Matthew 14:15-21 — As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Yesterday’s meditation raised the question of how a good God can allow suffering in the world. I pointed out that the Bible responds to this question in a variety of ways, and one of those ways is in the Matthew 14 story of the feeding of the 5,000. The disciples bring to Jesus the problem of people who are hungry, and Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” The same story is told in John 6, where Jesus asks Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”
Philip thinks this is a ridiculous suggestion. He wonders how they were supposed to do that, saying, “Six months wages would not be enough to give each person even one bite.” Philip could have added, “Don’t forget Jesus, we all quit our jobs to follow you, so we don’t even have one month’s wage on hand with all of us put together.” You wouldn’t have to be a pessimist or a negative thinker or even a person of small faith to see that what Jesus suggested was an outrageous, impossible solution– telling twelve unemployed men to buy lunch for 5,000 people.
But then one of the disciples started to do something. John 6:8 tells us that it was Andrew who found a boy with a little lunch along, and said to Jesus, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish.” Good old Andrew– there’s a positive thinker for you, a man of real faith. I can see him cheerfully telling the other disciples, “Well, at least it is a start.” But even he had to add, “I don’t know how far this will go among so many.”
Then came the miracle, and a little boy’s small lunch fed 5,000 people. There was a problem and Jesus said, “Do something about it.” Do not just sit there and talk about it, do not let it destroy your faith and trust in God, don’t waste your time writing angry books about it, don’t even wait around for God to take care of it– just do something about it, Jesus said. Little you, with the little bit you have, can begin to do something about it, and then watch God bless the efforts. Even something so small as a boy’s lunch can make a difference.
When faced with 5,000 hunger people, Philip threw up his arms and said, “It can’t be done.” But Andrew said, “Here’s a little boy’s lunch,” and soon everyone had their fill.
Andrew’s response reminds me of Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity. Fuller’s goal for Habitat for Humanity was to, in the name of Jesus, provide a decent place to live for every single human being on earth. That’s a big goal, and when he started talking to people about investing in his new ministry, many thought he was crazy. He was doing a radio interview one time and somebody called in to say just that. “You are crazy,” the caller said, “How do you think you are going to provide a decent home for everyone on earth?” “Well,” said Fuller confidently and cheerfully, “Our plan is a simple one. Our motto is ‘no more shacks,’ and so we are just going to build one house after another until we are finished, and everyone on earth has a decent house to live in. And then,” he added, “when we get all done with that, we’ll think of something else to do.” Just like Andrew, he was willing to get started with what he had, and see what the Lord would do with his efforts. The work of Habitat is not done yet, but with volunteer labor, and donations given to provide interest free loans, Habitat has built or repaired over a million affordable homes over the last 40+ years, providing homes, instead of shacks, for five million people.
The New Testament is filled with this message, and the first Christians went right to work to obey Jesus’ command to serve those in need. Although they were small in number, their service to others began to have a huge impact, and was noticed. Even one of the early enemies of the church, a Roman official, in a report to his superiors on the problem of Christians in the Empire, had to admit that “These followers of Jesus are good people; they feed their own poor, and they feed ours too.” That example of service to others, and that witness to their love and the love of their God, eventually won over a majority of the Roman empire to the Christian faith.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) could write a book about ‘why God is not great and how religion spoils everything,’ and another book on what a terrible person Mother Teresa was; but none of that did anyone much good. But when Mother Teresa brought starving homeless people in off of the street for a meal and a place to stay, lives were touched with the love of Jesus. And when millions of less famous Christians around the world stock local food shelves or give to their church’s hunger appeals, hungry people are fed, one at a time.
Feeding the hungry is not a burden; rather, it is a privilege to be allowed in on this great work of God. If the whole world shared like Jesus said we should, the whole world would be fed. God has provided enough resources to feed everyone, but human sin, greed, corruption, and war are always interfering with the distribution of those resources. But as each individual person does what they can by sharing, that response becomes one small part of the answer to the problem of suffering.
And then, don’t forget to give thanks to God that you are one of those blessed enough to be able to give, and not among those who do not know where their next meal is coming from.