Greetings! As many of you are probably aware, this past Sunday was a horrific travel day around here with snow and ice. Five of the faithful however somehow made their way out to church and we decided to hold a shortened service as I was reminded by our keyboard player that ‘wherever two or more are gathered…’.
So, we sang a few songs and said a few prayers, and I decided to share a story I wrote some years ago about the biblical account from the gospel of John of Jesus feeding the five thousand. The Spirit was present in fullness and we all were blessed that morning…I hope this story blesses you as well…david
Scripture: (Loosely, but prayerfully based on) John 6:1-15
To an outsider it looked like any other day…hot and dry, a stillness in the air that only magnified the deep and unrelenting hardship faced by so many in the village. But for little Elisha this day dawned with tremendous promise. For this was the day that his mother had told him he could go over by the lake and listen to the Prophet who had been preaching and teaching throughout the area. The Prophet’s name was Jesus and it was said that he came from Nazareth in Judaea. Jesus had been roaming from town to town, taking up the causes of all of the poor and oppressed throughout the region. He was an outspoken critic both of Rome and of the Jewish Temple hierarchy which together placed such an incredible burden on the common folk.
Elisha wanted to go and see the Prophet ever since his friend Joseph had told him he had seen Jesus completely heal a man who had been paralyzed for years. Joseph had said that all the Temple Authorities did not believe a miracle had actually occurred, however the one who had been healed was Joseph’s uncle and therefore Joseph knew in his heart that indeed a mighty work of God had taken place right there in their presence.
Elisha secretly wanted to go and see Jesus for himself, for although she would never ask and would never consider herself worthy of any particular attention from God, Elisha’s mother had been severely ill and pretty much bedridden for most of his young life. He did have faint memories of a time when his mom was joyous and light-hearted, a time when she used to run and play with him. But then there was the terrible accident when she was badly hurt by some of the soldiers who frequently raided the local homes of Hebrew farmers looking to steal their grain stores and other food rations in order to feed the Roman Legion quartered just a few miles to the East. And although Elisha never knew exactly what had happened, he did know that his father had resisted the Roman commander that day and as a result had been beaten severely. After that the soldiers had grabbed Elisha’s mother and amidst her screams of terror had carried her off with them as they left the village.
Several days later some neighbors found her lying by the roadside, beaten and unconscious. They had brought her home, however she never really recovered from her wounds both physically and emotionally…terrible injuries which she had suffered at the merciless hands of the Roman soldiers. And so, for a number of years now she had been pretty much forced to remain in bed, unable to get up except for short walks and to occasionally eat with the family, after which she would return to her bed and lay down again completely exhausted.
Elisha’s father tried his best to provide for his family however the increasing burden was beginning to take a toll on his strength and stamina as well. Along with all of the other families in the village, Elisha’s family had been especially hard hit by the huge increase in taxes levied both by Rome directly as well as by the new tax collector, a Jew by the name of Alon. Alon had been the successful bidder to collect taxes on Rome’s behalf for the next two years and he wanted to make a big first impression on his new employer. He was allowed to keep whatever he collected above and beyond the amount he had promised to deliver to Rome at the end of each collection period, however Alon wanted to be early with his payments and so he was especially harsh with the village residents, forcing them to pay early and greatly in excess of what Rome actually required. Alon, along with all of the rest of the tax collectors who sided with Rome, was also very much interested in lining his own pockets, overcharging the village residents far in excess of what they were able to pay. As a result of his tyrannical enforcement, many had been forced to sell off their land to other wealthy Jews and now, having lost their family birthright, were forced to live and work the land they formerly owned as tenant farmers.
Elisha’s family had been fortunate thus far having staved off losing their property with some money Elisha’s mother had inherited from her father. But now everyone’s resources were becoming more and more scarce as savings and property increasingly disappeared from the villager’s purses. The onerous taxation policy combined with the exorbitant Temple fees assessed each Spring by the High Priest, was only made worse by what was now the second growing season in a row which had suffered dry drought-like conditions and greatly reduced harvests.
As such, grain was in short supply and therefore had great value. Fewer and fewer families had enough to live on and were forced to pay high rates to larger farmers in order to make even simple bread to live on. Elisha’s family farm was fortunate to be located along an old dry creek bed…and for some reason their fields still bore grain fairly well even with the scarcity of the spring rains. Elisha’s father had harvested a good crop, much of which he had hidden away to prevent the tax collectors and Roman Authority from stealing it from them. However, the family larder had finally run almost fully empty and the small family was now having to consider what steps they might take in order to survive the double burden of scarce resources and brutal outside oppression.
It was into this torrent of emotions and difficult choices that Elisha asked if he could go and see the Prophet who it was said was now only a mile or so away over by the shores of Lake Galilee. Not having the heart to say no to her young son and feeling so very guilty for having to raise him in such trying conditions, Elisha’s mother looked at her son with love in her heart and told him it was alright for him to go…and to be sure and take whatever remained in the larder in order for him to have some lunch. Her young son had no idea that the five small loaves of bread and the two little dried fish left in the larder were all the family had to their name…after they were gone there literally was nothing more for them to live on. In spite of that, Elisha’s mom told him to take it all, for she wanted her son at least to have one last filling meal. She also knew, and had discussed with her husband that it looked as though the time had finally come, when they too would be forced to go the rich landowner on the other side of the village in order to sell off their land…land which had been in Elisha’s mother’s family for seven generations. Unaware of these dire consequences, Elisha cheerfully grabbed the meager ration of food, threw it into his satchel and, after kissing his mother goodbye, set off for the lake to chase after his own dream.
For you see, after hearing the story of the miraculous healing of his friend’s uncle, Elisha had not stopped dreaming of and praying for a chance to have his mother receive the same blessing. He knew she was in no condition to go and see the Prophet but he hoped that somehow he might convince Jesus to come back to his house in order to work another miracle of healing for his ailing mother. Swiftly the young boy ran towards the coast, not wanting to miss any time he might have to get close to the Prophet and to learn of the wonderful things Jesus was known to speak of.
And as he came within sight of the lake it was not hard at all to see where the Prophet was, for there was a huge crowd gathered all around a small hill upon which Jesus stood and addressed them all. Elisha drew as close as he could, trying not to be rude as he gently pushed his way deeper and deeper into the center of the crowd near to where Jesus was standing and teaching. And once he was close, he just stood there, trying to take in all of the wonderful things Jesus was saying…not always understanding what had been said but knowing it must be good and right as indicated by the frequent exclamations of approval and affirmation from the adults in the crowd.
This went on for quite some time, in fact it was later in the day when Jesus slowed down and took a breather from all he had been trying to share. He seemed to be in such a hurry to tell everyone that God was somehow very different than they had all thought, that God was truly a God of love and that God wanted only the best for each of them, that God wanted to set them free from all of their trials and to renew their spirit with holiness and goodness…Jesus then told them that God was the one who would provide for every one of their needs.
Upon hearing that Elisha suddenly shouted out…not really with any words in particular but just because he was so excited at hearing exactly what he was hoping to hear from Jesus. Noticing the young boy’s outburst Jesus looked his way and smiled at him. Elisha suddenly became self-conscious and blushed trying to melt back into the crowd for a minute. Then, turning to his disciple Philip, Jesus said to him, “Where can we buy bread in order that these people might have something to eat? It is way past midday and surely they are all famished.” Philip was surprised that Jesus asked him for he knew how monumental a task it would be to procure enough food for everyone to have even a little. For you see there were in excess of five thousand men there along with their wives and children making the task of feeding them all fully out of reach. Besides, with the grain shortage of late there was probably not enough grain in the whole region to make enough bread to feed all of them, and even if there had been enough grain it surely would have been already stolen or taxed away by the authorities. So Philip was being very honest when he replied to Jesus, “Six month’s wages would not be enough for everyone here to have even a little to eat…Master, we have no bread.”
Jesus’ disciple Andrew, who was Simon Peter’s brother, had been standing in the crowd next to Elisha. He had spoken to the young boy earlier and had learned that his satchel contained the five loaves and two small fish intended for his lunch. He did not know however that it was the last of the boy’s family’s resources. So when he heard Jesus ask Philip as to where they might get bread he thought he might offer to help Jesus out himself. Going over to him Andrew told him that there was a young boy in the crowd who had a few small loaves and a couple of fish.
Jesus seemed to be expecting Andrew’s offer and he also seemed to know in advance who it was that had the meager rations. Turning once again to look over at Elisha, Jesus said to Andrew, “Bring him here to me.” Then turning once again to Philip, Jesus said to him, “Tell everyone to find a place to sit down in the grass, tell them to make themselves comfortable”. And as Philip set about this task Jesus turned his attention to Elisha. “Tell me son, what is your name?” he asked him. “My name is Elisha”, he replied. “Elisha”, Jesus said, “What a wonderful name. Do you know what the meaning of your name is?” Proudly Elisha recited what he had been told since he was a very young boy, “Yes I do Jesus, it means ‘God will provide’ or ‘Gift of God’”. “That is right my young friend”, said Jesus. “And do you believe that indeed God will provide for all your needs?” Jesus asked Elisha. “Yes I do”, replied Elisha, “In fact ever since I was a young boy and my mother was hurt I have been praying for a miracle…I have been asking God to do something wonderful and to heal her so she can laugh again and hold me tight like she used to. I have prayed every day for God to come, and when I heard from my friend Joseph that you were here I thought that perhaps since you seem to be so close to God, maybe you could ask him for me.”
Looking tenderly at the young boy and reflecting deeply on the beautiful and sincere faith he had Jesus said to Elisha, “My son, one day your prayer shall indeed be answered; for your faith is greater than that of many I have seen. Now is it true, as my disciple Andrew has told me that you brought your lunch with you today?” Elisha blushed again for he knew that the small portion of food in his satchel was meager at best. “Yes my Lord,” he answered. “It is not much, but you are more than welcome to have it if you wish.” “Why thank you so much”, Jesus exclaimed, “You also have a kind and generous spirit. I know you will indeed be blessed!”
Elisha reached into his satchel and pulled out the five loaves and the two fish and handed them over to Jesus. Everyone in the crowd was watching intently including Jesus’ disciples…for they had witnessed many amazing works at the hand of Jesus but no one believed he could do much with so little. Taking them from Elisha, Jesus looked up to heaven. Lifting them skyward he thanked God and then, after blessing them, he broke them into a number of small pieces. After doing the same with the two small fish Jesus took the small fragments and gave them to his disciples, instructing them to hand them out to everyone seated on the ground.
And just as he did so a very large flock of pure white doves flew all around the crowd, making everyone take notice. After a minute they flew off towards the east and disappeared from sight. Jesus’ disciples, also taken in by the strange spectacle of the beautiful flock of birds then got back to their task of passing out the meager rations of bread and fish to all. And that is when the most amazing thing happened…it seemed that every time they gave some away it multiplied within their hands…and as others took of the bread and fish and gave it to their neighbors in turn it did the same for them. The crowd knew they were witnessing a miracle, and shouts of praise and excitement began to rise up all across the field. The bread and fish kept multiplying and multiplying until absolutely everyone had eaten their fill and then some. For not only were they famished by the lack of food in the region in general, but they had truly not known abundance such as this for as far back as any of them could recall.
And the fact that it was all free of taxation by anyone made it all the more satisfying for those who had been struggling so much of late to make ends meet and to hold on to what few things they still had. Truly it was a most amazing thing to see so many fully fed and fully satisfied. After all had eaten, Jesus instructed his disciples to gather up all that had been left over for he did not want it to go to waste. Dutifully the disciples took baskets and made their way throughout the crowd gathering in the remnants of bread and fish. When they had finished they had gathered fully twelve full baskets of leftover food. Bringing it over to Jesus they set it down in front of him.
Jesus himself however had taken on a strange look unfamiliar to the disciples. He knew that all those who had been fed had somehow missed the point of his teachings that morning…he knew that his assurances that God would deliver them and provide for their needs had somehow gotten all twisted up in their understanding. Jesus knew that they all were now looking at him as though it was he himself who was the answer to all their troubles. He sensed that the crowd was preparing to grab him and force him to come with them in order to become their new Savior King…for they were all now convinced that he could take care of all of their troubles if he would just agree to do so.
But Jesus knew that this was not what God had in mind and so instructing the disciples to pick up all the leftover baskets of food, he turned to Elisha who had just been sitting there…spell bound by all he had heard and seen. In fact, the boy had not even taken any of the food for himself but rather had just watched in amazement as the few small loaves of bread and couple of fish he had brought in his satchel just seemed to grow and grow until all had been fed. “Elisha”, Jesus said, “Why did you not take anything to eat? There was plenty for all and surely you should have been the first to eat!” Elisha looked up at Jesus and replied, “I don’t really know why not. I was just so amazed by all you did…I guess I was not all that hungry”. Gently Jesus knelt down next to the young boy who had such faith and such need. “Elisha my dear”, he began, “Please take a basket home with you for your parents. I do not need it all and I am sure they would appreciate it.” “Oh, I couldn’t do that”, exclaimed Elisha, “Surely you need it for all of those people who travel with you”.
“Please my son”, take a basket with you, do it for me.” Looking into Jesus’ eyes, Elisha could sense that Jesus sincerely wanted him to take the gift and so he said to him, “Thank you so much Jesus, it has been hard lately, and I know my parents seldom have enough to eat. For you see they always give the larger portion to me. I tell them not to but then they look at me just like you just did and I feel like I can’t say no.”
Jesus reached around in back of him and slid one of the full baskets of food over to Elisha. “Please Elisha, take this with all my blessings…for surely it was because of you that so many people today ate and had their fill. Thank you for your faithfulness.” Elisha looked down at the overflowing basket and then looking back up he suddenly noticed that the crowd had closed in all around him and Jesus was nowhere to be seen.
Immediately distressed that he had not been able to thank Jesus for his generosity, Elisha grew sad. Not only because Jesus had somehow managed to disappear into thin air, but perhaps even more so by the fact that he knew he had been in the presence of the holiest man he had ever seen. He knew that if Jesus had been the one that had healed Joseph’s uncle, and if Jesus had somehow fed thousands of people with just his meager lunch, than Jesus was surely the one who needed to come back to his house to help his mother. But now…now all he had was a basket full of bread and fish…he did not even know where Jesus had gone…and he did not know how to find him again. Dejected, Elisha felt as if he had failed his mother. He felt as if he had his chance to ask Jesus and somehow had lost it. By now the crowd had noticed as well that Jesus had disappeared and so they all began to wander off back to their homes…fully fed, but not really satisfied.
Elisha found himself sitting there all alone, and picking up the heavy basket he balanced it carefully upon his head and slowly, and somewhat sadly, began to make his way back home. The going this time was much slower under the burden of the full basket, however with time he drew within sight of his village and his pace quickened. “At least my mother and father can have something to eat”, he thought as he stood just a little straighter and pushed on towards home a little more resolutely.
Suddenly he noticed a figure off in the distance running towards him. He seemed to be shouting something but the distance was too great for Elisha to be able to understand what was being said. However, as the figure drew nearer, Elisha realized that it was his friend Joseph. And as his friend got closer, now fully out of breath, all he could manage to say to Elisha was, “Your mother…your mother”. “My mother what?” asked Elisha, suddenly alarmed at what he might hear. But Joseph was so out of breath he just collapsed on the ground at his friend’s feet. “Just go home”, Joseph managed to tell him, still gasping for breath.
Putting the heavy basket down, with instructions for his friend to bring it home for him, Elisha raced off towards home, his heart pounding with fear for what he might find. Drawing nearer to his house he heard a loud commotion, people seemed to be shouting and running around outside of his house. Suddenly the lone figure of a woman broke from the crowd and began to run straight towards Elisha. It took him a moment to recognize that the one running towards him was in fact his own mother. He had not seen her up and on her feet in so long he had almost forgotten what she looked like standing tall and upright. But tall and joyful she was as she ran all the way over to Elisha, grabbing him up in a huge embrace and laughing as much as crying as she told him that somehow she had been miraculously healed that very afternoon.
Walking back towards the house arm in arm, Elisha’s mother told him of how late in the day a mysterious flock of pure white doves had come and circled the house, and at that very same instant she had been fully and completely healed. She had jumped up out of the bed that had been her prison for so long and literally bounded out of the house catching her poor husband completely by surprise. In fact her shouts of joy and gladness had been so loud and genuine that all the neighbors had heard and come quickly to join in with the celebration.
Reaching the house, Elisha and his mother and father all came together in a deep and long-lasting embrace. God had been so good to them that they were now sure they would somehow make it through. And while they were standing there, poor Joseph made his way finally all the way back, still carrying the heavy basket of food. And as he placed it in the ground, Elisha recounted his own amazing story of the day…of how he had met and talked with Jesus, of how he had willingly given up his lunch to him, and of how, after giving thanks, Jesus had somehow fed thousands of people there in the field by the side of the lake.
After sharing his tale, Elisha’s mother, with tears in her eyes said to Elisha, “Elisha, my dearest son, God truly has fulfilled your name on this day…for surely God has provided for us and surely God has given you the gift of your heart’s desire. Let us continue the blessing and share this wondrous bounty of God’s provision with all who have gathered to share our joy.”
And so, there in the dwindling light of evening, the party of glad celebration started all over again as the basket of bread and fish was passed to and fro throughout the gathering, feeding all until they had eaten their fill as well. And as night began to fall, everyone gave thanks and praise for the wondrous day they had been privileged to witness.
With darkness falling, Elisha and his mom and dad made their way back into the house, setting the mysterious basket, still seemingly full to overflowing over in a special place by the hearth…
…and you know…legend has it that that basket never ran dry and lasted fresh and good fully up until the next harvest was in…which it is said was the best harvest anyone could remember.
But then again…that’s not really all that surprising is it?