Jesus Feeds the 5,000
John the Baptist, prophet and friend of Jesus, has just been beheaded by Herod. Jesus’ disciples take what is left of his body, bury it, and return to Jesus. Jesus tells them to “come away yourselves to a desolate place for a little while” to find rest. As they cross the sea of Galilee, men on the shore recognize who they are and run on foot to meet them on the other side. The “desolate” place is no longer so desolate. Five thousand men, strong enough to have ran all the way there on foot, now stand before Jesus and his disciples away from the watchful eyes of the Roman authorities. Jewish history has shown successful revolutions with smaller numbers than this, and the crowd and the disciples must have the memory of their friend and the injustice done to him fresh on their minds. I believe if Jesus wanted, he could have avenged John the Baptist, stormed Jerusalem with the crowd at hand and overthrow Herod. Instead, what does Jesus do?
Jesus knew they didn’t need a revolution, they needed the finished work of His death and resurrection. He looks at the crowd and sees them as sheep without a shepherd, lacking hope, love, and direction. He has compassion on them. Instead of inciting them to rebellion, He speaks to them calmly, “teaching them many things.”
Leaning on their logic, the disciples see that it is growing late and tell Jesus to send the crowd home. Instead Jesus tells the disciple to give them something to eat. The disciples know that it would take several months wages just to feed all these people one meal. But where the disciples saw annoyance, Jesus saw opportunity.
Jesus tells them to go into the crowd and see how much food people have to offer. I find it hard to believe that out of 5,000 people, only five loaves of bread and two fish were brought to Jesus. I bet people had more to give, but maybe didn’t want to give up what little they had. But Jesus can work with whatever we give him. The point is we give it to him. Regardless of the heart motivation behind the measly five loaves and two fish, Jesus receives the offering.
Jesus then takes the bread and fish from the disciples, looks to the Father, and he blessed it and broke it.
He then gives it back to the disciples and they passed the meal out to the crowd. All ate and were satisfied.
In a few short months, Jesus would break bread again, the night before he was crucified. This time it stood for his body, broken and given to us so we could partake in and pass on the eternal hope to which we are currently called.
The reason I recap this story is because I have been grappling with the impossible human fulfillment of global physical need and our reaction to the fact that we will not be able to fix the whole world. I love the feeding of the 5,000 because it points to the greater truth of a loving Creator who asks us to meet both spiritual and physical needs with our ministries but with knowledge of him as our source for both. We must give the small offering of our lives and our work back to God and know that He is the one who will multiply it.
As we look upon the needs in the world, we need to be constantly reminded that our pockets extend past our logic, our strength is made perfect in our weakness, and our peace is not like what the world gives. When we don’t make God the source of our strength and ministry, it’s only a matter of time before we fail or run out of strength.
I spent time in Guatemala with a friend who had a perpetual crowd of thousands at her doorstep. Often quite literally. She had structured an organization to meet the needs of these people she came to know as family. She had compassion on them. She lived among them. She fed them. She clothed them. She built houses for them. She sought justice for them, domestically and internationally. She argued with corrupt police on their behalf. She was thrown in jail. She was praised for her tenacity and dedication to the cause. People wanted to give her money and partner with her organization.
After four straight years of this, she had what I can only guess was an emotional breakdown. She is back in the states, her mysteriously abandoned ministry leaving quite a wake of confusion and disappointment. Nobody has really heard anything from her.
Through this experience I have learned that you can have the most impressive talents and the best resources and you still won’t be able to fix the world. You are putting a bandaid on a wound that needs surgery. We can feed the 5,000 with God’s help, but they will just be hungry again in a couple hours. We can build someone a house in a week, but what they really need goes far deeper than that. When it comes to fighting injustice, we don’t need more money, we need to know better the God we serve and story we have been invited in to. We must not think we are greater proponents of justice than God. My friend was tossed about by the overwhelming need around her and had lost her connection to God as her anchor and ultimate provider. As ministers of the gospel, we are irrevocably identified with the needs of others. And our ministries can certainly meet felt needs, but they cannot be motivated and adjusted on the basis of such needs. Only intense focus on the gospel can produce sustainable ministry from the heart.
Sustainable ministers of the gospel know that they are not much to behold, but through years of relationship they are convinced that God is with us and God is good. They are humble and grateful participants in God’s long, slow, often mysterious, but perfect master plan to restore humankind back to himself. Before they give out of their own resources, they offer it back to God, asking him to bless it and multiply it. Their work is often hard and exhausting, but never discouraging because they have a greater perspective. They know God as the source of everything. They are extremely aware of the needs of the hurting world around them, but they are also keenly aware of the needs within themselves.
My friend knew all this in theory. She didn’t just want to build people houses or give them food. She wanted them to know Jesus. The straw that broke her back was the lack of practice of the last point. She did not understand the importance of her own spiritual/emotional and even physical needs. It was easier for her to work all day every day meeting the needs of others so she wouldn’t have to address the hurt in her own heart.
What do we need? Authentic discipleship
We are created for intimate, vulnerable relationships with God AND other people. We need the authentic discipleship that comes from being around individuals and communities who truly KNOW us. We must let people near our hearts. We must not become like sheep without a shepherd.
In the story, the crowd comes to Jesus and he is moved with compassion for them because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Have you ever seen a sheep without a shepherd?
I can’t help but think this is what we are like when we go without authentic discipleship for long periods of time. At first, it may be fun not to be held accountable and be on your own. What we think we want, is exactly what we don’t need. As time passes, burdens accumulate and we can find ourselves buried by our lack of vulnerability and communication with God and/or openness with others. I think this is the place my friend found herself in.
God has given us his Word, prayer, a community of believers, and genuine friendships to sharpen us on a day to day basis. These are our means to pursue discipleship. We have to choose to follow our shepherd and we have to let him shear off our burdens.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
I praise God because we are not the ultimate burden bearers and we are not the redeemers of the world. We are simply messengers, basic laborers telling the world who God really is and what he has already done for us. I praise God because he has given us the Bible to teach us what our responses should be to any need we come across. No matter how bad we screw up, we have a loving Father overflowing with forgiveness.
Because we are not the redeemers, when we fail, the world doesn’t end. My friend’s failure does not negate the friendships I made and beautiful stories of redemption I heard in Guatemala. That is why I felt the need to put together a short video of my time there. I wanted to remind myself of these little slices of life and redemption. God was there before my friend and her organization, and God will continue to bring people to that great country bringing a message of both spiritual and physical restoration.
I am thankful for my friend. I pray that her heart would be moving towards reconciliation with all those affected by this. I still think she is an amazing individual and I really just want to have a chat with her and give her a big hug. I hope one day I will get to see her again and get her perspective on all of this. I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to experience and learn from all this. I now better understand how to be a more successful and sustainable minister of the gospel. I am once again reminded that our character is the sum of each and every choice we make, and I will choose discipleship and refinement even if it is not the easy way. Only when we have let the Kingdom come in our life will we be able to bring spiritual and physical restoration to the world. It will be flowing from his work in us, not from our work for Him.