When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” – John 6:12
(See Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13)
The account of Jesus feeding the 5,000 men (plus women and children) is found in all four gospels. It’s a miracle that not only fed people then, but can feed us now if we will chew on its lessons.
As the scene unfolds, we find Jesus and His disciples feeling personally vulnerable. Jesus had just learned that His cousin and forerunner, John the Baptist, had been beheaded by Herod. He was grieving, and feeling the need to withdraw to a solitary place so he could spend time in prayer being comforted by His Father. We also learn that both Jesus and the disciples were so besieged by the crowds they didn’t even have time to eat. They were all exhausted, and Jesus told them to come with Him to a quiet place where they could get the rest they needed.
When they landed at their remote destination, however, a crowd was waiting for them. Jesus immediately saw that the needs of the people were greater than His or His followers: they were lost sheep who needed a shepherd. He responded by putting aside His own needs to meet theirs, to be the Shepherd He had come to be. Jesus knew that despite his grief and exhaustion, God would honor His faithfulness by providing the strength He needed. And so, He taught the crowd and set a clear example of service for His disciples.
When God presents us with a need He will enable us to meet it, not matter how depleted we may feel.
As evening approached, the disciples saw a problem. They were in an isolated place, and there were thousands of people without food. They reacted by making a very human assumption about how Jesus should handle it, and weren’t shy about telling Him what He should do – send the people away. To them, the solution was obvious. But Jesus had a plan they could never have anticipated – “You give them something to eat.”
The disciples responded to this astonishing instruction with another assumption, that they could only do this by spending six months’ wages on an enormous amount of bread. To them, that was also obvious, and by implication, not a smart move. Jesus’ answer was for them to go and see what they already had available. He met their incredulous reaction with a simple call to action: to go and see, instead of assuming that nothing could be done.
The obvious can make us oblivious. When we presume we know the answers, we’re oblivious to hearing from God. We can fall into this trap in our prayers, when we ask for what we’re sure is God’s will, without asking Him to show us how to pray in a given situation. We can also presume how He wants us to serve, what goals He wants us to strive for, how He wants us to worship Him – the list goes on and on. Our arrogance can be astonishing, and is the opposite of the humble dependence that we are so clearly called to live out.
When the disciples had taken stock, it didn’t take long to count up their resources: five small loaves and two fish. This meagre supply could never meet the need, and again they said so. Jesus, however, gave thanks for what was available, and in His hands it was multiplied thousands of times over. It not only met the need, but exceeded it.
Jesus demonstrated what happens when we give what we have to Him, however insignificant it may seem, with thankful hearts.
After everyone had eaten all they could hold, they must have felt very satisfied, but Jesus wasn’t finished yet. The disciples and the crowd may have ignored the leftovers, but Jesus told them to let nothing be wasted.
Whatever God has provided is to be used. When the immediate need has been met, we shouldn’t stop there. God provides us with an abundance so that we can reach beyond the the immediate and continue to feed others. God doesn’t waste anything, and neither should we. But take note: all that was available was offered first to Jesus; He multiplied it so there were leftovers. Sometimes we turn this upside down, taking what we want first, and then offering Jesus our leftovers.
After Jesus had ministered to the crowd, feeding them both spiritually and physically, God met Jesus’ needs. He spent the night in communion with His Father, being comforted and renewed. The result was that He went from exhaustion and grief to walking on water – a powerful illustration of the power of God to buoy us up when we spend meaningful time with Him.
So what is the bottom line?
The disciples saw a problem that had to be addressed by someone else: the people who had the needs. Jesus saw an opportunity for His disciples to learn to seek His answers, depend on His provision, and to serve others even when they themselves were at their most vulnerable. He wanted them to learn to offer whatever they had with trusting and thankful hearts, and to use everything they were given.