12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
(John 6:12-15 NIV)
John is recounting the feeding of the five thousand, which is more like twenty thousand, counting everyone – men, women, and children.
Jesus started with a little boy’s simple lunch – five small biscuits (more like crackers) and two small sardine-sized fish. Jesus added His blessing and fed the entire crowd.
Yesterday, we looked at three points that might otherwise get missed in our modern-day context: The feeding of the masses reminiscent of God feeding the Israelites during their desert experience, the transformation of animal food (barley) into dinner, and Jesus’ blessing changing scarce resources into satisfying fullness.
Picking up with today’s passage, we see Jesus instructing His disciples to gather up the leftovers, so nothing was wasted. What is Jesus doing?
When I was a young boy, I remember Sunday School teachers telling this story, and how Jesus’ disciples gathered twelve baskets of bread after everyone had eaten their fill. The teachers would describe this as twelve bushel-sized baskets overflowing with leftover food, showing God’s generosity and abundance, similar to the miracle of Jesus turning the 180 gallons of water into wine.
As I studied this passage and the context of Jesus’ day, I realized that there is more to the story than meets the eye.
First, the “baskets” that John reports are not huge bushel-sized containers. Rather, they are small lunch-sized packs that a common laborer would take with him to a job site. Imagine a small lunch pail just big enough to hold a sandwich, not a picnic basket.
Second, the practice of gathering the leftovers was not to store them for the next meal. Rather, the gathering of the leftovers was to feed the household slaves. The slaves would prepare the meal and serve it, then eat what was left over after the family had consumed their fill. The leftovers included both whole pieces of bread as well as broken and partial pieces (vv. 12-13).
To fully understand what Jesus did here, we have to go back to Mark’s gospel for the rest of the story. In Mark 6:30-31, Jesus’ disciples had been ministering all day and were getting tired and hungry, as they had not stopped to eat. Jesus pulled His disciples aside so they could rest and eat. But the crowds followed. Jesus had compassion on them, as the crowds were like sheep without a shepherd. The disciples had rested a few minutes after Jesus had pulled them away from the crowds and before the crowds caught up with them again, but they had still not eaten.
So we pull these bits of context together, and we see Jesus providing His disciples a meal (twelve lunchbox-sized baskets left over), and identifying them as slaves to God (they served the meal first, then ate the leftovers after).
John records the last of this story with Jesus quietly stepping out of the scene and heading for the mountains to escape the crowd. Jesus knew the reason for the crowds – they wanted physical healing and food from Him, and if left to their desires, would force Jesus to be their earthly “king”.
Jesus knew that this would not end well for Him or the masses. First, Jesus’ time to rule the earth had not yet come. Second, the Romans and the Jewish leaders would see this as an insurrection and would act quickly to restore order, resulting in much death and bloodshed. Jesus did not come to earth to take over the government or heal every sickness and disease or even feed every hungry mouth. Jesus came to earth to show us how to live and to invite us back into
Jesus came to earth to show us how to live and to invite us back into community with the Trinity. The healings, the provisions of food, the other acts of ministry were to give people (including you and me) a taste of heaven, a brief glimpse of the goodness of God.
Do we see this feeding of the masses at face value? Or do we see the God behind the miracle, caring for the masses but keeping His promises to provide for His own, the disciples,
Or do we see the God behind the miracle, caring for the masses and keeping His promises to provide for His own, the disciples, through service and blessing?
Do we expect to be part of the masses, demanding our share and our fill, or are we willing to be Christ’s slaves and trust that there will be enough for us when ministry is complete?
One last faith lesson from this passage – recognizing our physical limitations and taking time out to nourish our body and soul. Jesus knew this in His disciples and pulled them out of the crowds.
Psalm 23 says “He [God] makes me lie down…”. If you tend to minister to others until exhaustion, create some margin where the Lord can minister to your soul, and your body can rest.