Suppose you’re having one of those days when you’ve been working hard all morning and all afternoon and have worn yourself out. Finally, the day is coming to a close; you collapse in a chair on your front porch. At least, that’s the plan…but you’re interrupted by your kids or the neighbor’s dog or someone else who quickly becomes a nuisance. Does this sound like anything you’ve gone through recently?
Welcome to Jesus’ world.
The thing is, Jesus doesn’t look at other people as nuisances. When his disciples return from their “missionary trip,” it’s important to him that they get some R&R. He tells them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” They get in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and try to escape the crowds that seem to surround Jesus perpetually. However, the crowd figures out what’s going on, and by the time Jesus and his disciples get to the other side of the lake, they find their vacation plans will have to be scrapped for now. There’s no escaping the crowds. How frustrating!
Well, that’s what I’d think, anyway. But not Jesus. Mark tells us his first gut feeling: compassion. He felt so sorry for them, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” These people are confused and helpless; they need someone to lead them and take care of them. Even though he’s worn out, Jesus simply can’t help himself—he can’t ignore their neediness. As he so often does in Mark, he begins “to teach them many things.” More than anything, they need to hear the good news about God’s coming kingdom.
Evening draws near, and Jesus’ disciples start getting antsy. They realize that hardly anyone has brought along food. Maybe it’s because it’s an all-male gathering (depending on how you translate Matthew 14:21), and we men aren’t real smart about packing our own lunches. So here they are, out in the middle of nowhere, and everyone is already tired and now they’re getting weak from hunger. It’s time to send people away so they can feed themselves—if there is any food to be had in the area.
When they offer their reasonable plan to Jesus, he responds with an irrational demand: “You give them something to eat.” Wow, great idea! Why didn’t we think of that before, Jesus? Oh yeah—because it would be ridiculously expensive, that’s why. Two hundred denarii—more than six months’ wages for a laborer! Who knows whether the disciples even have that kind of money. And Jesus wants them to feed this crowd they never asked to entertain. You’ll have to forgive them for being incredulous.
Still, Jesus hits on a pretty simple solution they seemed to have overlooked. “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” It’s like he’s saying, “Guys, you’re making this way too complicated. There’s a simpler solution to this problem. Let’s just take the food we already have and distribute it.” Apparently, the disciples haven’t bothered to collect all the food they had available; they already know it won’t do any good. But Jesus is their rabbi, and he told them to do it, so they’ll jump through this silly hoop for his sake. All they find is five loaves of bread and two fish.
What happens next is pretty hilarious, the way Mark describes it, though it doesn’t come out too well in English translations. Jesus has the disciples organize the crowd into little banqueting parties on the grass. They are sorted into neat rows, as though this were Jesus’ garden plot, sprouting colorful people plants. Jesus has them sit down on the “green grass” as the Good Shepherd would do to feed his sheep (Psalm 23:2). Then he says grace, divides the loaves and fish among the disciples, and has them distribute the meager rations to the entire crowd. Mysteriously, everyone has something to eat and is satisfied. And when each of the twelve disciples picks up the leftovers, he fills his basket!
Then Mark hits us with the punchline: this was a crowd of 5,000 men. No way could this have been anything but a miracle. Most guys could down a whole pizza after running around a lake and going most of the day without food. But their hunger can’t match Jesus’ generosity, and his little picnic leaves everyone stuffed.
Now, at certain points in this story, there are little hints that this is not your typical Jesus flash mob. The many people “coming and going,” the fact that Mark emphasizes the number of males in the crowd, and the reference to “sheep without a shepherd”—often referring to a leaderless military in the Old Testament—indicates that there is a revolutionary undertone to this gathering. The people wanted Jesus to lead a revolt against the Roman oppressors. But while this is prominent in John’s account (John 6:15), Mark downplays it. He isn’t really interested in the politics of the situation. He wants us to see Jesus having compassion on his disciples and then on the crowd. He wants us to see Jesus solving a complex problem with a simple but impossible solution. He wants us to see Jesus taking care of the people God has entrusted to him.
Mark wants us to understand that Jesus is a leader, that he has authority. But he also wants us to understand what kind of leader he is and how he uses his authority. He is a shepherd who cares for his sheep. He doesn’t get annoyed at us but feels compassion for us. So we can say with confidence, “Only goodness and loyal love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will stay in the house of the LORD for the rest of my days” (Ps 23:6).