It's one of the nicest stories of the gospels, one that's hard to not be happy hearing no matter who you are. Jesus is out in the countryside healing thousands of people (no matter how you count them). It's getting late and the disciples tell Jesus he needs to wrap things up so everyone can go into town and get dinner. Jesus responds, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." Shocked, the disciples explain they have but five loaves and two fish. Jesus requests these meager rations be given to him and, after asking God's blessing upon them, is able to feed everyone in the crowd with plentiful leftovers besides.
This story warms the hearts of those who love Jesus' compassionate nature, for it is so on display here. It makes happy those who love the fact that Jesus performed miracles – this feeding miracle is such a great one! It is also passionately embraced by those who don’t really believe the rest of the miracle accounts; this one could very well explained as the “magic” that happens when people decide to share.
Last but not least, this is a story about FOOD glorious FOOD, everyone’s favorite topic.
No matter how you slice it (pun intended), this is a happy story! It’s no wonder “The Feeding of the 5,000” is reported in all four gospels (the only one of Jesus’ “miracle stories” to have that distinction). Plus, the auxiliary “Feeding of the 4,000” is also found in Matthew and Mark. We get to encounter Jesus creating delicious abundance often, and we get to let it give us many inspired smiles.
But how about laughs?
My "Comedy of the Bible" mentor, Dr. Doug Adams, suggested there is some pungent comedy in the text we ought not overlook, and it happens at the point described above, where Jesus tells the disciples they can feed the crowd with the food they have brought.
In three of the four gospels, just a couple of chapters before before these miraculous feedings take place, we’re told Jesus sends his disciples out to preach and heal and proclaim God’s coming Kingdom. As Jesus does so he gives this specific command:
“Take nothing for [your] journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in [your] belts….". (Mark 6:8; Luke 9:3)
In Matthew (10:9) the command is almost the same with a little variation:
"Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey…for laborers deserve their food."
Jesus makes it crystal clear they're to travel empty-handed, fully relying on the hospitality of those with whom they’d be sharing good news. They're to discover how indeed God provides for us like the lilies of the field.
I can’t help but imagine Jesus saying, “You give them something to eat” with an ironic twinkle in his eye, knowing the disciples were indeed carrying comestibles somewhere, perhaps even stuffed in their tunics (which may have been looking a little lumpier than usual…).
I wonder if it made the disciples blush with shame as they realized Jesus’ request for their supplies was really a “gotcha!” about their failure to follow. I wonder if they then sheepishly revealed to Jesus their stash, sort of like when the nuns in “The Sound of Music” contritely opened their palms to reveal spark plugs and the like lifted from Nazi jeeps.
Or maybe, instead of being embarrassed, the disciples were completely oblivious to Jesus’ droll implication, so concerned were they their smoking gun – er, fishes and loaves – could even begin to amliorate the crowd's hunger. As Jesus observed their endless bickering and bantering he could only resignedly smile, shake his head and look forward to the day Pete Seegers’ “When will they ever learn? When will they ever…learn?” could be part of such a scene’s soundtrack.
In any case, there’s a funny scene – bitterly funny, to be sure – happening in the midst of all sorts of miraculous multiplying wondrousness.
It speaks in especially great volume to God’s grace and Jesus’ desire to keep the main thing the main thing.
Sure, these fishes and loaves were just one more example of the disciples’ ineptitude, dim-wittedness, and lack of faith. Jesus could have stopped the party to call them out and make sure everyone knew how they’d screwed up.
Instead, he makes it an inside joke between himself and the Twelve. In so doing he teaches them that they, too, must not get tripped up when others don’t get it right but instead let God bless whatever it brings and use it for the good. Amazing good.
There are many great and gracious messages in Jesus miraculous feeding stories. The one that comes from the comedy is just icing on the cake.
Of course for many, that’s the best part of the cake to bite into!