(Matt. 14; Mark 6; Luke 9; John 6)
What do we do when Jesus asks us for something beyond our resources; how do we respond? He made this kind of request of His first followers—“You give them something to eat.” The Bible story is familiar and it’s not about Jesus’s miracles; it’s about the disciples’ faith (see the way John tells the story in chapter 6).
Despite attempting to be alone with His disciples, a large crowd of people surrounded Jesus. In compassion He healed them and taught them (Luke 9:11), working into the late hours of the day, and, concerned for the people, the disciples asked Jesus to send the crowd away so that they could find something to eat.
“You give them something to eat,” was Jesus’s simple reply. Generosity that beggared not just imagination, but plausibility.
That’s just like Jesus; He asks us to accomplish something for which we don’t have the provisions. Not metaphorically or spiritually, but literally.
Of course the story’s ending is well-known and nearly predictable. In an act of obedient faith, with perhaps a bit of sheepishness and a downcast eye, they offered Him their meager provisions. Jesus took what they had and did something amazing with it, creating an abundance of leftovers. It’s a beautiful story of Jesus’ power and compassion for needy, weary people.
“When Jesus saw the crowds, He had compassion on them.” This is Jesus in His essence—self-giving—He wanted to be alone with His disciples, to mourn the death of John the Baptist (Matt. 14:12–13), but set His own desires and agenda aside to meet the needs of those who came to Him.
Jesus’s compassion seems to have been contagious; behavior modeled is behavior emulated. To cultivate compassion, the disciples simply needed to watch their master.
The disciples saw the crowd, anticipated their needs, and possibly the disciple’s own rumbling stomachs, and decided to do what they could (ask Jesus to intervene and send them away). This is a surprisingly sensible, and not inappropriate, course of action.
Sensitivity to those around us and desiring to meet their needs is a great gift of God, and one that we need to cultivate; we need to ask the Lord to help us see well and clearly. We, like the disciples, rightly ask Jesus to do something. Knowing that He is the lord of miracles, and that He can do something about the situation we’ve seen, we ask Him to do what makes the most sense, “Lord, meet their need.”
When we do this, we not only exercise compassion on those around us, we are following Jesus’s own instructions; Jesus Himself tells the disciples to ask the Lord to provide (see Matt. 9:35–38). But often, being able to see a need only leads halfway to a solution.
Feeling compassion for the people, Jesus replied, “You give them something to eat.” This was not the first, nor would it be the last time that Jesus said or did something that left his disciples confused—it’s not as though Jesus was unaware of their food situation.
He didn’t need to be omniscient to know that was an impossible request, and Jesus wasn’t being metaphorical or spiritualizing here as He was in John 4 speaking of food and water in spiritual terms; He meant give them something with calories to satisfy the gnawing stomachs.
Traveling with few provisions seems to have been pretty common for this group (see John 4:8). Even if they did carry food with them, provisions for this crowd would have been a ludicrous sight—thirteen people (assuming this was only Jesus and the twelve disciples) carrying enough food to feed what has been estimated to be a crowd of around 15,000. But Jesus asks them to provide the evening’s repast for the multitude, a feat both physically and financially beyond the disciples’ means.
The disciples’ response did more than highlight their lack of food or funds; when they remind Jesus of their meager resources, the famous five loaves and two small fishes, they are being honest about what they have.
Jesus, how do you expect us to do that? We barely have enough for ourselves and you ask us to give them some? But when Jesus asks for it, they bring it to Him.
That’s deep faith, giving everything you can to the task you are assigned even though it is painfully, even laughably, short of what is being asked let alone what is required to accomplish the mission.
When Jesus asks us to do something for which we don’t have the resources, it’s okay to tell Him that we don’t have enough. It’s okay to look at our calendar, our checkbook, or our skills and say, “Jesus, this is all I have, and it’s obviously not enough.” But when we say that, we, like the disciples, need to offer it to Him, as little as it may be—Here, Jesus, take what I have.
Jesus took the little that was offered and made it possible for the disciples to do exactly what He was asking. He blessed the bread and fish and gave it back to the disciples; in the end, they did indeed give the crowd something to eat, enough to have leftovers. They gave to Him, and He gave it back, enough to accomplish the task and more.
He used what they gave Him. He could have created bread out of the rocks, or made manna fall from heaven, but He used what was given to the task. Something small and not enough was given, and Jesus did the unbelievable.
We should pray for the needs of the world; we should ask Jesus to provide for those in need. But our empathy and compassion should not be exhausted by our prayers. Our faith in God prompts us to offer what we have when He asks us to give the crowds something to eat, our limited resources are not a reason for us to decline.
Jesus knows what we have; He knows what it will take to accomplish what He is asking, and He knows that those two quantities are not always—hardly ever if we’re honest—the same. But we give it to Jesus anyway and He uses what we give in ways that only He can.