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It's not what you don't have, but what you do have, that counts and provides the starting point for this miracle.
In those days, Jesus called His disciples to Him and said, "I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their own houses, they will faint on the way; for some of them have come from afar."
His disciples answered Him, "How can one satisfy these people with bread here in the wilderness?" He asked them, "How many loaves do you have?" They said, "Seven."
So He commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground. He took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them and gave them to His disciples to set before them. They also had a few small fish; and having blessed them, He said to set them also before them.
So they ate and were filled, and they took up seven large baskets of leftover fragments. Those who had eaten were about four thousand. And He sent them away, immediately got into the boat with His disciples, and came to the region of Dalmanutha.
Mark 8:1-10 NKJV, condensed
One free meal! But you had to wait three days, be seated on the dusty ground to eat it and not be concerned who was sitting next to you. Those persons who hung around that desolate spot with Jesus were all invited--whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, rich or poor, the first to arrive or the last straggler, even the scavengers who stuffed their pockets. Everyone would eat together in that barren land and, while doing so, get a brief glimpse of heaven.
Both Mark and Matthew tell this story and place it in the context of Jesus walking along the border between Jewish Galilee and the surrounding Gentile territories. Jesus started this trip in hopes of being alone with his disciples, but had to end the journey because he was just as popular in the outlining areas as in the heart of Galilee. So much for giving private instruction to his disciples. Like children with a parent, they probably learned more by watching Jesus than by hearing what he said.
This episode identifies the gathering as a multitude, and the location as a mountainous wilderness. The terrain did not make it easy for people to get to the Great Teacher, but the news of his amazing miracles spread like icing on a cake, and people came from everywhere to see him.
I'm afraid I would have missed that meal. My upbringing taught me to go see what there is to see and then leave. I was always supposed to have something better to do (some useful task or productive work) and not wait around for whatever to happen. We were a family that sat in the last pew and when the worship service was over, we were out the door.
How about you? Would you have lingered, expecting something more and all the while rubbing shoulders with people who seemed a bit strange? There was no room in this crowd for holier-than-thou attitudes. Skeptics and curiosity seekers would have tired of the game and gone home. Caregivers and women with small children certainly couldn't stay. People with jobs would have a lot of explaining to do when they saw their employers again. Imagine ignoring your family and other responsibilities to be with an itinerant preacher for three days!
These were people who would rather be with Jesus than have the comforts of home and follow the traditions of their faith! They felt safe, protected and spiritually strengthened in Jesus' presence and didn't feel the need to worry about tomorrow, or who else was in the crowd. Jesus knew the excitement of the past days had pushed their hunger pangs into the background. On the road it would catch up to them. He understood how far they had come and how difficult the landscape. Compassion is a strong motivator, so Jesus fed them all because otherwise some were not able to endure the trip home.
The miracle itself is told in simple terms. "What do we have? We'll start with that." The answer: Seven loaves. Everybody settled down on the ground. Jesus took the loaves and thanked God for them, broke them into pieces which he gave to the disciples to distribute. As an afterthought, someone unveiled a few small fish. These were also given to Jesus to bless. Everyone ate and all were satisfied. The disciples picked up seven large basketfuls of leftover fragments. Then Jesus sent the crowd away, got into a boat and left that region. It was classic eat and run.
I smile at the mention of a few small fish, and can picture in my mind how that happened. In every congregation there are those people who can't sit still and always have to be doing something. Those who tired of Jesus' preaching, young and old alike, went fishing! When they noticed Jesus blessing the loaves, they sheepishly admitted, "Oh by the way, we have some fish here."
Bread with a little fish was the only thing on the menu. Similar to the water Jesus turned into wine at a wedding reception, and because Jesus did everything well, we can safely say it was the best-tasting bread in the country. Somehow we think this miraculous bread and wine had some extra special sustenance in it. And it did.
The same can be true for the Eucharist. The simplicity of a single loaf and a chalice containing the fruit of the vine doesn't mean it's simply bread and wine. The next time the sacrament of Holy Communion is served, think of the bread and juice as coming with love directly from the hands of our Savior. As we believe, so it will be.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: If Jesus were making a loaf of bread just for you, what kind of loaf would you like?
Describe the most diverse crowd you were ever in. What was the event? Who were the people who made up the crowd? How did you feel being there?
Suppose you had been part of this Gospel story, would you have hung around for a meal of bread with a little fish? Think of the group you usually travel with, and the conversation your family and friends would have before reaching a decision regarding this question. What are the pros and cons of staying for the meal? What issues about this meal would divide your group?
The scribes and Pharisees would not have been able to participate because there was no ceremonial water for washing before eating, and because Jews and Gentiles did not traditionally eat together and touch the same food. What are some current attitudes and traditions which prevent people from sharing a meal together? When was the last time you sat down to eat with someone from a different race, culture or religion?
In what ways does this miracle give us a glimpse of heaven?
Why do you think Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish but did not produce something new like a fruit, vegetable or dessert?
Do you believe there was any extra strength or life in Jesus' bread? When you participate in the communion sacrament, what more is involved than just receiving a piece of bread?
Jesus' compassion motivated him to provide for this diverse crowd. What does your compassion compel you to do?
Jesus began this trip through the Gentile territories at a place in Sidon where he met a very persistent and persuasive woman (see Mark 7:24-30). Could she have influenced him in any way to pay more attention to the Gentiles he met after that? Maybe even expand his thinking beyond the "lost sheep of the house of Israel"? Yes? No? Give some reasons for your opinion.