When the apostles returned from their mission of preaching the Gospel and performing the work Christ commanded, they were anxious to share with Him all that had happened. Jesus recognized their need to be with Him, to retreat from the press of the mission. But the crowd followed them.
Imagine the apostles’ disappointment when Jesus, out of compassion, decided to teach the crowd. Imagine their frustration when, hour after hour, He showed no sign of stopping. Would they ever get time alone with the Master?
Dusk offered an opportunity. “Send the people to get something to eat,” the apostles counseled Him. “It’s late – they’ll be hungry.”
“You feed them,” Jesus replied. With heavy sarcasm they responded, “And where do you suppose we’ll get seven months’ wages to do that?”
The apostles operated out of an economy of scarcity. There wasn’t enough time to divide it with the crowd. There wasn’t enough food to share it with the multitude. Life was a zero-sum game. There’s a finite amount of available goods – the more you get, the less remains for me.
Jesus, however, operated out of the assumption that God’s resources are super-abundant. Give everything away; you’ll end up having more. Just as Elijah promised the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17 that if she used her last oil and meal to prepare food for him, she would never lack oil or meal, so Jesus trusts that, if the apostles expend all their resources, God will bless them with more.
And it happened. After the crowd has been fed, more is left over than there was to begin. Twelve baskets full.
As we debate national budgets, some argue we must cut foreign aid because of overwhelming domestic needs. As we call for full funding for programs such as the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants & Children (WIC), people argue, “Scarce resources make that impossible.” What is there in the wisdom of Jesus that bids us see things differently? What makes a just and compassionate economy not an idealistic pipe dream, but good economics? What does it really mean for us today to “feed my sheep?”
Scholars have long remarked that the feeding of the 5,000 is not a typical miracle narrative. There is no reference to the peoples’ amazement, as you always get with miracle stories. It’s often been called an “enacted parable” instead. It’s a sacrament of the future reign of God, a “preview of coming attractions.”
But there is more immediate interpretation of the story. The biblical wisdom tradition teaches that one should trust in God. In God’s hand, Job says, “is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all humankind.” (Job 12:10) When God sends the Spirit forth, it is a creative power, “renewing the face of the earth.” (Psalm 104:29-30) The wisdom psalmist expresses – even in the midst of attacks and sickness – how “Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand… My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:23-26) And, in Psalm 23, the psalmist finds that God “prepares a table for me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflow.” (Psalm 23:5)
What characterized Jesus throughout his ministry was His total confidence in God. Just like the ideal follower of God described in Psalm 1, Jesus meditated on God’s laws day and night, supremely confident that He would be “like a tree planted by streams of living water, yielding its fruit in due season, whose leaf does not wither.”