"And the apostles gather themselves together unto Jesus; and they told Him all things, whatsoever they had done, and whatsoever they had taught. And He saith unto them, Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest awhile. For there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desert place apart. And the people saw them going, and many knew them, and they ran there together on foot from all the cities, and outwent them. And He came forth and saw a great multitude, and He had compassion on them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and He began to teach them many things. And when the day was now far spent, His disciples came unto Him, and said, The place is desert, and the day is now far spent: send them away, that they may go into the country and villages round about, and buy themselves somewhat to eat. But He answered and said unto them, Give ye them to eat. And they say unto Him, Shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread, and give them to eat? And He saith unto them, How many loaves have ye? go and see. And when they knew, they say, Five, and two fishes. And He commanded them that all should sit down by companies upon the green grass. And they sat down in ranks, by hundreds, and by fifties. And He took the five loaves and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, He blessed, and brake the loaves; and He gave to the disciples to set before them; and the two fishes divided He among them all. And they did all eat, and were filled. And they took up broken pieces, twelve basketfuls, and also of the fishes. And they that ate the loaves were five thousand men. And straightway He constrained His disciples to enter into the boat, and to go before Him unto the other side to Bethsaida, while He Himself sendeth the multitude away. And after He had taken leave of them He departed into the mountain to pray." MARK 6:30-46 (R.V.)
THE apostles, now first called by that name, because now first these "Messengers" had carried the message of their Lord, returned and told Him all, the miracles they had performed, and whatever they had taught. From the latter clause it is plain that to preach "that men should repent," involved arguments, motives, promises, and perhaps threatenings which rendered it no meager announcement. It is in truth a demand which involves free will and responsibility as its bases, and has hell or heaven for the result of disobedience or compliance. Into what controversies may it have led these first preachers of Jesus! All was now submitted to the judgment of their Master. And happy are they still who do not shrink from the healing pain of bringing all their actions and words to Him, and hearkening what the Lord will speak.
Upon the whole, they brought a record of success. And around Him also were so many coming and going that they had no leisure so much as to eat. Whereupon Jesus draws them aside to rest awhile. For the balance must never be forgotten between the outer and the inner life. The Lord Himself spent the following night in prayer, until He saw the distress of His disciples, and came to them upon the waves. And the time was at hand when they, who now rejoiced that the devils were subject unto them, should learn by sore humiliation and defeat that this kind goeth not forth except by prayer. We may be certain that it was not bodily repose alone that Jesus desired for His flushed and excited ambassadors, in the hour of their success. And yet bodily repose also at such a time is healing, and in the very pause, the silence, the cessation of the rush, pressure, and excitement of every conspicuous career, there is an opportunity and even a suggestion of calm and humble recollection of the soul. Accordingly they crossed in the boat to some quiet spot, open and unreclaimed, but very far from such dreariness as the mention of a desert suggests to us. But the people saw Him, and watched His course, while outrunning Him along the coast, and their numbers were augmented from every town as they poured through it, until He came forth and saw a great multitude, and knew that His quest of solitude was baffled. Few things are more trying than the world's remorseless intrusion upon one's privacy and subversions of plans which one has laid, not for himself alone. But Jesus was as thoughtful for the multitude as He had just shown Himself to be for His disciples. Not to petulance but to compassion did their urgency excite Him; for as they streamed across the wilderness, far from believing upon Him, but yet conscious of sore need, unsatisfied with the doctrine of their professional teachers, and just bereaved of the Baptist, they seemed in the desert like sheep that had no shepherd. And He patiently taught them many things.
Nor was He careful only for their souls. We have now reached that remarkable miracle which alone is related by all the four Evangelists. And the narratives, while each has its individual and peculiar points, corroborate each other very strikingly. All four mention the same kind of basket, quite different from what appears in the feeding of the four thousand. St. John alone tells us that it was the season of the Passover, the middle of the Galilean spring-time; but yet this agrees exactly with St. Mark's allusion to the "green grass" which summer has not yet dried up. All four have recorded that Jesus "blessed" or "gave thanks," and three of them that He looked up to heaven while doing so. What was there so remarkable, so intense or pathetic in His expression, that it would have won this three-fold celebration? If we remember the symbolical meaning of what He did, and that as His hands were laid upon the bread which He would break, so His own body should soon be broken for the relief of the hunger of the world, how can we doubt that absolute self-devotion, infinite love, and pathetic resignation were in the wonderful look, which never could be forgotten?
There could have been but few women and children among the multitudes who "outran Jesus," and these few would certainly have been trodden down if a rush of strong and hungry men for bread had taken place. Therefore St. John mentions that while Jesus bade "the people" to be seated, it was the men who were actually arranged (6:10 R.V.). Groups of fifty were easy to keep in order, and a hundred of these were easily counted. And thus it comes to pass that we know that there were five thousand men, while the women and children remained unreckoned, as St. Matthew asserts, and St. Mark implies. This is a kind of harmony which we do not find in two versions of any legend. Nor could any legendary impulse have imagined the remarkable injunction, which impressed all four Evangelists, to be frugal when it would seem that the utmost lavishness was pardonable. They were not indeed bidden to gather up fragments left behind upon the ground, for thrift is not meanness; but the "broken pieces" which our Lord had provided over and above should not be lost. "This union of economy with creative power, " said Olshousen, "could never have been invented, and yet Nature, that mirror of the Divine perfections, exhibits the same combination of boundless munificence with truest frugality." And Godet adds the excellent remark, that "a gift so obtained was not to be squandered."
There is one apparent discord to set against these remarkable harmonies, and it will at least serve to show that they are not calculated and artificial.
St. John represents Jesus as the first to ask Philip, Whence are we to buy bread? whereas the others represent the Twelve as urging upon Him the need to dismiss the multitude, at so late an hour, from a place so ill provided. The inconsistency is only an apparent one. It was early in the day, and upon "seeing a great company come unto Him," that Jesus questioned Philip, who might have remembered an Old Testament precedent, when Elisha said "Give unto the people that they may eat. And his servitor said, What? shall I set this before an hundred men? He said, again...they shall both eat and shall also leave thereof." But the faith of Philip did not respond, and if any hope of a miracle were excited, it faded as time passed over. Hours later, when the day was far spent, the Twelve, now perhaps excited by Philip's misgiving, and repeating his calculation about the two hundred pence, urge Jesus to dismiss the multitude. They took no action until "the time was already past," but Jesus saw the end from the beginning. And surely the issue taught them not to distrust their Master's power. Now the same power is for ever with the Church; and our heavenly Father knoweth that we have need of food and raiment.
Even in the working of a miracle, the scantiest means vouchsafed by Providence are not despised. Jesus takes the barley-loaves and the fishes, and so teaches all men that true faith is remote indeed from the fanaticism which neglect any resources brought within the reach of our study and our toil. And to show how really these materials were employed, the broken pieces which they gathered are expressly said to have been composed of the barley-loaves and of the fish.
Indeed it must be remarked that in no miracle of the Gospel did Jesus actually create. He makes no new members of the body, but restores old useless ones. "And so, without a substratum to work upon He creates neither bread nor wine." To do this would not have been a whit more difficult, but it would have expressed less aptly His mission, which was not to create a new system of things, but to renew the old, to recover the lost sheep, and to heal the sick at heart.
Every circumstance of this miracle is precious. That vigilant care for the weak which made the people sit down in groups, and await their turn to be supplied, is a fine example of the practical eye for details which was never, before or since, so perfectly united with profound thought, insight into the mind of God and the wants of the human race.
The words, Give ye them to eat, may serve as an eternal rebuke to the helplessness of the Church, face to face with a starving world, and regarding her own scanty resources with dismay. In the presence of heathenism, of dissolute cities, and of semi-pagan peasantries, she is ever looking wistfully to some costly far-off supply. And her Master is ever bidding her believe that the few loaves and fishes in her hand, if blessed and distributed by Him, will satisfy the famine of mankind.
For in truth He is Himself this bread. All that the Gospel of St. John explains, underlies the narratives of the four. And shame on us, with Christ given to us to feed and strengthen us, if we think our resources scanty, if we grudge to share them with mankind, if we let our thoughts wander away to the various palliatives for human misery and salves for human anguish, which from time to time gain the credence of an hour; if we send the hungry to the country and villages round about, when Christ the dispenser of the Bread of souls, for ever present in His Church, is saying, They need not depart, give ye them to eat.
The skeptical explanations of this narrative are exquisitely ludicrous. One tells how, finding themselves in a desert, "thanks to their extreme frugality they were able to exist, and this was naturally" (what, naturally?) "regarded as a miracle." This is called the legendary explanation, and every one can judge for himself how much it succeeds in explaining to him. Another tells us that Jesus being greater than Moses, it was felt that He must have outstripped him in miraculous power. And so the belief grew up that as Moses fed a nation during forty years, with angels' food, He, to exceed this, must have bestowed upon five thousand men one meal of barley bread.
This is called the mythical explanation, and the credulity which accepts it must not despise Christians, who only believe their Bibles.
Jesus had called away His followers to rest. The multitude which beheld this miracle was full passionate hate against the tyrant, upon whose hands the blood of the Baptist was still warm. All they wanted was a leader. And now they would fain have taken Jesus by force to thrust this perilous honor upon Him. Therefore He sent away His disciples first, that ambition and hope might not agitate and secularize their minds; and when He had dismissed the multitude He Himself ascended the neighboring mountain, to cool His frame with the pure breezes, and to refresh His Holy Spirit by communion with His Father. Prayer was natural to Jesus; but think how much more needful is it to us. And yet perhaps we have never taken one hour from sleep for God.