When I get hungry, I get desperate and difficult. If anyone steps in between me and my snack, you can be sure it won’t be pretty. If you ask me to share, I might give up a small bite, but internally, my nice gesture is playing tug-of-war with a growling tummy. Although each character in the biblical account of feeding the 5,000 teaches an indispensable lesson, I empathize most with the boy who gave up his dinner.
Jesus feeding the 5,000 is the only miracle recorded in all four of the gospels. It presents layers of crucial spiritual insight and eloquently illustrates the fact that when individuals practice selflessness and obedience, a massive display of God’s power and provision can be cultivated. It is fascinating to think about the web of variables involved. Had the individual players not cooperated, things would have turned out differently.
Before we get to the boy, we must first look at a few other key figures. Jesus asked His disciples to join Him for a boat ride to a desolate place across the lake of Galilee (John 6:1). They were tired and dirty from days on the road, hungry from being too busy to eat, and emotionally devastated because they had just witnessed the death of a close friend, John the Baptist. All they wanted to do was rest and find a few quiet moments to recover at Jesus’ feet. Just as they approached the shore, those dreams of silence vanished into a buzz of needy, noisy people promising yet another long and chaotic night. The multitude was moving en masse to Jerusalem for the yearly Passover feast and had followed along the shoreline hoping to catch another glimpse of Jesus’ supernatural healing.
For many years, I worked as a summer camp counselor for young girls. Physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion was no stranger. Someone was always homesick, needing attention, or getting into mischief. The noise level was at a constant high and the workload was never finished. I can identify with the disciples as I think about wanting nothing more than to lie down and close my eyes for a few minutes. My body can still remember feeling every nerve fiber aching in a craving for rest. So I can only imagine the strain of catering to the thousands of hungry, weary travelers in our story.
Instead of turning the people away, though, Jesus welcomed them to His side (Luke 9:11). He set aside any desire for rest and passionately poured into the waiting crowd. Ultimately, He was showing His disciples—and with them, us—the importance of gaining strength from His heavenly Father, while using every opportunity to further His gospel message.
As Jesus’ teaching continued, a bit of uncertainty filtered through the disciples. I can almost hear them nervously whispering. Here they were, out in the middle of nowhere, drained of energy, and having no place to find food for a very hungry crowd. I picture them tiptoeing up to Jesus, tapping Him on the shoulder, and hoarsely suggesting that He finally send them away. What a shock it must have been when Jesus simply turned to His disciples and told them to give the hungry crowd something to eat (Mark 6:37).
Behind the scenes, we get to see that Jesus was only testing them, “for He himself knew what He would do” (John 6:6). But, to the disciples, feeding this many people so far out of town was an impossible feat (John 6:7). This wasn’t a mean joke. Jesus was presenting His beloved disciples with an edge-of-the-cliff situation to illustrate the end of their strength. He was equipping them to carry a legacy of confidence, and a leadership of strength and power. At that moment, though, they were helpless, destitute, and needy. They were no longer serving, but were standing in the shoes of those who needed to be served. Ever the gracious teacher, Jesus offered them a chance to see the miraculous effects of obedience and faith in action.
Now, we can appreciate the actions of the little boy. Jesus sent the disciples into the crowd to see what they could find. This brought them to a boy who had a small ration of bread and a few tiny fish (Mark 6:38). The Bible doesn’t say, but sometimes I wonder if the boy hesitated when asked to part with his food. Did the disciples approach him with an attitude of fear or intimidation? Did they put him in a headlock, or try to bribe him? Was the boy afraid because he could feel thousands of hungry, irritable men breathing down his neck?
Given my attitude toward hunger, I know that if I were the boy, I would have said something like, “No, you can’t take my dinner, you should have known better than to leave home without travel snacks!” Again, I wonder if perhaps he pouted for just a moment before parting with his dinner. Somehow, this child conquered a feat I struggle with today. He gave up personal comfort for the sake of others, and cast off immediate gratification for the hope that something significant would transpire.
His act of surrender gave the disciples something to bring to Jesus, which in turn, opened a window for abundance to flow into a feast for the entire multitude. Like the manna that nourished the desert-bound Israelites generations before them (Exodus 16:31), these people were given a glimpse of heaven that illustrated eternal fulfillment through the tangible taste of bread in an empty stomach (John 6:35).
The disciples followed Jesus’ example of placing people over personal comfort, but my admiration for the boy reaches an apex when he banished any notion of age-related significance and contradicted every excuse of limited resources. Ultimately, his small contribution catalyzed an event that remains a legacy even today.
For the crowd, the Passover feast was shadowed for decades to come with a memorial of the day Jesus showed them His ability to create abundance out of absence, and showed them the importance of everlasting sustenance. For us today, it demonstrates the necessity to selflessly contribute to the needs of others, and portrays the importance of persistent faith and practical obedience. It offers a reiteration of the power held by an almighty God when met by the insufficiency of humanity, and shows us the magnitude that Christ can create from our minor acts of submission.