Have you noticed that before Jesus fed the five thousand, he said to his disciples, “You give them something to eat”? They respond by asking if they should spend two hundred denarii to buy some bread for the multitude (Mark 6:37).
This is awkward for three reasons. First, it had to be awkward for the disciples. Was Jesus serious, sarcastic, or just being mean? He knew, surely, they had no way to feed that many people. Second, although I have read and heard this story hundreds of times, I have never thought about why Jesus asked the disciples to feed them. How could I miss this? Third, if Jesus really intended for them to feed the multitude, I have missed an important part of the story—an unsettling part.
I first thought that maybe I had ignored this detail about feeding the multitude because it appears in only one of the gospels. But Jesus tells them to feed the people in Luke 9:13 and Matthew 14:16, as well as Mark. John even adds more to the story:
Jesus therefore lifting up His eyes, and seeing that a great multitude was coming to Him said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?” And this he was saying to test him; for he knew what He was intending to do. (John 6:5—6)
John’s comment that this exchange with Philip was a test may give some clue as to why in other gospels Jesus directly tells the disciples to feed the multitude.
But if this is a test, what would passing the test look like? All the solutions the disciples propose are natural ones: send them to the villages, spend some money to buy bread, get loaves and fishes from the boy. I don’t think Jesus was being sarcastic when he told them to feed the multitude nor does it seem likely he said this to help the disciples realize they lacked the ability to feed them. That they couldn’t feed that many people was obvious.
The test could simply be that Jesus wanted them to turn to Him and say, “Jesus, you have all authority and so you feed them.” But this boils down to the disciples saying, “No, you are God so you feed them.” As much as part of me likes this reading, it means Jesus didn’t really mean it when said, “You give them to eat.” It also means saying “No” to what Jesus has asked and putting it back on Him to do. In this reading, the emphasis is on Jesus helping the disciples realize what they can’t do.
Jesus probably knew the disciples lacked the faith to perform this miracle, but what if the command to feed the multitude was serious? What if he was challenging them to perform the miracle that would feed the five thousand? Well, that would be awkward. It would make a point about this story that is almost never made. It would mean that this event isn’t just about what Jesus is able to do, it is about what Jesus wants us to be doing. It puts us on the spot.
This is awkward because it is so much easier to believe God can work miracles for us than to believe God can work miracles through us. As long as the story is only about what Jesus can do when we place the loaves and fishes (our broken lives) in His hands, we are off the hook. I, with great eloquence, have preached on the power of Jesus to bless our meager offerings and in miraculous ways multiply what we consecrate to him. I love spiritualizing this story! But what if Jesus was teaching the disciples that they could do the works he did? (See John 14:12)
The disciples had already been granted authority over unclean spirits and every kind of disease (Matthew 10:1). They had, therefore, some experience with God working through them in miraculous ways. His command to feed the multitude indicated that this kind of miracle was something the disciples could do through the authority he had given them. If we ignore Christ’s request that the disciples feed the people, we miss this point.
Mark ends this story on a sad note. Right after this miracle, the disciples cross the Galilee to Bethsaida. The wind has come up and they are straining at the oars. They see Jesus walking on the water and call out to him. When he gets into the boat, they are astonished because the wind immediately stopped. Mark says they are astonished “for they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, for their hearts were hardened” (6:52). I worry that I may ignore Jesus’ request for the disciples to feed the people because when it comes to God doing miracles through his people, my heart is hard.
Certainly, the key insight from the incident of the loaves is the revelation of who Jesus is and the authority the Father has given him. But the command of Jesus for his disciples to feed the people is also a revelation of who we are and the authority we have in Christ. It reveals Jesus’ hope that the works he has done his followers will also do.