18 July 2012

The crowds are fed

Part 4 of a series - 'Seven signs in John'
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People are hungry - and there are a lot of people. Jesus asks the disciples about feeding them and then shows that neither money nor large supplies of food are necessary. We finish with the usual four questions.

Traditional Jordanian breadFor the background to the signs in John and links to the other articles in the series, please read the index page.

At Tabgha on the north-west shore of the Sea of Galilee is a church at the traditional site of the feeding of the five thousand.

About 300 years after the crowd ate the bread and fish, a woman called Egeria visited and wrote of this site.

'In the same place (not far from Capernaum) facing the Sea of Galilee is a well watered land in which lush grasses grow, with numerous trees and palms. Nearby are seven springs which provide abundant water. In this fruitful garden Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish.'

So let's read the passage from John and then ask the usual four questions.

Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing those who were ill. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming towards him, he said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, ‘It would take more than half a year’s wages[a] to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!’

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, ‘Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?’

Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’ So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.’ (John 6:1-15)

As for the earlier signs in John, I'll now ask the four questions suggested by Neil Cole and provide some pointers for finding the answers in the material quoted above.

What does this story tell us about people? - We'll list all the people who are mentioned.

First, there is the crowd. Why were they following Jesus? Travelling around on foot would have been quite an effort, they would have been both tired and hungry. Any who were not young, fit and well might have been really struggling. Right at the end the people are mentioned again. How did they respond to what had happened?

Next is Philip. His solution to feeding the people is to buy food, but he knew this was unaffordable for so many.

Andrew knew they had some food, but only a token amount among so many.

The disciples (including Philip and Andrew) are mentioned later. Jesus tells them to pick up the pieces. This might have seemed an unnecessary chore (the were no littering laws in those days). How did they respond? What were they thinking as the baskets filled up?

What does it tell us about Jesus? - Jesus crossed to the far shore. He was always travelling about the land. Why?

His initial response to the crowd was to go up into the hills. But they followed him. What is his attitude to this crowd?

Notice how he uses questions to teach the disciples, getting people to think and verbalise is more effective than just giving the answer.

Jesus tells the disciples what to do - make them sit down - gather up the pieces. Who is in control here?

Right at the end, is he taken by surprise by the intentions of the crowd? Does he approve of their desire to make him a king? What is going on here?

What does it tell me about myself? - Are you like any of the people in the story? Are you like all of them in some way? Which do you identify with most? Which do you identify with least? Might you have thought and behaved differently?

Who else needs to hear this? - Who do you know who might benefit or be challenged or encouraged by hearing this sign of John?

Additional points - John mentions 5000 men in this crowd. The total size of the crowd would have been more, perhaps substantially more if they had counted women and children too.

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