We find ourselves on New Testament holy ground. The massive banquet on the grassy hillside near the Sea of Galilee which fed 5000 men, not counting the women and children, is the only miracle of Jesus recorded in all four Gospels. Mark, the shortest Gospel, offers the longest account of this story (Mark 6:30-44). While every miracle of Jesus is significant, the fact that this miracle is reported four times signals to all readers that this miracle carries heavy eternal weight. John, in his Gospel, is the only one to mention that after the meal a mob-like mentality swept the crowd who wanted to make Jesus “king” by force (John 6:15). Luke indicates that the disciples initiated the miracle by urging Jesus to send the crowds away for food (Luke 9:12). Matthew lets us know that women and children were, indeed, present (Matthew 14:21).
Mark is a reflective, creative theologian. Only Mark sinks this astounding act of compassion into the bigger story of God. How does Mark do it? Only Mark reports Jesus describing the crowd (perhaps greater than the population of Capernaum) as “sheep without a shepherd.” This observation churns Jesus’ guts. He feels “compassion,” a limp English word for such a strong, visceral emotion (see the same word in Mark 8:2 when Jesus feeds the 4000 men). What kind of non-shepherds have abdicated their role in Israel? The kind like Herod Antipas and his despicable banquet. The Pharisee non-shepherds who despise “the people of the land.” Political and spiritual toxicity poisons the nation of Israel. Who will lead in righteousness? Mark presents Jesus as the New Moses. It was Moses who charged Joshua to lead well so that the people do not become “like sheep without a shepherd” (Numbers 27:17). Even Jesus directive to arrange the people in groups is an echo of Moses’ rule (see Exodus 18:25; Mark 6:39-40). Herod ruled with the sword; the Pharisees ruled by ritual; Jesus rules with compassion. Leaders usually fall into just two categories: leaders who believe in the love of power and leaders who believe in the power of love.
Why didn’t Jesus imagine the people as “an army without a commander”? Why didn’t he see them as “a team without a coach”? Why didn’t he see them as “disciples without a master”? Why didn’t he see them as “a populace without a king”? Why didn’t he see the people “as resources without an entrepreneur”? What’s so compelling about “sheep without a shepherd”? I’ll leave these questions for those who disparage current pastoral ministry to ponder.
Why the emphasis on numbers in this text? The time of day. The number of men. The number of loaves and fish. The wages it would take to feed the crowd. The groups of hundreds and fifties. The number of baskets of leftovers? I don’t think numbers should matter, do you?
When does Jesus’ presence and ability override our bent to pragmatism? When faced with a BHAG (a big, hairy, audacious goal) in kingdom work, how often do we beg off with “we just don’t have the resources, Lord. Let’s get real here.” Don’t we believe that Jesus’ presence is the only resource required? “He didn’t do any miracles there because of their unbelief.”
Yes, we need this one miracle in all four Gospels. We drift so far from the truth when we drift from our New Moses, that is, Jesus who is revealing himself as the Christ. Your life and mine, your faith community and mine live within Jesus’ Story and Jesus’ Story lives within the grand Story of God unfolding in time and for all eternity. The feeding of the 5000 is not a picnic snapshot, but an episode in the moving picture of the gracious movement of God in this world.