Did you know that there are only a few stories shared in all four Gospels? Mark, Matthew, and Luke have a ton of similarities, but very few stories make it into all four. The “Feeding of the 5,000” is one of them. If this story was important enough for all four gospel writers to include, then it’s important enough for us to pay attention to.
Today I want to focus on John’s account. (So far, all these questions occur in John’s Gospel.) Let’s just read it and then we’ll look closely at the question Jesus asked.
When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
There is actually a lot happening in this story. I don’t have time to get into all the nuance and allusions within it. This is a callback to Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness, it’s a nod to the Passover, there are Messianic prophecies at play, and the people want to make him King afterward. But let’s focus on that question.
Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?
Let’s think about it in today’s terms. There are 5,000 men. To feed everyone, even at a measly $5 per meal, would take $25,000! Philip isn’t that far off even by today’s standards. It would take about half a year’s salary to buy enough food for everyone to have even a snack.
In other words, it’s impossible.
There are some indications that these men were militia men who were willing to follow Jesus as he marched on Jerusalem to oust the Roman occupation. But no one brought food. One of the logistical nightmares of war, especially in ancient times, was feeding a literal army. They would loot and pillage and hunt and forage and plunder whatever they could find from the local villages along the way.
Jesus doesn’t ask where they could get food for all these guys. He asks where they could buy food. I’m trying to imagine what would happen at lunch time in our small town if suddenly 5,000 extra people showed up wanting to eat. All the restaurants would be over capacity. There wouldn’t be enough in stock at the one grocery store in town.
The disciples look at the need of all these people and see a logistical nightmare. Jesus looks at the need and sees an opportunity for God’s glory to be revealed.
Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?
I’ve said it before, but I believe the primary ethic of the Kingdom of God can be summed up as “little things with great love.” Imagine being this young boy in the crowd of thousands. You have a lunch because your mom was looking out for you. Everyone else is getting hungry. You can hear the rumbling stomachs. People are getting hangry. You pull out your bread and fish to sneak a bite when the disciples begin asking if anyone has food. Do you volunteer your lunch? Or do you tuck it away really quick and hope no one noticed.
Did Jesus need this boy’s lunch in order to perform this kind of miracle? Probably not. He had the power of God the Father. He could have literally rained down manna from heaven. But this one kid’s sacrifice was at the heart of this great miracle.
When we pray “Give us this day our daily bread” God hears and answers. But we have turned that into “Give me this day all the things I want to have for a comfortable life at the standard of living I desire.” We end up sounding like the rich/lucky guy in Jesus’ parable:
“The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
The man in this parable was concerned about three people: Me, Myself, and I. He suffered from what I’ve heard called “I-Me-My Syndrome.” I can almost guarantee that this young boy in the crowd of 5,000 was not the only one with any food on him. But he was the only one willing to give up what he had so that others could eat, too.
And I wouldn’t be surprised to find out if this young boy served as the inspiration for what took place in the book of Acts.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
It can be overwhelming to look around at the shear amount of need in our communities. There doesn’t ever seem to be enough to go around. When we take a look at the drug problem, homelessness, unemployment, food scarcity, alcoholism, poverty, incarceration, crime, and more, we can be left wondering “Where can we buy bread for all these people?” It may seem impossible. But we are a part of the church that literally invented the concept of hospitals and food banks and places of open education.
I think Jesus would agree with what Ghandi said: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” Our churches could be doing more if we were serious about pooling our resources. So often we hoard so much stuff that we need to build extra storage spaces.
What will it take to get back to the spirit of the first Christians? What will it take to say “there were no needy persons among them”?
Jesus asked, “Where shall we buy bread for all these people?”