Scripture is Luke 9:10-17, and can be found here.
Jesus’ disciples—that it to say, his core group of followers—have just come back from long journeys. They were equipped for ministry, and they were sent out to preach, teach, and heal. The word “disciple” means “learner, someone who is adopting a discipline.” They’ve just come back from their first solo tour without Jesus, practicing what they’ve learned, and they’re ready to report in.
What’s the longest walk you’ve ever taken? In my twenties, I did the Boston Hunger Walk, a twenty-mile circuit from Boston through Newton, Cambridge, and back again. Midway through there was a stop on the lawn of a church, for rest and lunch on the lawn, which, as it turns out was a mistake. If you’re not used to twenty-mile walks, best not to stop in the middle. It makes the second half significantly harder.
The disciples are used to walking, though. Everyone in their culture is… walking is the only transportation available to most. Not that everyone does 20 miles every day, but they do when traveling; and when they’re at home, they may well do ten. So they come back from their journeys, which took them through the local villages, “bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.”
A curious thing happens next. Herod shows up in the story—dreadful, murderous Herod, and he’s kind of upset about what he’s heard about Jesus and his followers. What he has heard, actually, is that John the Baptist, whom he has beheaded, has been raised from the dead. He’s anxious to see this Jesus.
Then our passage begins. The disciples are back, eager to check in with Jesus, to tell him everything they’ve done. And after they do that, he discerns that they need a time of rest—so they “withdraw” to the town of Bethsaida. This is an uncultivated area—no farming there—so it is a kind of wilderness. But that word, “withdraw,” means something specific in the gospels. It means to seek a time apart, a time to refresh and renew—which, for Jesus, means to be in prayer. But it also means a move to get away from danger. It’s not a coincidence that, first, we learn of Herod’s interest in Jesus; and then, Jesus decides it’s a good time to withdraw.
The crowds have other ideas, though. These crowds have walked a long way, too. They have been seeking Jesus out, and following him around, so when they arrive—of course, he welcomes them, and he continues to speak to them about God’s coming reign, and he cures all who need it.
At the end of the day, the disciples are done. I wonder whether straight out fatigue is just catching up with them? I wonder whether they are annoyed with Jesus, for welcoming the crowds to what was supposed to be kind of a private Jesus-and-his-closest friends retreat, away from it all?
Send them away, they say! Let them go home, or to a nearby village—somewhere they can get food. We’re in the wilderness here, nothing to see, nothing to share, certainly. Send them away.
And then Jesus turns to his tired disciples—these learners who follow him, who trust him, who want to do well for him. And he says, “You give them something to eat.”
This is a fairly outrageous demand. The disciples are well within their rights to be even more annoyed than they were before.
They check their supplies and tell Jesus how little they have—for a large, hungry crowd that has to be at least as tired as hey are from their own journeys.
Five loaves. Two fish.
How could that possibly feed all these people?
The people are seated on the grass, and Jesus takes the not-enough food raises his eyes to the heavens. He blesses the loaves. He blesses the fish. And he gives them to the disciples to eat.
This next part is blurry. It is confusing. It’s math, and it doesn’t add up. Five loaves, two fish, five thousand people…no, that’s not right. Five thousand men, not counting the women and children. Sometimes this miracle is explained away. “Well, probably the people all had some food with them, and when they saw the disciples sharing, they shared what they had, too.”
But the sacred storytellers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are insistent. This is a miracle, which, in our language means, a departure from the laws of nature. Jesus is able to create, out of not-enough, miraculous abundance. This story is so important, so central to our understanding of who Jesus is, the Bible tells it to us six times in four gospels. Twice in Matthew. Twice in Mark. One time each, in Luke and John.
This story is central to what it means to be a Jesus-follower. The disciples are doing good work. They can go out on their own. They can teach and heal and carry the good news where it is needed.
But they need to do this, too. They need to feed the hungry, and they need to show the people—show the world, in fact—that there is enough.
I don’t know how miracles work. I do know that, for most of us, we spend a lot of time in deficit mentality. And it makes sense. We have budgets to follow, at home, at work, even at church. Sometimes we have jars of peanut butter to stretch, or bottles of detergent we add water to for one or two more loads of laundry. We are used to worrying that there is just not enough. Not enough money. Not enough food. Not enough love.
But, in fact, there is enough. It’s counter-intuitive. The disciples are looking at what they've got, and they know it isn’t enough. They know. But the minute it leaves their hands, it becomes enough. Once they have let go. Once they have given it over into God’s hands. Once they get the joy of giving it all away.
And this is one of the fundamentals of another of the world’s great religions. It’s our attachment to things, our unwillingness to let them go, that causes all our grief and suffering. It’s when our hands are open that we realize what abundance there really is, what’s already there for us.
Anne Lamott notes that, it’s after we have given something away, that “the crazy thought occurs to us: What else can I give? We take the action first, by giving—and then the insight follows, that this fills us.”
What do you need to let go of?
What needs to be blessed by God so that it can become enough?
Can you imagine letting go? And then finding out that you have enough? That you are enough? And that God is there, holding you?
Thanks be to God. Amen.