Close to Jesus: The boy with the fishes and the loaves
Not long ago I wrote out a dramatized reflection on the boy who gave Jesus the fishes and the loaves. It was for a sermon at Sanctuary. Here it is. I hope you enjoy it!
First a couple of introductory observations. If we were making a movie about Jesus multiplying the fishes and the loaves, I would cast a 12-year-old boy for this part. The story is told in all four Gospels (Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, John 6), but it only includes a few scant details about the boy. He was apparently by himself. There is no mention of his parents. He was old enough to eat a sizeable meal and carry his own lunch. Yet he is referred to as a boy and not a man. The official age for manhood was 13, so I am guessing the boy was about 12. I've added a few other details in the story, based on the four Gospels and a little biblical scholarship.
Okay, now grab a few quiet minutes. Quiet yourself in God's presence. Enter into this story as fully as you can, imagining yourself as the 12-year-old boy. Put yourself in his sandals for this, the largest scale of all Jesus' miracles…
You live with your family near the Sea of Galilee in one of the small villages that dot the areas near the water. Your village is on the northeastern corner of the Sea, a region of rich farmland and rolling hills. Although you are still technically a boy, you have starting to pay attention to the concerns of adults. Many of them are talking excitedly about Jesus. You have even heard many adults speculate about whether Jesus might be the promised Messiah. He teaches with a unique style and authority, and he is a well-known miracle worker. In fact, there are reports that Jesus has recently performed miracles of healing on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and now he is headed this way. People are talking excitedly about him. Could it really be? The long-awaited Messiah appearing in my lifetime, out here, so far away from Jerusalem on the east side of the Sea of Galilee? Will he heal people here today? Will he talk more about the long-anticipated kingdom of God?
There are excited voices in your village. Jesus has landed on the shore! You run into the road and see people pointing. Down the coast in the distance, you can see a cluster of fishing boats at the shore and a huge crowd gathering. Other people from your village talk excitedly about going to see Jesus. You turn and immediately race to your parents to ask permission to skip your chores for the day and go listen to Jesus. This is your chance to see and hear him for yourself. Your parents are working on the family farm, but they give you permission to go – under specific conditions. While mother prepares a meal for you take with you, father tells you that you must travel with others from your village, and you must be home by dark. He sternly warns against leaving the crowd and going off by yourself. He then smiles and says, "Go see the prophet, and then come back and tell us all about him."
You say goodbye to your family and set out for the rest of the day. The sun is shining, and you can see the growing crowd in the distance. You join others from your village who are walking the couple of miles down the shore to where Jesus is. Some of them are adults bringing along sick family members to seek healing from Jesus.
After an hour of walking, you enter the outlying portions of the crowd. It is immense. Jesus and his disciples are gathered on the top of a large hill that overlooks the Sea. Spilling down the hill and onto the flats below are men, women, and families; the rich and the poor; the healthy and the sick; the respectable and the disturbed. Later someone would estimate that the crowd includes 5000 men. If women and children were counted, the total number would approach 20,000 people. 20,000! If you gathered all the villages in your area, they would not equal such a number.
Earlier in the day, Jesus has been teaching and healing the sick, but now people are milling around on the grassy hillside. Not content to stand out here on the outskirts, you begin ascending the hill, weaving your way between clumps of people. You catch snippets of a couple dozen conversations. There is an electric excitement in the air. What else will Jesus do today? Is he a prophet like Elijah? Is he the promised Messiah? Will he bring down God's power and finally overthrow the despised Romans?
Halfway to the top of the hill, you get your first good look at Jesus. He is sitting on a rock, talking with his closest disciples. There are a few dozen people, both men and women, who are sitting nearby, paying close attention to him. It is said that a good disciple stays close to his rabbi at all times.
You have now climbed to the top portion of the hill, and you are beginning to weave your way through Jesus' closest followers. It is quieter here. There are conversations going on, but many of Jesus' disciples are listening to him converse with those nearest him. They appear to be talking together about the crowd that is forming on the hillside. There is apparently some concern. Judging by the way Jesus and the others are gesturing, it seems to have something to do with the crowd. You are curious, and you keep approaching closer. Adults occasionally give you a long look as if to say, "What is this boy doing here?" However, no one stops you. Later you will learn that Jesus has issued strict orders to his disciples not to stop anyone who wants to approach him, even if they are the smallest child.
You are moving more slowly now, but your curiosity continues to draw you forward. Jesus and his disciples are no more than twenty feet away. Jesus is talking with a man who keeps looking back and forth between Jesus and the crowd. Is something wrong? Suddenly Jesus glances at you. As his eyes meet yours, you freeze in place. For a moment you think he is going to chase you off, but something in his face makes you feel that not only is it okay, but he's actually happy you are here.
Could this be the promised Messiah? Was that the faint hint of a smile on his lips and in his eyes as he looked over at you?
You take a few more steps forward. Now you are standing just outside the circle of Jesus' chosen disciples. They don't pay much attention to you, as they appear to be concerned about something Jesus is saying. You are close enough to listen in.
One of Jesus' disciples says, "Master, I appreciate your compassion for these people. I have compassion on them too. Let me suggest again, it is getting late in the day, and we are in a remote place, miles away from the nearest town of any size. If we send these people away now, they can get to the nearby towns and buy something to eat before it is too dark."
Jesus' other disciples look at him, awaiting his response to this reasonable suggestion. He pauses for a moment and then says, "Look at these people again. They are like a great flock of sheep. Would a good shepherd send them scattering into the hillsides to find something to eat? Yes, let's make sure God's flock is taken care of, and without having to scatter. But I want you to feed them."
Then he looks directly at one of his disciples and asks pointedly, "Philip, where do you propose we find bread for all these people to eat?"
Philip turns around and looks over the crowd once more. He glances at the disciple who serves as the treasurer for Jesus and his ministry. Then he turns back to Jesus, throws up his hands, and replies, "It would take more than half a year's wages to buy enough bread for each person to have even a bite!"
Jesus looks patiently at Philip, who stands there perplexed. Jesus' other disciples resume talking together about what Jesus might have in mind. One disciple comments, "What we need now is manna, like God provided in the wilderness when the people were with Moses." Philip, who is standing closest to Jesus, appears to be frustrated and confused. He is saying nothing. It is common practice for a rabbi to test his disciples with difficult situations and challenging questions. You wonder whether you have stumbled into the middle of a test like this.
You silently ponder along with Jesus' followers what he wants from them. His question about providing bread doesn't make sense. You open up the basket you are carrying and uncover the five small barley loaves and two small fish. You wonder to yourself if this will help somehow. You would be happy to share, but you are a bit embarrassed. Barley bread is the bread of the poor. It is sustenance, but it is not a "nice" meal to share with someone else. You are standing, looking down at your bread and fish, silently mulling over these things, when you notice that one of Jesus' disciples is looking at you. He puts his hand on your shoulder and pulls you close to Jesus. He says to Jesus, "Rabbi."
Jesus looks over and responds, "Yes, Andrew."
Andrew gestures at you and says, "Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?"
Jesus is looking at you now. He asks, "Boy, would you be willing to share your loaves and fishes with others who are hungry?"
For you, it feels as if time has suddenly stopped. Jesus is renowned to be a great prophet of God, and here you are standing directly in front of him! This man who might be the Messiah is talking to you! You manage to stammer out, "Yes sir." And you hold your loaves and fishes out. In this moment, as you extend your hands and give up your meal, a wave of peace comes over you. You feel like you would do anything for this Jesus. Give away your meal? Certainly. You feel like you would go to the ends of the earth for him.
Now Jesus' face breaks into a smile, and his eyes twinkle with life, as if he knows a great and wonderful secret. He instructs his disciples, "Have the people sit down in groups." They begin to pass instructions down the hill in all directions, and the great throng of people begins separating into groups of 50 or 100 and finding places on the grassy hillside to sit.
As his disciples have gone to work instructing the crowd, Jesus turns back to you. He places a hand on your shoulder and says, "Thank you, son. May God richly bless you for your generosity." He then holds out his hands, and you place in them your five small loaves and two small fishes.
Gradually the entire hillside becomes quiet, as people look expectantly up to Jesus. Everyone understands that he is about to do something.
Jesus stands and looks over the crowd, holding the loaves and fishes and waiting for everyone to become settled. As you sit down near Jesus' feet, your thoughts drift back to your mother. She prepared this meal for you. Would she feel alright about you giving it away like this? You might go home hungry. Will she be angry with you? You wish she and your father were here! And your brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins! You want to tell them that you are certain Jesus is the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel. There is a spirit about him that is unlike anyone you have ever been around.
When it is quiet on the hillside, Jesus looks to the sky and pauses. Then, like a father presiding over a family meal, he lifts the loaves and fishes toward the heavens and gives thanks for the food with the customary blessing, saying in a loud voice, "Blessed are you, O Lord our God, who causes bread to come forth from the earth."
He then places your loaves and fishes in a larger basket that is on the ground in front of him. He instructs his twelve disciples each to get a large basket for serving food and bring it to him. When you look back to the basket in front of Jesus, it is full to the top with barley loaves and fish! The first disciple comes with his basket, and Jesus dumps the contents of his basket into the other. "Start distributing this to the people," he instructs. As he turns to the next disciple, his basket has again become full! He fills each disciple's basket, and never does any basket become empty until everyone is served.
A woman behind you exclaims to those around her, "Blessed be the name of the Lord! Elijah prayed, and the woman's oil jar never ran dry. And now Jesus has prayed, and the baskets remain full even though everyone is being served! Surely Jesus is a prophet sent by God!"
As she says this, you remember another story you have learned in your biblical instruction. Elisha the prophet once fed 100 grown men with 20 small barley loaves just like yours (2 Kings 4:42-44). The loaves kept multiplying until all ate and were fully satisfied. And then there was bread left over! You are thinking about how this miracle of Jesus surpasses that even of the great Elisha when someone else further down the hill calls out, "It is written in the scroll of Jeremiah (31:14), 'My people will be filled with my bounty.' Praised be the name of our God!"
Finally Jesus is ready to serve those closest to him. You are seated on the ground next to the rock Jesus has been sitting on. He brings his basket to you first. Smiling and kneeling down, he asks, "May I serve you some dinner?" You gladly accept, and pull out of the basket… five small loaves and two small fish. As you take your first bites, Jesus looks at you more intently and says, "Many are glorifying the Father's name today. This great wonder began with your generosity." He smiles again and moves off to serve another of his followers. You watch him circulate through the crowd, serving people and laughing with them. You eat slowly, savoring this most extraordinary meal.Questions for reflection and prayer:
- What feelings toward Jesus does the story evoke? Talk openly about them in prayer.
- Jesus tested Philip and the disciples with a situation that didn't make sense, at least at first. How can you trust him with a situation in your life that doesn't make sense?
- What do you need to do in your life to climb over the rocks and weave through the crowds to draw close to Jesus?