Jesus tested his disciples. For three days, the crowd of 4,000 had followed him, listening to his teaching. But now they were in the wilderness and hungry. So what was Jesus to do? “If I send them away hungry, they will collapse on the way.” Yet, all they have for so many are seven loaves.
But is Jesus testing his disciples solely on how to physically feed this hungry throng, or does he have more in mind? The word “collapse” provides a clue. That word is used elsewhere in the New Testament to mean “losing heart” or “getting discouraged in the face of trial.”
Could Jesus be challenging his disciples, coaxing them to see beyond the physical needs of people; to see, more importantly, the need for spiritual nourishment of those who, in following Jesus, may grow discouraged or weakened in the faith? Will their easy solution be to send them away? Or will the disciples, in faith, give their meager gift of bread to Jesus who can multiply it, enough to feed everyone?
In fact, Jesus takes the bread and gives thanks (eucharisteo). Then he directs his disciples to distribute this eucharistic meal, making them his co-workers in feeding the hungry. All ate, the gospel tells us, “and were satisfied.” Indeed – with seven baskets left over.
Perhaps in testing them, Jesus gave his disciples a lesson in what will be their future pastoral ministry. And he gave us a lesson, too, on the vital necessity of feeding of the Bread of Life, especially when we’ve traveled a long way and sometimes feel discouraged in the face of life’s trials.
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.