Five barley loaves and two fish—not much to feed more than 5,000 hungry people. But in Jesus’s hands not enough is transformed into abundance. Not enough, it turns out, is more than enough.
The feeding of a crowd of 5,000 men, along with women and children, is the only one of Jesus’s miracles other than the resurrection that shows up in all four gospels. We find it in Matt 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-14. The fact that this story, among all the other extraordinary things Jesus did, is repeated by all four of the authors who documented Jesus’s life should tell us something. This event spoke volumes to the disciples about Jesus’s identity—about who he was and about who he might become.
Mulling over the story, reading and re-reading it to appreciate the narrative cues, what strikes me is how Jesus shuns dazzle. It’s almost as if no one even realizes a miracle has happened until the disciples go around picking up the pieces. The whole story unfolds in the most unassuming way. Jesus is no showman. He’s not out to draw attention to himself or to wow the crowd with his performance. He’s there to teach, to heal, to serve, to sustain, to upend our expectations and challenge our cravings.
Seeing Scarcity in the Presence of Abundance
At the end of a long day out in “a desolate place,” everyone’s hungry. Jesus asks the disciples if they can feed the crowd. And they respond with common sense and pragmatism—no chance. Even if they had half a year’s salary, it wouldn’t be enough to feed so many; and anyway, there’s no corner market nearby to buy that much bread even if their wallets were loaded. There was no material solution to the obvious reality that the need exceeded the physical resources available. How often do we face this same dilemma—the need exceeds our resources. There isn’t enough to go around? How often are we tempted to say exactly what the disciples said, “Send them away”? How often do we see only scarcity, when the source of abundance is walking among us?
So Jesus takes the only thing they can find—a meager offering from a child of five barley loaves and two fish—and he blesses them. There are no fireworks, no flames sparking from his hands, no thunderclap and lightning, no remarkable sign that something big is about to happen. Instead Jesus blesses God for providing the food, then hands the broken bread and fish to his disciples (who only moments before had been sure it was impossible to feed so many) and asks them to serve.
The miracle is diffused among Jesus’s disciples as they mingle with the hungry crowd serving groups gathered on the hillside. Supernatural provision takes place in the context of community as the bread and fish are passed from hand to hand. Jesus allows his disciples to participate in the miracle by serving those gathered, and in a mysterious way, the bread multiplies while it is being shared. And after everyone eats until they’re full, only then do the disciples realize that there are still leftovers, but not just crumbs—there are twelve baskets of bread left over.
“And they all ate and were satisfied.” Thousands of people ate and were satisfied by five barely loaves and two puny fish. And no one even seems to have realized that the food began to multiply miraculously until they had already eaten and began to gather up the leftovers. There’s something so low-key about the telling of this miracle. In the ho-hum ordinariness of the tone, it would be easy to overlook the profound significance at the heart of the event, because for those with eyes to see, it was about much more than a single meal. Matthew, Mark and Luke report that the people all ate, and were satisfied. The satisfaction of so many with bread that materialized as if it had rained down from heaven was a sign—it signified the presence of God among his people.
In the Old Testament eating was loaded with meaning. It was associated with God’s blessing of prosperity, the blessing of living in the Promised Land, the blessing of being in the presence of God, and ultimately with the hope of living eternally in his kingdom. Psalm 22, the Psalm that begins with the despairing words Jesus quoted from the cross, concludes with the promise of a satisfying meal shared in the context of a celebration of God’s return. The Psalm is a desperate cry for help that culminates in God’s decisive response and rescue of the suffering one—redemption that inspires the praise of the nations. One of the signs of God’s coming rescue is that “the meek shall eat and be satisfied.”
“The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord!
May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations shall worship before you…
All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship.” Psalm 22:26-29
A feast for the faithful. Eating mingled with worship. Abundance in place of scarcity. Bread appearing supernaturally like manna falling from heaven in the desert. The oppressed, marginalized and poor eating until they were satisfied. These were all indications of God’s blessing and they testified to God’s presence among his people.
But here’s the thing: the meal wasn’t fancy. It was bread and fish. A basic dinner. Jesus didn’t serve cake with frosting and a Pinterest perfect sugared cherry on top. The fish didn’t turn into bonfile in their mouths. He didn’t serve up what they craved—he supplied what they really needed to live.
What about dessert?
And this is where the miracle catches me and holds on. Because I wonder if I had been there, would I have been grateful or disappointed. Would I have commented that the barley bread was a little dry and asked for honey and butter to go on top? Would I have complained that there was no dessert? Would enough have been just right, or would I have let discontent gnaw at the edges of my soul? Would I have left craving more, craving something tastier, something more stylish, something more elegant?
There’s a hunger that drives me, that drives us all, but often it’s a hunger for indulgence, not sustenance. How many miracles do I miss seeing because I’m expecting God to indulge me rather than sustain me? How often do I miss appreciating the miracle of the crisp Fuji apple, the smell of the rain on the grass scenting the spring air, a drink of cool clean water, the sound of my daughter breathing in her sleep, the perfectly timed call from a friend? Instead I’m tempted to wish for a house instead of an apartment where I share a bathroom with my kids, an SUV instead of a beat up compact Hyundai, the budget to buy organic instead of generic.
Life, sustenance, good is all already here in my ordinary moments, but it can be easy to take the ordinary for granted, to miss the miracle when it so closely aligns with the reality that God has already provided more than enough for me to live well. And I’m learning that when I give into my craving for excess, then I totally miss the life-giving presence of the God who walks among us and who, alone, satisfies my soul.
Reading the story of the feeding of the 5,000, I can forget that in truth Jesus had been feeding the people all day before he ever paused to break the bread and the fish. He’d been teaching them about God’s kingdom and how to live in step with it. The physical meal at the end of the day was the last course in a day-long banquet of sustenance. In John’s gospel when the crowd comes back the next day clamoring for another free meal, Jesus tells them that they missed the point entirely. He tells them that the true bread wasn’t the meal in their bellies, it was the teaching that nourished their souls and it was the presence of the one who is himself the bread of life.
Jesus meets us in our cravings, and says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger.” But will we eat? Will we be satisfied? Or will we ask for cake instead?