Mark 6:37–44 NRSV
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.
When faced with a big challenge or problem, our first impulse usually involves some kind of calculation of how much money it would take to solve the problem. I think this is part of why Jesus pitched the problem to the disciples, to see how they would solve it. Predictably, they got out their calculators and determined it would cost half a year’s wages. Somehow I think Jesus was hoping they might remember that great catch of fish he engineered; the one that almost sank two boats. I think Jesus probably hoped they might appeal to him for help. There’s a good word in here for us when faced with large challenges’start with Jesus. Entreating the Lord is not a last-ditch effort, it’s the starting point.
There’s an even better approach. Take on challenges so large that if Jesus doesn’t intervene you will fail. The disciples saw a problem. Jesus saw people. Yesterday’s text captured the heart of God for the human race: “He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (v. 34).
If I had been one of those disciples, I would have been looking at my watch, wondering when this thing would finally end so we could get on with our plans. Remember, this was unplanned. Compassion is not a pre-planned mission trip (though these can be filled with compassion). Compassion is a Holy Spirit formed disposition deep within one’s inner person. As Jesus constantly demonstrates, compassion is the nature of God. Compassion is not what we do with our loose change. It’s a way of being deeply attuned to other people, seeing past their need and into their nature. Compassion happens when the brokenness of the image of God in me beholds the brokenness of the image of God in another. It moves me from the posture of “helping a brother out,” to the place of holding a brother’s pain. It’s hard. It costs us a lot more than money. It requires giving ourselves away.
Compassion is to charity as a long steady rain is to a water sprinkler. This is precisely what God is like. This is who the Holy Spirit is making us to be. It’s not about giving more, as good as that may be. Compassion is about becoming a new kind of person. Even as I write, I find myself asking, Do I really want to become compassionate? Half a year’s wages actually sounds a lot easier. It makes me realize how giving money can be such a substitutionary charade for true generosity.
Finally, we come to the miracle. I’m beginning to think this is exactly what Jesus had in mind from the get-go. The retreat was a holy ruse. Why do I think that? The text was careful to tell us earlier about the extreme demands and out-of-control activity of the disciples. They had been pushed past their limits. Then he invites them on a retreat only to follow it with a request to feed five thousand people. The conditions were perfect for something of a miraculous object lesson.
First, Jesus gave the Twelve a picture of what real limitations and scarce resources look like: five loaves and two fish. (Imagine trying to feed fifty kids with a single hotdog.) I think the bigger comparison here is between these meager rations and twelve helpers.
Second, he has them sit down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Why do we need to know this detail? I think it’s because he wanted the disciples to know this detail. How else would we know there were five thousand people there? This is not a preacher’s inflated estimate of the attendance on Easter Sunday.
Third, Jesus doesn’t balk at the impossibility of the challenge at hand.
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.
He did exactly what he does at every meal. Four moves: He took. He blessed. He broke. He gave. There’s a hidden curiosity here though. The verbs “took,” “blessed,” and “broke” are past tense verbs. “Gave” translates into English as past tense but the Greek text renders this in the imperfect tense. The imperfect verb tense points to an action done in the past that keeps on moving indefinitely into the future. In other words, the fishes and loaves were being continuously multiplied in his hands. It’s not like all of a sudden five thousand fish and ten thousand loaves materialized on the scene. No, the miracle was happening over and over and over and over again in the movement from his hands to theirs.
The crowd didn’t see this, but the disciples couldn’t have missed it. I think this is the point. Just like those meager rations, so were these disciples, but upon being offered to Jesus something extraordinary happened. He would bless them and break them and make them a gift to the world—an unending source of extravagant, compassionate generosity.
These four verbs would present themselves again at the most mysterious, miraculous, meaningful meal in the history of the world.
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”
Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.
“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. (Mark 14:22–24)
Are you seeing it? As he is the bread, in his hands we are the bread—blessed, broken, and given, and given, and given, and given. Discipleship is all about learning to live our lives in his hands. And the miracle after the miracle is there is always more than enough left for us.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
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