The story of Jesus feeding the crowd is found in all four of the gospels:
· Matthew 14:13-21
· Mark 6:30-44
· Luke 9:10-17
· John 6:1-15
So, it is safe to say that it is a significant event in Jesus’ ministry. You may have heard it many times, especially if you have grown up within the church.
Have you ever noticed that if you read these different accounts side by side, each one emphasises different details. For example:
· Matthew emphasises Jesus’ healing people, whereas Mark focuses on Jesus’ teaching the crowds, and Luke mentions both.
· Matthew also adds the detail that there were also women and children in the crowd in addition to around five thousand men.
· Mark and John both note that the grass on which the crowds sat was green, a small but significant detail which we will return to towards the end of this reflection.
· Mark is the only one who directly mentions the metaphor of a shepherd and sheep.
· Meanwhile, John’s account focuses less on Jesus’ interaction with the crowd and more on the way Jesus intentionally teaches his disciples. It is also much more specific about the people involved (naming Philip, Andrew, and a boy who was willing to share his loaves and fishes). Such details give it the feel of a first-hand account.
In this reflection, I will focus on the account in Mark’s gospel, which sets the event in the context of the twelve disciples returning from their first missionary journeys into the villages around Galilee and having a de-brief with Jesus. So, I want to consider what this story says to us about continuing the mission of Jesus in our time and place.
Like sheep without a shepherd
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. 33 But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
The crowd are described as “like sheep without a shepherd”. I wonder if you ever feel like that? Do you ever go astray and lose your way, as one little decision after another leads you away from a close walk with with God? Or have unexpected changes beyond your control, left you lost and disoriented? Thankfully, Jesus reveals the God who is like a good shepherd, who is full of compassion, who wants to lead us in God’s ways. The implication is that above all, we are called to be compassionate towards others. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians, puts this well:
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:32 – 5:2)
You give them something to eat
After Jesus has taken time to teach the crowds, we pick up the story again at verse 35:
35 By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. 36 Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
37 But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”
They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages[a]! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
38 “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.”
When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”
The weary disciples looked at the crowd and wanted to send them away to find food, to fend for themselves. But Jesus looked at the crowd with compassion. Jesus doesn't want to send them away. Jesus gathers people together and provides for them. And he wants his followers to be involved. So Jesus says to his followers, “You give them something to eat".
Take some time to notice the needs of people in the church and in the wider community. For example, those who are struggling to make ends meet; those who are lonely, isolated, or depressed; those who have lost their way in life and don’t know which way to turn; or those simply searching for more meaning and purpose in their lives.
Now imagine Jesus saying to you, to us, "you give them something to eat".
How do you feel? Are you weary and does your heart sink? Or can you feel compassion welling up and faith stirring as the Holy Spirit leads you into action? However you feel, Jesus is always inviting his followers to join in with his world –changing, life-giving, mission. And it begins with prayer. So, I encourage you now to pause and pray for people in need.
The disciples said "we haven’t got enough" , but Jesus says "just bring what you have". What could you offer to Jesus in response to the needs you see? Is there some small thing you could do to make a difference? Who knows what God might do with it?
A little becomes enough for everyone
We now move onto the final part of our bible reading, from Mark 6:39-44.
39 Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. 41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. 42 They all ate and were satisfied, 43 and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. 44 The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
Jesus takes the small offering of bread and fish, give thanks for it, breaks it, and shares it, so that everybody has enough. There was quite a crowd that day, 5000 men plus women & children too. The need was great. The offering was small. But God's power multiplied it beyond imagination. The UK has entered an economic recession, with inevitable job losses and financial hardship for some. Many churches are facing financial challenges, including St Andrews. But I believe Jesus is still saying to his followers, to people like you and me, "bring what you have and see how God can multiply it.”
Notice how Jesus directs the crowd to gather in smaller groups. This is a helpful way of looking after the needs of large numbers of sheep. It’s also a helpful way of caring for large groups of people. Perhaps forming more small groups within the life of the church would be one way in which we can help one another to follow Jesus and invite others to do the same. We might also be better prepared to keep on supporting and caring for one another in the event of further lockdowns.
Can you think of a few people you could meet with regularly to encourage one another in your walk with God, either in person or online? Perhaps you could discuss the weekly teaching in the St. Andrews Blog or Podcast, or catch up and pray together? If you would like to start a small group or to join a small group, please contact Chris, Nick or Joyce.
The Lord’s My Shepherd
It’s only Mark’s account of the feeding of the five thousand which makes a direct link to the language of sheep and shepherd. It also describes the people sitting on the “green grass”. Does that remind you of the “green pastures” of Psalm 23? It’s a psalm that we often associate with funerals, but this is even more a psalm about living under the reign of God, the good shepherd king. It’s about knowing the Lord’s provision and care and leading through the ups and downs of life, knowing God’s loving presence even through the darkest of times. Mark is portraying Jesus as the good Shepherd king of psalm 23. Why not take a moment to read Psalm 23 now and allow it to lead you into prayer?
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Question for further reflection or discussion:
1. Psalm 23 likens God to a good shepherd. Can you remember a time when you have experienced God’s loving care, provision or protection? How could you be more kind and compassionate, like Jesus?
2. When faced with a crowd of people who were both hungry and “like sheep without a shepherd, Jesus challenged his disciples saying “you give them something to eat”. What needs are you aware of in the church and in the wider community? What might you have to offer? How could you play a part in responding to some of those needs?
3. I wonder if there are a few people you could gather together on a regular basis to pray, read the bible and learn together? (whether online, in person or a mixture of both.)