Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountain-side and sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.
Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”
His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”
“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.
“Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.”
He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. They all ate and were satisfied.
—Matthew 15:29-37a, NIV
Normally when we examine the passages where Jesus fed four or five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and some puny fish, we try to figure out the mechanism for the miracle, or we examine the accounts to determine if there were two feedings, one of four thousand and one of five thousand, or one feeding that became two in the telling.
Today I am not concerned with the textual analysis that pretends to resolve the question of how many feedings there were, because even if you can mount up a good literary case for one story becoming two stories in the retelling, you cannot eliminate the possibility that two similar events actually took place. Similar events do take place! Or are New Testament textual critics the only people in existence who never have the occasion to say, “Hey! That’s the second time in a row that’s happened to me!”
Literary analysis can only yield literary information; it can leave us with strong opinions about how many feedings of the masses there were, but without outside corroboration of some kind, the strong opinions can’t be verified.
So we won’t tilt at those windmills.
Today I am also not concerned with how Jesus fed so many people with so little food. A former pastor of mine once speculated that perhaps Jesus’ attempt to feed the crowd with so little food, especially after all the other things he had done for them, moved them to share their box lunches. In that case the miracle involves the transformation of human hearts rather than a sort of heavenly Hamburger Helper. But then I observe that if Jesus could perform instantaneous acts of healing, He shouldn’t have any difficulty multiplying fishes and loaves. If certain television faith healers had fed the crowd, I suppose a lot of them would have returned an hour later to complain that they felt hungry again, and they would have been told that if they had had faith, they would still feel full; but Jesus didn’t have problems maintaining the efficacy of His miracles. He never had to weasel out of warranty service.
So we won’t tilt at those windmills either.
Today I am also not concerned with the mechanism for multiplying the food. Some people believe in a deity called Nature, and they imagine that if they can show that there was a natural mechanism driving the execution of a miracle, they have shown that Jesus’ Father didn’t do it. But I observe that there is only one God, the Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, and that nature is just a metaphor for His providence. Whoever figures out a natural explanation has merely demonstrated how clever they are to figure out the means of God’s involvement, but they have not debunked the divine providence that occurred.
So let’s not tilt at those windmills either.
Jesus is interrupted during his mountain retreat by a crowd of sick and hungry human beings.
What is His reaction?
Does Jesus derive from this situation a moral for the disciples, leaving them to digest a spiritual truth and the people to digest nothing?
Does He send His disciples to shoo the people away on the pretext that He needs to give a status report to celestial entities?
Does He assemble them, and seeing how many tragically and desperately ill people there are among them, proceed to tell them that if they think positively and have faith, they can overcome their handicaps or at least compensate for them in some constructive way?
No, He does not resent the imposition on His quiet time, nor does he despise their physical needs; he has compassion on them. He heals their illness and fills their hungry stomachs. They asked for healing, so He gave it to them. They did not ask for food, but He saw their need and provided for it anyway. Therefore, we see that it is not only His character to provide for the physical needs we recognize and ask Him for, it is also within His character to recognize and fill the physical needs we don’t even bother Him with.
I also notice that Jesus did not go around through the crowd and distribute the food personally to each person. He sent His disciples to distribute the food, and they did so.
Suppose you were there at the time. Suppose that while the disciples are busily distributing the food to the huge crowd, someone casually walks up to you and starts explaining Jesus’ teachings to you. “Are you a disciple?” you ask, wishing to clarify the situation. “Yes I am,” he replies with a modest smile. At that point, wouldn’t you look out to see the disciples struggling to distribute the food to all the people and wonder why this ‘disciple’ has so much free time? Wouldn’t you ask him, “Well, if you’re a disciple of Jesus, why aren’t you out there distributing the food like the others?”
Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It says so in Hebrews and in Revelation. Have you thought what sort of implication that has for your everyday life? Jesus’ compassion for people’s physical needs is the same today as it was back then in Galilee. Jesus was concerned enough to supply the needs that people didn’t even ask for, and His concern is the same today. Jesus commissioned His disciples to supply those needs, He continues to send them today.
So I ask you, If you are truly Jesus’ disciple, then why aren’t you out there distributing loaves and fishes?