The story about Jesus feeding a multitude of people is one of the few stories about Jesus that is found in all four Gospels.
This tells us that this story was of great importance for early Christians in describing who Jesus was and what Jesus’ ministry was about.
And, while all four tell this story, I am particularly intrigued by John’s rendition in John 6:1-14.
In reading John’s account, one should notice that Jesus goes up on a mountain. This portrays him in Mosaic terms, and because John mentions that the Passover was near, we are to perhaps understand that this feeding story reflects the Exodus story, and specifically the wandering in the wilderness when God provided manna for the people to eat.
But wait, something is different in this story concerning the provisions for nourishment.
In the giving of manna to Israel in the wilderness, it is God who causes the manna to fall from heaven to the people. Manna just falls from heaven.
But in the story of the feeding of the multitude in John, Jesus asks one of his disciples, Philip, what they were going to do about feeding the people.
Yes, John does insert the little comment that Jesus asked Philip this question in order to test him, because, as John tells us, Jesus knew what he was going to do.
But why is Jesus testing Philip in this way? Why does he not just create enough food for the people? Why get the disciples involved in all of this?
What seems most interesting to me is the question Jesus asks Philip: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”
It seems like a very leading question to me. Why did Jesus not ask, “Do you think I can miraculously create enough bread to feed these people?”
After all, if the people followed him because he had cured many of great illness, would not the disciples, his closest followers, know that he could do most anything? This seems to be a more testing question than asking Philip where to buy food.
Philip’s answer to Jesus’ question is very telling as well: “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
In other words, even if they had a half year’s wages, they could only give each person a small amount of food, perhaps only a mouthful. Philip seems to suggest to Jesus, “Surely this is not your plan.”
Philip’s answer exposes what he is most concerned about – money. You can almost hear him say, “This will cost too much, Jesus.” “Even if we had this money, Jesus, would we want to spend it on feeding this multitude of people?” “These folks are not our problem.” Or, as he might say in our American context, “These lazy people need to work for their own food.”
Philip is not the only disciple to fail in this story. Andrew, the only other of the Twelve to be mentioned, comes to Jesus with some bread and fish he has received from a young boy.
But in doing so, he looks on the small amount of food with doubt, as if it is nowhere near enough to feed the large crowd.
This brings us to one other character in the story who is not mentioned by name. This character never speaks, but his actions speak loudly. He is the little boy.
Even though he appears to be insignificant, this little boy plays a very important and central role in what Jesus does.
Unlike the disciples, this boy shares what he has, possibly all he has. He probably knows that it is very little, but he is willing to share what he has.
In this way, the young boy serves as a model of faithfulness. If he and his gift, so insignificant to the followers of Jesus, can have an impact on feeding the large crowd, then no one can excuse themselves from giving and sharing in generosity in an effort to work toward the end of human hunger.
The problem facing Jesus, the disciples and this crowd was hunger.
We still live in a very hungry world. This story is also about real hunger, something millions in our world, yes even in our neighborhoods, face each and every day.
But hunger is a symptom of something that is more deeply troubling: poverty. When people live in poverty, they cannot provide for themselves or their family members, and this manifests itself in different ways, but particularly in the need for food.
Moreover, we know that hunger leads to sickness, which causes health care costs to rise. Hunger contributes to an inability for children to concentrate in school, thus they fail to learn, which leads to underemployment and unemployment.
We could trace poverty and hunger to many of the ills facing our society today. But the question for us is the question Jesus posed to Philip: “How do we feed the hungry?”
We can approach feeding the hungry in two equally important ways.
First, on a personal level, we can find ways of sharing what we have with others who are in need of food. We can support food banks that provide food for the hungry. We can serve lunches to children each day, especially during the summer months when they do not get meals at school.
We can provide fruits and vegetables to homes that cannot afford to purchase healthier foods. We can give money to international food programs, such as Bread for the World or Heifer International. There are many more ways that we can help feed the hungry.
Yet, another way to combat hunger and feed the multitudes often escapes us, for we have so reduced Jesus’ message of love and justice to a personal level. We need to understand that hunger and poverty are caused by political and economic circumstances.
People do not choose to be hungry. For most, and especially women and children, hunger is caused by the system in which we live that often favors the more fortunate while neglecting those who are poor.
Christians, indeed, all caring human beings have a moral imperative to proclaim to our lawmakers that God demands justice for the poor.
We must understand our role in changing systems that contribute to the hunger of people and that continue to entrap people in poverty. We must stand against economic policies that cut programs that help the poor, and we must push for programs that lift the poor out of their plight to find not only nourishment, but also human dignity.
It is not enough to give a little money here and there to feed the hungry. Doing this is right and good, but it only treats the symptoms of poverty and not the underlying causes of hunger and poverty.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.