Late in the afternoon the twelve disciples came to him and said, “Send the crowds away to the nearby villages and farms, so they can find food and lodging for the night. There is nothing to eat here in this remote place.”
But Jesus said, “You feed them.”
But we have only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Or are you expecting us to go and buy enough food for this whole crowd?” For there were about 5,000 men there.
Jesus replied, “Tell them to sit down in groups of about fifty each.” So the people all sat down. Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, looked up toward heaven, and blessed them. Then, breaking the loaves into pieces, he kept giving the bread and fish to the disciples so they could distribute it to the people. They all ate as much as they wanted, and afterward, the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftovers! Luke 9:12-17 NLT
This is a well known story, one of Jesus’ most memorable miracles. It is easy to get preoccupied with the miraculous aspect of this account, but the story contains a simple challenge that is perhaps more relevant for all followers of Jesus. It is simply this: feed the hungry.
There were a lot of people in a fairly remote place with no shops. They had been listening to Jesus’ teaching for many hours. The day was coming to an end, and the disciples felt it was time to send them away, since they needed to eat and sleep. The crowd was tired, but above all, they were hungry. Jesus said simply, “You feed them.”
Feeding the hungry has been part of the Christian mission since the very beginning. Perhaps this is where it started, though caring for the poor and needy was part of the Old Testament ethic too. Why did Jesus do what he did in this situation? It could be argued that providing food was not his responsibility. It could be argued that the people should have been better prepared, that it was their own fault they were hungry. It could be argued that Jesus was simply buying followers by feeding them, or even that he was using their need to display his own power, so that his action was self centred rather than motivated but compassion or concern for them.
We can analyse away endlessly, but whatever we might think, the story contains a number of simple realities. First, there was a crowd of hungry people who had nothing to eat. Second, Jesus had the power and resources to provide for them, and decided to use that power. Third, he involved his disciples in that task. Fourth, the provision of food was miraculous. Finally, the recipients were blessed.
We live in a world where many are hungry and have nothing to eat. How or why they landed in that situation varies, but doesn’t change the fact of their need, and ultimately doesn’t matter. If we have the power and resources to respond to that need, we will be following Jesus’ example if we do so. We are his disciples and he challenges us to be involved in that task.
On that first occasion the provision was miraculous, and there have been many more miraculous provisions since then. My mind goes immediately to George Müller, man of God and founder of orphanages in Victorian Britain (among other things), for whom God’s miraculous provision was daily fare. However, I don’t believe that our efforts to feed the hungry need to be always or necessarily miraculous. We are called to simply use the resources at our disposal, whatever they might be. That might mean involving others around us in the task, as Jesus did.
It seems self evident that the recipients of food will be blessed. Starvation is not a pleasant experience. Yet hungry people are, strangely, not always thankful for what they receive. But that is another discussion.
How can we be involved in this aspect of Jesus’ mission? Simply by being aware of the hunger of the people of this world and responding in whatever way we can. If that involves miracles, it’s exciting. If not it is still worthwhile, not because it is spectacular, but because it reflects God’s heart of compassion. For followers of Jesus, feeding the hungry is part of what we do.