You likely know the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. It is written in all four Gospels, and it is fairly well-known in our culture. But have you heard of the feeding of the 4,000? It is less common, appearing only in Matthew and Mark. Sure, there were 20 percent less people and several fewer baskets of leftovers on this lesser known occasion, though I don’t think that makes it any less miraculous, really! What comes right after this slightly smaller miracle in both Matthew and Mark makes it interesting and disheartening to me. (Read the story for yourself in Mark 8:1-21.)
After the feeding of the 4,000, the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign. Jesus sighs, declines, then heads across the Sea of Galilee again. On the boat, there are 12 disciples, Jesus, and a single loaf of bread. One loaf does not go very far with 13 men. (Note that Jesus had not yet instituted Holy Communion, so they would expect more than just a bite each!) When they realize this, the disciples are pretty concerned. Jesus warns them, “Watch out — beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” It seems that the disciples are talking about bread while Jesus is trying to teach them something different, trying to move on to a new lesson. But it is hard to learn when you’re hungry. (Truly. This is one reason why the backpack program and meals offered in schools are so important. Brains cannot learn when stomachs are empty.) The disciples, however, are well-fed. Everyone around Jesus is currently well-fed — everyone ate their fill and there were leftovers just three verses ago, for goodness sakes!
“Why are you still talking about having no bread?” Jesus asks. It is not true! They have a whole loaf! Maybe they thought they needed at least five loaves in case they met another hungry crowd. Maybe with only one, they were fearful of giving it away or sharing it at all. Maybe one isn’t enough; they had better tuck it away for safe keeping until they were really, really hungry. Or maybe they should share among themselves now so there is now question of who hungriest or most in need of it later.
Whether the disciples were concerned about being able to sustain themselves or being able to help others, they were not counting right. They had one loaf and Jesus. It was not a question of whether they would go hungry but rather of whether they understood abundance yet. Abundance doesn’t come from hoarding; abundance comes from asking God’s blessing on what we have and then sharing it. Jesus had shown them this in dramatic, miraculous fashion quite recently. Apparently even taking part in such miracles was not enough to convince them of this truth.
I don’t worry too much about bread at our house, but I do worry about time. What happens if I run out? We don’t time for this inconvenience or that urgent appointment or the commitment that we felt really obligated to make. We just don’t have any time!
Is that true? Why am I still talking about time when I have as many hours in a day as anyone else? I convince myself that time is a scarce resource, when really time is equal for those of us who don’t know the number of our days. What I really have is an abundance of opportunities and choices of how to spend that time. When I spend time well, rather than having less time, I have richer relationships, completed tasks that serve a purpose, knowledge obtained for future use, or other equally worthy results.
Our individual and collective lack of trust in abundance comes up in all kinds of ways, doesn’t it? Surely we have all had moments (or days or years) of panic that there is not enough food or money or attention or love to go around.
Jesus asks the disciples one question after another: “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the 5,000, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect? ... And the seven for the 4,000, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect? ... Do you not yet understand?” I think Jesus asks disciples today the same questions.” (Mark 8:17-21)
On the boat in the Sea of Galilee, it was not the case that they had nothing. It wasn’t even about having nothing to give. It is the same for us. It is a matter of what we choose to do with that which we do have — not just the leftovers, but the precious resources that we perceive as insufficient.
So what will we do with them? What can God do with them?