seashore, clamoring for Jesus and His disciples. They were rock stars. Celebrities. Heroes. Everyone wanted a piece of them. There was no rest. No place to escape. Like Pope Francis once quipped, they couldn’t even sneak into town to grab a slice of pizza without being recognized.
We don’t know what the disciples thought of all this. Probably a mixture of awe, wonder, and fear. What if the crowd turned into a mob? What if things got out of control? What if they were trampled by the surge?
Jesus looked on that crowd running after the boat with compassion. He felt it deeply in his guts. It wrenched his guts to see them like this. How desperate they were! How hopeless they must be to be running after them like this! How utterly lost, “like sheep without a shepherd.”
We wonder sometimes what the Lord thinks of our age, our society, our generation. What does He think when He looks on the confusion of our day, our idolatry of celebrity, our glamorizing of evil, our perversion of the good? What does He see when He looks on the mob of humanity that will chase after literally anything promising health, wealth, love, and happiness?
The word is “compassion.” He looks on this world with compassion as the compassionate One, the One who bore the world’s suffering in His suffering. The crowds don’t phase Jesus. He understands that they are there for all the wrong reasons. They want favors from Him and His disciples. They want to tap into the power. They want a quick fix. They’re willing to chase after boats at sunset to get a piece of the action. The disciples seem irritated; Jesus has compassion on them. He looks deeply into the heart of that crowd, as only the Lord can look, and He sees that need, that emptiness, that longing, that fear, that despair that drives this kind of frenzy. And He has compassion on them.
He looks on you the same way, with that same compassion. You don’t always come to Him for the right reasons with the right attitude. But He sees into that heart of yours, that heart so messed up by Sin that’s it’s all twisted in on itself. He looks at that life of yours, all the chasing and running around you’ve done to justify your own existence, and He has compassion on you. That’s how Jesus is.
The disciples see a logistical problem. It’s late, it’s desolate, there’s a huge crowd here, five thousand men plus women and children. They need to disperse. Go to the villages where the shops are. Get some food. It’s getting late. The shops will be closing soon. The last thing we need is a hungry mob.
“You give them something to eat,” Jesus says. “Yes, you. I authorized you to teach, heal, and cast out demons in my Name, didn’t I? And it worked, didn’t it? So what’s the problem here? Don’t you trust me? Don’t you think I can handle a bunch of hungry people? You give them something to eat.” The disciples see a logistical problem; Jesus sees a teachable moment. He not only teaches the crowds, He teaches His disciples. He’s teaching us too. He’s teaching them, and us, to be the church. To look on this world with compassion, through His eyes, lensed through His cross. And never to turn away the hungry and send them off on their own.
Jesus also knows that empty bellies don’t make for open ears. They need their daily bread before they can eat of the Bread of Life. And so you give them something to eat.
“Where are we going to get the food or the money? It would take at least two hundred denarii to feed this crowd. Where are we going to get two year’s wages? We left our jobs to follow you, remember? You told us not to take a money belt with us when you sent us. We’re living off of other people’s money. How on earth are we going to feed them?,” they wondered.
Five loaves and two fish. That’s all they had. Five little barley loaves, two small smoked fish. A little boy’s lunch and dinner perhaps. What could they do with that?
Jesus has the crowd sit down in groups of a hundred or fifty. He brings order to their disorder. God is a God of order. With Jesus in charge, the mob becomes a congregation. In order. They are sitting on green grass, no less! The Good Shepherd is leading His flock to pastures green. They are no longer like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus is here to shepherd them. And with Him, His under-shepherds, His disciple-apostles.
He takes those five little loaves of bread, those two small fish, He looks to heaven to His Father from whom all blessings flow, His Father who gives daily bread, and blesses the bread and the fish. He gives to the disciples and the disciples to the people. Take note! Holy Ministry. Jesus doesn’t deal directly with the people but He deals with them through His disciple-apostles. And we don’t know exactly how this worked or looked, but the food kept coming and coming and coming. Jesus kept breaking off chunks of bread and pieces of fish and the disciples were giving it all out and before you knew it, the people were filled. Satisfied. “He fills the hungry with good things.”
They even had twelve (count them!) TWELVE baskets of leftovers. Not even the disciples would go hungry. Enough for everyone, and more! “Blessed are those who are hungry, for they will be satisfied.”
Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by the devil to turn stones into bread. He was hungry, and there was nothing for Him to eat. But He wouldn’t use His power as the Son of God to satisfy His own hunger. He hungered and thirsted for us, and for our salvation. He came as the Bread of Life, living Bread come down from heaven to feed Sin-starved humanity with manna from heaven. He didn’t come to feed Himself. And when He did provide bread in the wilderness, He didn’t use stones and rocks and turn them into loaves. He simply multiplied what was already there. Bread and fish. No rocks or stones were destroyed in the making of this meal. That’s the way of the Creator. He won’t destroy one thing to make another. Add to it? Yes, like water turned to wine. Multiply it? Certainly! Like bread and fish in the wilderness. But never destroy. He didn’t turn stones into bread. He loves the stones just as He made them. They are His creatures too. Nor does He turn bread into His Body or wine into His blood for that matter. He adds to them. Something that wasn’t there before. Something more. Addition and multiplication are God’s way. Subtraction and division are the way of the devil, the world, and our own Sin-addled selves.
Our tendency is to see the limitations, the barriers, the obstacles and impossibilities. We see the lack; Jesus sees the potential. We see the absence of resources, Jesus sees the abundance of opportunity. We see the cost, Jesus sees the outcome. Like the disciples, we see a crowd and we worry about logistics and potential problems and the general nuisance of having all those people trampling all over the place making a mess of everything. Jesus sees a world that is to die for, that He has died for, and He invites His disciples, US, to view this world the same way. Not a pesky crowd, but sheep with no shepherd. Lost, scattered, hurting, messed up sheep who will run after any boat, any messiah, anyone. Our repentance is that we don’t see things through the compassionate eyes of Jesus.
There’s something more going on with this “something more” miracle. Jesus isn’t telling them, “This is how you are going to solve world hunger. You set up a food bank, seed it with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish and I’ll take care of the rest.” Nor is He telling them, “You do your part and I’ll take care of the rest.” There’s probably already enough food in the world to solve world hunger. The problem is distribution not supply. Too much of the excess ends up in the trash instead of the mouths of the hungry. That doesn’t need a miracle to fix. Just an application of our God-given reason and ingenuity.
He is teaching His disciples to be His Church, His Body, His hands and mouth and feet in this world. He’s teaching His disciple-apostles how to be His pastors and ministers. He will take their bread and their wine and do something more with it that they could never do themselves. He will give His Body and Blood as bread and wine. The same Body and Blood that was given and shed once for all on the cross, He will provide in His Supper for the mass of sinful humanity that hungers and thirsts for righteousness. He will give this food to them, and they to the people. And the people will be satisfied, filled to overflowing with forgiveness, life, and salvation. And there will always be more at the close of the day. Twelve baskets full of leftovers. No one goes hungry at the Lord’s table.
So much from so little. Five barley loaves and two fish feed five thousand. A bit of bread, a sip of wine deliver forgiveness, life, and salvation. All from the Compassionate One who has had compassion upon us all.
There’s always more with Jesus.
Twelve baskets full and more.