How many times have you heard the story of Jesus “Feeding the Five Thousand”? If you are like me, you can’t remember how many times you have read the story, let alone heard it told. But something happened when I read it this time, I noticed something that has escaped me all those other times, and it seems it might have escaped most everyone else’s as well because I cannot recall anyone ever mentioning it when telling the story. I noticed the context in which the story happened.
This is how Mark records it: “Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits. . . . They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” (Mark 6: 6b-7, & 12-13 NIV)
And while they are out doing all that, there is an interlude in which Mark records that King Herod hears about it and comes to conclusion that Jesus must be John the Baptist come back to life. And then Mark tells of how Herod had ended up having John beheaded.
Then Mark returns to the narrative about the disciples and what they had been doing. “The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” (Mark 6:30-34)
And that is the setting for the “Feeding of the Five Thousand”. The disciples have been given the authority and power to perform miracles of their own, and have just returned from a trip where they had done so successfully – without Jesus being around to make sure they knew what to do and how to do it. They had been sent out in pairs so they were pretty much on their own. And they had performed miraculous healings and driven out demons! And when they get back, they are all excited to tell Jesus everything they did. But it is so hectic that they can’t even get time to eat, so Jesus takes them across the lake to a remote area, but the people see where they are going and get there first. Now they are out in the middle of now where with a huge crowd and this happens: “By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. ‘This is a remote place,’ they said, ‘and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’ But he answered, ‘You give them something to eat.'” (Mark 6:35-37a)
They had just returned from a trip where they had proven to themselves they had the power and authority to perform miracles, so why not? Jesus was telling them “You can do it, go ahead, you don’t need Me.” But they forgot everything that had just happened. This was different after all, just look at all those people!
“They said to him, ‘That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?'” Sound familiar? Have you ever responded to trouble that way? Notice what Jesus did next. “‘How many loaves do you have?’ he asked. ‘Go and see.’ When they found out, they said, ‘Five—and two fish.’ Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. (Mark 6:37b-43)
Notice Jesus didn’t ask them how much money they had, He asked them how much food they had. He didn’t increase their monetary resources so they could buy the needed food supplies, He used what food they already had. The point He was making with the disciples was, “You don’t need more money, You need God’s power and I gave you access to that power so you can so this, you didn’t need Me to do it! Quit thinking of earthly things and remember the power I gave you! I gave you authority – use it!” But they didn’t get it, in fact, Jesus reran the test not too long after this with a 20 % smaller crowd (4000 men), and more resources, 7 loaves of bread instead of just 5 and “several” fish rather than 2, and they responded in the exact same way! They looked to earthly resources rather than the power of God they had been granted the authority to use. (See Mark 8:1-21 for the full story.)
After the second event Jesus had this to say to His disciples, “‘Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ ‘Twelve,’ they replied. ‘And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ They answered, ‘Seven.’ He said to them, ‘Do you still not understand?'” (Mark 8:17b-21) The power available to them, as demonstrated by Jesus, didn’t care how many resources were available, nor did it care what the demand was – it over did the need in both cases, the first time by 12 small wicker baskets stuffed clear full (one for each disciple by the way), and the second time by “only” 7 baskets – although this time they were reed lunch hampers. I’m not sure how the two compare in size – but it was definitely more than needed in either case. My opinion is that the reed basket would be larger as reeds are a coarser weaving material than wicker, and would therefore be used to make a larger container. So there is a real good chance that they ended up with about the same amount of leftovers each time – enough to feed them all for a couple of days.
One thing that is interesting is that this admonition comes right after Jesus warns them about the “leaven of the Pharisees”, and the disciples confuse the spiritual leavening influence of the teachings of the Pharisees with physical bread. The Pharisees had demanded that Jesus give them a “sign from heaven” – after He had just fed 4000 men with just 7 loaves of bread and a few small fish. What more could they possibly need? And what Jesus was warning His disciples about was this refusal to accept the truth in spite of all the evidence needed to believe. And the Pharisees had all the “Scriptural” teachings they needed to back up their position, at least that is what they believed. But in spite of all that Scriptural knowledge, they refused to accept what the Scriptures pointed to – the Messiah right in front of them.
Do we do the same thing today? God has given the Church the authority to do various things through the Gifts of the Spirit – that use the same power Jesus gave His disciples. Do we use them or do we look to “how many day’s wages” it will take? The Bible tells us we have the authority, the early Church demonstrated that power in use, but do we believe it? Or do we “yes, but” it out of existence? Are WE swallowing the “leavening of the Pharisees” without even a hesitation?
“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.'” (Matthew 28:18)
“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.’ Philip said, ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’ Jesus answered: ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.'” (John 14:6-14) Greater works than Jesus did? Really? Where are they? Or is the leavening of the Pharisees more tasty? Are you a follower of Jesus? If so, then the Holy Spirit is living in you and He has brought certain Gifts from God with Him. Those Gifts use that power that Jesus showed His disciples – they are to be used to do those “greater works” than Jesus did. Greater works of love and compassion. Greater works of building His Church. Are you using them? That same power the disciples could have used that day is also yours to use today. Will you?