In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.
(Mark 8:1-10 ESV)
“How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” Clearly, Jesus disciples were not thinking outside the box. The idea they initially had was to come up with some way of baking enough bread for 4000 men, women, and children. They were too far from town to send someone back for food, and based on Jesus’ assessment of their needs, many were on the brink of starvation and would not make it back to town, much less to their own homes.
Jesus’ solution presents a unique math problem. It begins with him having the disciples instruct the crowd to sit down. In Luke’s account (Luke 9), they are made to sit in definable groups of 50 each. There’s no reason to imagine this experience was handled differently. Here’s the math problem: Give 12 disciples 7 loaves of bread. Each disciple now has .583 of a loaf in his hand. Let’s round that up to .6, just for the hoot of it.
Now divide 4000 people into groups of 50; that will be 80 groups. Divide that among the 12 disciples, and each disciple has 6 groups to feed. That means that each group does in fact get 1/10 of a loaf of bread. I often cut my pizza into 10 slices when I make it, so I’d say that’s about the size of the Syrian Flat Bread these guys were dealing with. Every group now has one slice of neo-Galilean pizza to share around the 50 of them. We don’t know how many smoked gefilte fish the disciples had, and there’s no mention of lox or cream cheese. But we’ll assume each group probably got 1/10 of a fish as well.
I’m an amateur chef. I like to make interesting things with ingredients. So the little canapé being passed around at this particular church reception were tiny little flatbread pizza rounds topped with smoked fish. What they really needed was a bit of extra-virgin olive oil. What they got was blessing. Eucharisteo is the Greek word that Jesus uses at the Last Supper. It means “to give thanks.” The same word appears in Mark 8:6 when Jesus “gives thanks” for the bread. And in verse 7 Jesus “blesses” the fish. Eulogos is a word in Greek meaning “to bless,” literally a “well word.”
The thing then that transformed the little nosh the crowd was offered from pizza rounds into flatbread feast (and permitted them to pick up 12 baskets of crumbs they then presumably took down to the local Salvation Army shelter to feed the poor Jesus talked about in the Beatitudes) was blessing, a great ingredient to add to any meal.
But the thing that really transforms is the presence of Jesus. Remember that he took the bread and the fish in his hands and blessed and gave thanks. This is not some spiritual exercise for our contemplation. This is not upper-story philosophy. This is Jesus taking the bread and the fish and giving them to the disciples to give to the crowds. “You give them something to eat,” Jesus says in Luke’s account.
You and I are called by Jesus to be his messengers, his waiters and waitresses, if you will, at just such a meal every day. We Christians have in our kitchens blessed bread and fish, not to mention soup, salad, steak, mac and cheese, and probably a ton of other stuff we’ll probably make left-overs of and discard more than 1/10th of every day, if we’d be honest. Our math problem isn’t how do you expand seven loaves and a few fish to feed 4000 hungry people. Our problem is how do you expand the 4000 loaves and fish nearly all of us here in North America have to feed one neighbor. Don’t think about feeding “the poor.” The task will overwhelm you. Start by serving your admittedly well-fed neighbor across the street.
What really needs the touch of the hands and the blessing of Jesus, it seems, is my tiny heart, not my tiny lunch.