It is a famous story, one depicted in both stained glass windows and the colorful pages of children’s books: the story of Jesus feeding multitudes with a little boy’s lunch.
Motivational speakers use the tale to remind us of what Jesus can do. Do you feel as if you have little to give? In the hands of Jesus, five loaves and two fishes can feed thousands. Just put your life in Jesus’ hands, and he will do abundantly more than you can imagine.
Yet I struggle with this story. Some of the gospels place it after two events: John the Baptist’s beheading—a loss that would have deeply affected Jesus and his followers—and the disciples’ return from their ministry trips. Mark paints a vivid picture: “Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest’” (Mark 6:31).
Then Jesus sees the crowds and has compassion.
I can imagine being in the disciples’ shoes: ready to leave, exhausted and hungry, and then catching a glimpse of Jesus’ face. “No, please not this time!” they beg. “Just turn away and let them deal with their own problems and rumbling stomachs.” Self-pity and resentment clash with Jesus’ compassion. Though their hands serve the baskets of bread, their heart is angry and hard. The miracle is missed.
I’ve reacted similarly when Jesus’ compassion and the prompting of the Spirit ask me to serve when I just want to rest and be comfortable. It’s difficult to give up one’s own desires—to be broken, in a way, for others—even when it means you take part in a divine miracle.
Yet here is the sweetest part of the story: Jesus blessed and gave thanks for the bread before he broke it. He didn’t bless the baskets of bread that fed the multitude, but the humble five loaves and two fishes that the little boy brought. Before Jesus began his official ministry, the Father blessed him: “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). Jesus too blesses us before he breaks us. In his hands our broken pieces press up against the wounds in his palms, for he suffered first. He was broken and given for me—for us—first.
In the world of missions and church leadership and in myself I have seen a tendency to overspiritualize the sacrifice of duty—to give and love and serve until you are dry and empty, and then to do it a bit more. It sounds so holy, like the poured-out offering Paul mentions (Phil. 2:17). If the disciples forgo rest to serve at Jesus’ request, we reason, so should we! But we become so focused on trying to bless that we forget the blessing that is ours—the blessing that was ours before we did a single thing. God speaks over us: “Beloved, the one with whom I am well pleased.” That’s not for what we have done or will do, but because of who we are in Christ. Maybe that knowledge is what keeps us going, as it kept Jesus going even when weary. It is not duty, but the blessing of love that propels us to serve. Then we get to become communion bread for the world, a way for people to meet the Savior with the pierced hands who always blesses before he breaks.