Chapter 15 had already been a busy chapter verse 32. Jesus had managed to offend the Pharisees over the issue of ritual hand washing. He found the practice useless because a dirty mind and heart defiled, not dirty hands. They were offended to the point that the disciples expressed their concern to him. He had tried to turn away a Canaanite woman who came to him on behalf of her daughter. In a way, this Gentile woman of great faith was almost set as a foil to the Jewish disciples who showed little faith in Jesus’ ability to feed the crowd later in the chapter. He healed a number of people from all sorts of illnesses, and that crowd set up the miracle that comes in the chapter.
32 Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” 33 The disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” 34 Jesus asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” 35 Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, 36 he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 37 And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 38 Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children.
In the midst healing a number of people who had gathered around Jesus, he grew concerned about their physical hunger. They had been listening to his teaching and watching him heal for three days, and he could not bear the thought of them returning home unprepared for the journey. He included the disciples in what was about to happen by explaining to them his intentions and the reason for his intentions. His plan was to feed all of the people. Their concerns at this plan seemed reasonable and logical given the numbers and location. Unless this feeding miracle is a retelling of the miracle in chapter 14 though, they should have been aware of both his intentions and capabilities.
Jesus, however, was undaunted by their concerns, and he did not correct them. He simply asked for an inventory, still including them in what was about to happen. As he began passing out food, he passed first to the disciples who began passing to everyone else, as if to say to them “I know there’s not enough, but would take this loaf to that family over here and this fish to that widow over there.” They did not believe, but yet they were the servers.
The miracles and healings that preceded this meal had not convinced the disciples of what Jesus was fully capable. They continued to learn as they observed and participated in the ministry of the Good News. Interestingly, in the very next chapters, Jesus began to reveal his identity at much deeper level with the question in 16 of “Who do you say that I am?” and the transfiguration in 17.
As much as this miracle is about feeding the hungry and exhibiting his ability to do so, and I believe it is, this miracle also acts as a teachable moment for the disciples. Our teachable moments will most likely happen in the midst of ministry together. Perhaps the best equipping we can provide as a means of discipleship is to make a priority of simply doing the work of the Gospel together. Here are some questions I am still pondering:
• How do we bring people along with us into ministries they cannot quite envision yet?
• Can we clearly articulate the “why” of mission and miracle in the way that Jesus did?
• Can those who follow, trust enough to follow even when they do not fully understand what is about to happen?
People will likely doubt new ministries or missions. They will often doubt their own giftedness, but they need to trust those who are encouraging them to go anyway. They will need to trust those who ask them to pass the bread.