When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
Asking Too Much
Now entering His third year of ministry, Jesus’s popularity has reached its all-time peak. Mob scenes erupt wherever He goes. Physically exhausted, spiritually spent, He and the disciples sail across the Sea of Galilee to pray privately and get sorely needed rest. They return to a seashore lined with people awaiting their arrival—about five thousand men, the Bible estimates, not including women and children. They follow Jesus to a nearby hillside, which turns into a makeshift arena. By the time they’re settled and quiet, however, the approaching dinner hour gives Jesus little time to speak. Rather than lose part of His audience to their appetites and shout above the hubbub as they leave, Jesus decides to feed them on the spot. He asks Philip where to buy enough bread to serve the crowd. True to his reputation as a half-empty-glass sort, Philip panics. “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” he answers.
Philip’s panic seems reasonable at first blush. Jesus is asking too much. But when we reconsider it, it makes no sense from someone who supposedly knows how Christ thinks and repeatedly watches Him handle impossible problems in impossible ways. Isn’t Philip aware Jesus never speaks without thinking and always has the answer before posing the question? Can he really think Jesus hasn’t done the math and weighed the options? By now, hasn’t He learned Christ often asks more than we can do to test our faith in His power to accomplish great things through us? Philip’s flimsy reaction brings to mind the hilarious question Roseanne Barr asked her sitcom son when his response was out of whack with how she ran the house: Are you new?
It’s a Start
Andrew overhears the conversation and speaks up. “There’s a boy who’s got five little barley loaves and a couple fish, but how far will that go with so many people?” Most of us would look at the lad’s skimpy lunch and say, “It’s not a lot, but it’s a start.” We’d huddle the disciples, explain the problem, and disburse them in a dozen directions to collect all the available food to combine and redistribute. We’d make a big announcement of what we planned to do and rush the people through a line, thinking it’s the only way to feed them quickly enough to get started with the lesson. We’d create a logistical nightmare as food and time ran out and a large percentage of the crowd wandered away unfed and untaught.
Jesus also looks at the lunch and thinks, “It’s a start”—but a start is all He needs. It’s unnecessary to trouble anyone else for more. There’s no reason to create chaos by canvassing the crowd for leftovers and organizing a food line when He’s already got all that’s required to feed their bodies and souls simultaneously. “Have everyone take a seat,” He says. He blesses the little He’s received, breaks it into pieces, and passes it out, telling the people to take as much as they want. After everyone’s fed and satisfied, Jesus instructs the disciples to fan out and gather what’s left. Each of them returns with a full basket.
Poised for Impossibilities
It doesn’t—or shouldn’t—take very long for any follower of Christ to realize He thinks and works with impeccable foresight. He sees needs long before they develop. He has answers well in advance of our figuring out the questions. Once we grasp the enormity of what’s happening, He often tests our faith by asking too much of us. We can be like Philip and panic, or we can learn from Andrew and say, “This is all I can to scrounge up. Take it and use it. I don’t understand how You’re going to stretch so little to do so much, but it’s Yours.”
Following Jesus teaches us to stay constantly poised for impossibilities. We give Him what we have and step back, waiting for further instructions. What seems practical and efficient is shortsighted and counterproductive to what He has in mind. We want to get things moving. He tells us to settle down. We want to temporarily fix the problem with a bite or two. He resolves it to everyone’s satisfaction—with plenty to spare. Philip mistakes Jesus’s question to suggest He’s looking at the problem from an ordinary perspective and proposing an ordinary solution. He should know better. That’s never the case with Christ. While Philip surveys the problem and panics, Jesus is planning a picnic.
What we manage to scrounge up may not be much. But it's a start--and that's all Christ needs to remedy the situation.
(Tomorrow: Why God Goes Blind)