Jesus of Nazareth could draw a crowd. Even from small, scattered villages, people flocked to Him. This Jesus was a truth-teller and dealer of miracles, dynamic, charismatic, unabashed. People came for the show and stayed for the word.
There was enough truth or purpose in Jesus that I had dropped everything to follow Him as He traveled from village to village. His message never changed, but transformed into something new every time He spoke. There were the show-stopping sermons, the ones magnified over crowds of hundreds or even thousands. But there were also the stories shared with us, the twelve and His most devoted followers. There were the prayers He murmured to Abba Father, an intensely personal relationship. It felt like eavesdropping, those moments when Jesus sought solitude.
There was an energy to Jesus. A sense of urgency that hummed beneath His words and acts. The way He saw the crowds, not as a ceaseless current of strangers drawn in to Him like water on dry sand, but as if He saw every single face, heard every single heart beating. When He spoke it was as if Heaven pressed in a little closer, mysteries of our ancestors’ faith a little thinner, warmer and clearer. There was something ancient about Jesus, something timeless, the way He spoke of our God and of man and of the proximity of God to man. It was revolutionary, the attention of the Holy One toward someone like me, someone ordinary and bland, no special education or training or knowledge of this unknowable God. More still, the attention of God toward someone in the margins, otherwise forgotten, unseen, shunned.
Jesus brought God the Father closer, to the very table we sat.
Jesus’ message was so full of hope. That was a common thread of His message, no matter how many different ways He managed to tell it. And He seemed to empty Himself before the crowds, spilling truth and healing and every ounce of wisdom He could hold in His head and heart. He spoke often of the work to be done, as He gazed out across the crowds, parched and starved for His words.
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On this day, He seems spent. He edges away from us, His followers, and we who have been with Him since the beginning know He sometimes seeks this seclusion, a way to replenish what He has poured out. But even as He walks away, another crowd gathers. They begin to form around Him, villagers calling out to one another to come closer, to hear this Jesus of Nazareth and all the things He has to say. The healing He performs, they tell each other, have you seen what He can do?
Some of us try to head off the crowd, to block them from getting to Jesus. Some of us try to press them back, ask them to come back later, like bodyguards of truth. But Jesus knows they are coming; He always knows. I’m sure He heard them gathering, but more than that. Sometimes I wonder if Jesus sees and hears everyone on a completely different plane, some other realm away from this dusty earth. As if He hears their need just as clearly as their feet and fidgeting coming closer.
Jesus turns back toward the crowd. The look on His face gives us permission to step back, to let them come. And they come. I watch Jesus as He watches everyone else, hundreds now, maybe even thousands, and there is something infinite and tender in His expression. I wonder how Jesus can have such compassion on people He has never seen before, but even as I wonder, I know the truth. Jesus has seen them before, every last one, in a way I will never understand but can only trust.
He speaks over the crowd, teaches them from the ancient texts, reaches out and touches them, heals them. In a sea of thousands, Jesus sees every single soul. Every single soul knows they are seen.
His message of hope and healing stretches on into evening. The sun begins to set, but no one seems eager to leave. We all know it deep in our souls; here we are standing on holy ground. Here we are closer to God in heaven, and no one wants the spell to break.
Jesus turns to His disciples, calls Philip close. “Where can we buy bread to feed all these people?”
We exchange looks. We check the crowds. No one seems to want to break it to Jesus. “We should send everyone home,” we tell Jesus, “so they may eat.”
“Even if we worked for months we wouldn’t have enough money to feed them!” Philip is the boldest of us tonight, saying what is on all of our minds. We were nothing but poor fishermen and farmers before giving it all up to follow Jesus; and now? After leaving behind our very livelihoods?
“Go out and see what food you can gather,” Jesus tells us, and so we weave through the crowd, a loaf of bread here, a small basket of fish there. As Jesus continues to teach, I am struck by the generosity of those around us. A boy hands me his own packed meal, a meager offering in the face of such an enormous crowd. No less than five thousand men, then the women and the children, reluctant to return home, not even for supper. The hunger in their guts nothing compared to the hunger in their hearts, a quenching of their very souls on this holy hill.
We make our way back to Jesus. Five loaves, two fish, boundless doubt.
Something about Jesus had at once compelled me to drop everything and follow Him. Something big and inarticulate, a weight settling on my shoulders impossible to ignore. But following Him seemed almost incidental, maybe even mutually exclusive, to the day-to-day believing Him.
We are all skeptical, watching Jesus raise the food and give thanks to the Holy One. He instructs us to hand out the broken loaves and divided fish among the groups seated and scattered along the hillside. He instructs us to give abundantly, as God the Father has given us, and even though we raise our eyebrows at His directive, we face the hungry crowd to feed them.
The people I approach are grateful, their physical hunger being met as sufficiently as their souls’ have. I try not to hesitate as I break off meal-sized pieces of bread and fish, try not to focus on how much I truly lack. These villagers help me forget, raising their eyes to the sky in blessing and thankfulness, and I move on. It isn’t until the third or so group of men, women, and children I feed that I notice my supply has not diminished. Not one bit.
I look up at the other disciples spread out among the crowds, gathered in small groups to eat, and we seem to all have come to the same conclusion at the same time. The loaves and fish in our hands are as full as when we started, though nearly half the people have been fed. Slow, slow understanding comes to me, and I am again amazed at my own short-sightedness. Jesus, all this time, bows in prayer while His audience replenishes.
I reach the edges of the crowds, the last to be fed, and I am hundreds of yards from where Jesus stands. I want to hurry back to His side, to know what just happened, to label this thing a miracle. But as soon as we return, He instructs us again to gather up whatever food is left, empty baskets in hand to collect what was beyond fulfilling to thousands.
We set at His feet the broken remains of five small barley loaves. Twelve filled baskets.
It is a miracle and a metaphor, the abundance with which the Holy One provides. A grace so sufficient, so extravagant, to carry us well beyond our need.
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This season of Lent, I am pulling out some of the questions Jesus asked with the intent of digging into (some of) what he might want us to know. I want to tell these stories as if I had been there myself, as if I was the one staring dumbly at Jesus when he asked, “Where can we buy bread?” found in all four gospels, Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, and John 6.