The apostles came back to Jesus and told him all they had done and taught. ‘All right,’ he said, ‘it’s time for a break. Come away, just you, and we’ll go somewhere lonely and private.’ (Crowds of people were coming and going and they didn’t even have time to eat.) So they went off privately in the boat to a deserted spot. And . . . crowds saw them going, realized what was happening, hurried on foot from all the towns, and arrived there first. When Jesus got out of the boat he saw the huge crowd, and was deeply sorry for them, because they were like a flock with-out a shepherd. So he started to teach them many things. It was already getting late when his disciples came to him and said, ‘Look: there’s nothing here. It’s getting late. Send them away. They need to go off into the countryside and the villages and buy themselves some food.’ ‘Why don’t you give them something?’ Jesus replied. ‘Are you suggesting’, they asked, ‘that we should go and spend two hundred dinars and get food for this lot?’ ‘Well,’ said Jesus, ‘how many loaves have you got? Go and see.’ They found out, and said, ‘Five, and a couple of fish.’ Jesus told them to sit everyone down, group by group, on the green grass. So they sat down in companies, by hundreds and by fifties. Then he took the five loaves and the two fishes, looked up to heaven, blessed the bread, broke it, and gave it to his disciples to give to the crowd. Then he divided the two fish for them all. Everyone ate, and had plenty. They picked up the leftovers, and there were twelve baskets of broken pieces, and of the fish. The number of men who had eaten was five thousand.
The true test of a pastor comes not in the set-piece events (big services, regular fellowship groups, the weekly Bible study) but in the unforeseen, unprepared moments. Especially the ones which, frankly, you not only hadn’t planned but hadn’t wanted. You are just settling down at last with the newspaper and a cup of tea. You have taken two funerals; you have visited a parishioner who’s just had a serious operation; you have organized the rotas for the next few Sundays; and you’ve even written a careful couple of letters to the leaders of your denomination warning them about the effects of the new church policy on your congregation. A good day’s work.
We all know what happens next – though we always wish it wouldn’t. The doorbell (if it was the phone, the automatic answering machine could cope for the time being). It’s obvious you’re in; the lights are on. No escape. You go to the door. There they stand. Perhaps it’s the young couple whose baby has just been run over and is in hospital; or the immigrant family threatened with deportation; or the teenager who’s just discovered she’s pregnant; or the old man still devastated by his wife’s death two months ago. You name it. Sheep without a shepherd. This wasn’t how you’d planned the evening, but you don’t have a choice. And, in any case, you feel . . . sorry for them. Compassion.
It happened to Jesus, too. ‘Time for a break,’ he had said. ‘Come away, just you, and we’ll go somewhere lonely and private.’ As if. The crowds got there first. I take considerable comfort from knowing that even Jesus could be caught out on this kind of thing. But what came out of him when faced with this disruption to his plans was what always filled him. He was sorry for them. Compassion.
Not only that, but he could find himself, with his friends, quite unprepared for other basic things as well. Five loaves among five thousand people! And they themselves hadn’t had time to eat (verse 31). The crowds, meanwhile, had been so excited at the prospect of catching up with Jesus that they hadn’t thought about mundane issues like that, either. As someone who likes to plan ahead, especially for events involving a lot of people, I find myself cheerfully horrified at this apparent complete lack of planning and forethought. This wasn’t just the law of unintended consequences. This was the law of no imagined consequences at all. Quite irresponsible, in fact.
All right; they could have gone off to the villages, as the disciples proposed (verse 36). But Jesus had been teaching them about the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom means the renewal of the world. New creation, full of justice and joy and abundance and hope. For everybody. So what sort of a signal does it send if you spend an hour or two telling people about all the wonderful things God is starting to do for those who follow the new way, but then when it comes down to the serious business of eating tell them to go and fend for them-selves? So Jesus decides to put into action the message he’s been explaining.
But first, get them all to sit down. I don’t think this was just for the sake of orderliness, and I don’t think Mark mentions the companies of hundreds and fifties simply in order to explain how it was that they knew, afterwards, how many people had been there. There is a hint of something a bit more organized; something a bit more like . . . well, like someone marshalling troops. Or organizing a community. Or starting a movement. Or something which was a bit like all of those but a bit different too. I think that’s what Mark is indicating.
Then the moment. By the time Mark was writing it would have been impossible for any Christian, reading this, not to think of the action they all knew so well, with someone taking bread, giving thanks to God, blessing it, breaking it, and giving it out. The early church saw the Last Supper as the kind of explosive climax to the sequence of meals Jesus had had with them all along, not least these extraordinary feedings out in the lonely countryside. And they saw these meals, and the frequent celebrations of Jesus with his friends, as balanced by the sharing of meals they enjoyed in the early church, where (because they lived as an extended family) it mattered rather a lot that the food was properly distributed.
Some people, indeed, making these connections, have tried to tone down the remarkable multiplication of loaves and fishes. Perhaps, they have said, Jesus showed that one person was prepared to share his picnic, and that made everyone else loosen up and be generous with the food they had brought, too. That has the nice ring of ‘Jesus teaching us all to share’, which is a good Sunday school lesson (and important for adults too) but hardly the point of Mark’s story. Mark’s point is that, in God’s kingdom, there is indeed a new creation, bursting out in all directions. The generosity of spirit that made Jesus react with sympathy and compassion when the crowds invaded his quiet, private time alone with his friends is the same generosity of spirit that we associate with God, the creator. And since every-thing we know about God we know most securely because of Jesus, it shouldn’t surprise us that sometimes, always surprisingly but always characteristically, Jesus does what God does, providing richly for those who have come to be with him. Even when they’d crashed in on his evening off.
Help us, generous Lord, to trust you to provide not only for the things we know we need but the things we don’t know we need. And help us to be generous and compassionate with those who turn to us for help.