“You give them something to eat”

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.
– Matthew 14:15-18

Last week I discussed this passage with our first-year seminary students. I asked them how the disciples might have felt when Jesus said, “You give them something to eat.” I expected my students to say that the disciples felt confused, mystified, overwhelmed, challenged. But one Zambian student responded, “They were probably afraid they’d lose the little bit they had.”

That spoke to me. It spoke to me because it seems true, and it spoke to me because I realized my students’ own experiences (in this case, of hunger) help them to see things in Scripture that I overlook. It helped me see yet again that when I study Scripture with them, I see more than I would on my own.

My student’s comment also spoke to me because I have often felt something similar in my own experience of ministry. When God has put new opportunities and responsibilities before me, I haven’t only felt challenged and mystified (how will I measure up?). I’ve been fearful of losing something precious, something I already feel short on. Unlike my students, it’s never been food that I feel short on. Opportunities to minister frighten me because I think I might lose other things that are precious to me – like the little bit of time and energy that I have, and which I hold dear, or my sense of control in life, which I hold very dear. I fear that if I say yes to certain opportunities in ministry, as Jesus called his disciples to do in this passage, I will lose control of my time, my energy, my relationships, and my personal space. This was as true when I was an associate pastor in California as it has been during my ministry in Africa.

Jesus must have known his words would frighten his disciples, yet he spoke them anyway. By speaking those words, he opened an opportunity that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. Over five thousand hungry people experienced the abundance of God, and the disciples learned something about trusting Jesus when the temptation was to fear losing the little they had.

Jesus’ command, “You give them something to eat,” can take on a lot of different shapes, depending on who we are, our situation in life, and how the Holy Spirit is nudging us. Hearing Jesus might make us afraid of losing the little that we have. On the other hand, following through on his command might also open the chance to see more of Jesus than we’ve ever seen before. And it might allow us, as it did the original disciples, to be part of something that’s truly amazing.

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