This is one of those stories that shows up in all four Gospels, and they all seem to hit something different to me. As I read Mark’s version, I wonder if the loaves and fishes really isn’t about the loaves and fishes. Often we read about Jesus retreating by himself and then others interrupting him. But here in Mark, just prior to this great miracle, we have Jesus making an invitation: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Wow.
Remember the context: Just prior to this, Jesus has sent his disciples out to do what he does: Go to the people, call them to return, heal the sick, and cast out evil. Then they all hear about the morbid, politically and personally motivated assassination of John the Baptist. They have been giving themselves to Christ’s mission and now are in grief, and they are tired. How sweet must those words be: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” This may be the kindest, gentlest Jesus we’ve seen in Mark.
Of course, it didn’t last long. The crowds show up, and they are hungry. Jesus cannot turn them away, but the disciples see no means by which they can feed them. And Jesus says these piercing words, that to me may be some of those most important for the many struggling mainline churches out there today like mine: “You give them something to eat… How many fish do you have?”
This story is not merely about a miracle of loaves and fishes. It’s about the people God getting rightly aligned to do God’s work. It begins with “come away to a deserted place…” And from there, when we look at the work before us to feed the people, both literally and metaphorically, our task is not to look at what we don’t have, but to look at what we do have: “How many fish do you have” (the operative word maybe being “do” as opposed to “don’t”).
The work is hard, but it is, oh, so good and right and beautiful. But it takes focus. It takes the discipline to trust that the work is God’s work ultimately, not our own, and so we “come away” from it not only to get rest, but to remind ourselves that the work is God’s and not ours. It’s a way of saying, “God doesn’t need me”. There’s a burden attached when someone “needs” us. To “come away” not only restores us, but it says “God doesn’t need me, but God does want me.” It’s as though Jesus is saying to his disciples, “Look, I don’t need you along with me in this work- I can do it without you. But I’d rather do it with you.”
When we get aligned to that, then we stop looking at what we lack, and we begin to see just what we have that Jesus believes is within us. We begin to see how many fish we do have to offer. And so, how many fish do you have? Now go and offer them and see what Christ will do with them.