Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 As he went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass; and taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Mark 6:32-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-13
The following reflections are based on the Gospel reading for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost; Eve of the Fast of Transfiguration:
You Give Them Something to Eat
The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand is all too familiar. So important, that it is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels. Jesus retreated to a desert place to be alone, as he often did in order to pray and be in communion with his Father. But the people heard and followed him there, and also as he often did, he showed compassion on the crowd and healed the sick, performing miracles and demonstrating his love. When evening came, the crowd became hungry, and so the disciples suggested that Jesus send them away so they can fend for themselves. Why wasn’t their first suggestion one of faith? Did the disciples doubt that Jesus could feed them there with what little they had, five loaves and two fish? Whatever was in the heart of the disciples, Jesus turns to them and says, “You give them something to eat,” surely taking the opportunity to test their faith, to prepare them for future ministry. How many times a day does Jesus prompt us with a question that tests our faith intending to mature it? Are we listening as individuals, as a parish community? In other words, if we really care for these people, if I really am so concerned with a particular situation such as the poor and underprivileged, if you heard that someone is going through a trial in your community, Jesus says to us, “You give them something to eat.”
What does it mean to be a member of the Body of Christ? Perhaps we’ve reduced the idea of Church membership down to dues and voting privileges, similar to a club (ակումբ). As baptized members of one Body (I Corinthians 12:12-27), we are adopted into the Church in order to do God’s work in the world, the ministry of feeding those who are hungry, those who find themselves in a desert place, which, by the way, is everyone around us! This kind of membership doesn’t just define itself based on numbers and attendance, but in terms of repentance and maturity, service, love, and mercy. Along with the commission that Jesus gave to Peter following his resurrection, “Feed my sheep,” (John 21:15-17) as well as the “Great Commission” in Matthew’s Gospel (28:19-20) to teach, make disciples, and baptize all nations, Jesus’ reply to the disciples, “You give them something to eat” is a type of commission to us today. Will we offer what we have been given by God back to Jesus in order for him to bless our ministry to others?
All We Have
The disciples check the treasury and conclude that it is beyond their budget – only five loaves and two fish. Let’s be honest; we do the same with our parish budgets: «Դրամ չկայ,» end of story. Until we raise the right amount of funds, certain projects and ministries cannot move forward. After spending so much time with Jesus, watching him perform miracle after miracle, healing lepers, turning water into wine, did the disciples forget with whom they were spending time when they suggested he send the people away for food? How often do we need to be reminded that Jesus is God incarnate, the One who became flesh and blood to dwell among us, precisely to demonstrate his love and creative power, and to share and distribute it to us?
The disciples look at what they have, but it’s not enough to do the ministry required, to feed more than five thousand people, but as Christians, our thinking shouldn’t be so limited. The Head of our Church is Jesus Christ, God himself, and so the Church’s work and ministry opportunities are not necessarily solved by what we have quantitatively or even qualitatively, by having an adequate budget, or a dedicated line item to pay for something. Jesus demonstrates his strength and creative power with what little we have. It is the person of Christ that unites us, and it is precisely in our brokenness, weakness, and inadequacies that Christ meets us and his power is made perfect.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (II Corinthians 12:9-10)
Throughout the Old Testament, we read accounts of such power being manifested in spite of people’s weakness, such as Abraham and Sarah, Moses, David, and even the repeatedly unfaithful people of Israel.
We can easily doubt our resources, but over and over Jesus invites us to not doubt his resources, the inexhaustible abundant life that he offers and is always available (John 10:10). No matter how much or what we have to offer, Jesus wants it, because he can use it. In parish life, we may often tell ourselves we don’t have enough, this is all we have, only five loaves and two fish, but the little the disciples had was enough. The little we have, our meager selves, when offered with humility, is enough. What we are required to bring to the Lord is ourselves, our hopes, our meager prayers, our fickle faith, and place it in the hands of Jesus and wait for him to break it, multiply it, and distribute it, with leftovers! He will provide such abundance, more than we even require, an abundance that flows into the life of others.
In what ways do we believe our parish community is limited, stuck because of a lack of resources? What do we have in our parish that we can place in the hands of God, that he can multiply for the ministry of others? Do we rightfully expect Jesus to do something new and creative, do we trust him enough to bring him our resources and ideas, or do we have a boring, limited view of who he is and of what he is capable and willing? Perhaps we think on the same level as the disciples, defaulting to a materialistic, non-miraculous worldview in which we cannot work beyond what is in front of us. Do we not perceive the world through the lens of faith, a world in which God took on human flesh? The Incarnation changed everything, yet we still, like the disciples, live as if God is not everywhere present, filling all things. We don’t see with eyes of faith. Just when we believe our faith is mature, we still only see five loaves and two fish. St. Cyril of Alexandria writes,
Smallness of faith is the worst sickness and surpasses all evil. If God works or promises to do anything, then let it be believed in simple faith. Just because we are powerless to accomplish anything, we should not let God be accused by our inability to understand how we will accomplish things beyond our understanding.
Are we committing evil with the smallness of our faith? Even if Jesus said all we need is faith as a grain of a mustard seed, let us offer all of it to God. The extravagant gifts of God may seem rare to us, given our little faith, but fortunately, extravagance and abundance is characteristic of God. But we must not allow our priorities, agendas, budgets, petty disagreements, and our egos get in the way. During Badarak, agree with the priest when he prays, “And we offer to you yours of your own from all and for all.” All that we are, all that we have, and all that we produce, we offer to God that which is already his, and he offers himself back to us, sharing his divine, creative life with us, for communion with him and with one another. Five loaves and two fish is more than enough to feed others the love of Christ. Trust the Lord with the little we have!
Blessed, Broke, and Gave
The Church Fathers see in the miracle of feeding the five thousand an image of Holy Communion, an idea made especially clear in John’s Gospel (6:1-71). Any listener of Matthew’s version of the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26), as well as other Gospel versions (Mark 14:22, Luke 24:30), would immediately recall the words and actions of Jesus as he fed the five thousand that day: “He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to his disciples.” Just as the disciples distributed the bread to the five thousand on that day, Christ shares his own Body and Blood to the baptized members of his family, the Church. All of us are invited to share the same creative power and healing in all that we do, ultimately flowing from our life of worship. Badarak nourishes us and compels us to feed those in desert places, those who are hungry for love, peace, hope, and communion with God and others, whether they are aware of their starvation or not.
He takes our talents, gifts, financial donations, energy, skills, whatever we have to offer, and he blesses it. Then he breaks it, perhaps an image of what it can cost us, the humility required to offer ourselves to God, to have him break our stubbornness, egos, self-importance, and agendas that we often associate with our gifts and talents. King David writes in Psalm 50/51,
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise (v. 17).
By breaking us, we are prepared for distribution, our gifts are blessed, changed and ready to be shared with others. Are we aware of our gifts, of all that we have already been blessed with? Are we willing to give all of who we are, our entire lives to God for his ministry? Do we love him enough for him to break us, to shape and mold us, to transform us to be more like him, so that we, his Church, can be used as his hands in the world to distribute his love, hope, and peace?