In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Passover was the time when God’s people remembered how they had been delivered from slavery in Egypt and from the angel of death. The angel of death passed over those homes whose door was marked with the blood of the lamb. The lamb died. He gave his flesh as meat to strengthen them for the journey and his blood to shield them from death. The old saw about the inevitability of death and taxes is at least half-wrong. Death is escapable. No one who believes in Jesus dies.
Thus Jesus, seeing the hungry crowd, says to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” This He asked, like Socrates, to teach. The people will be fed. That is real. That food will be of real and immediate benefit to them. But the Lord would teach His disciples something here and He wants Philip to apply his mind to the problem. Philip did and then he answered well: “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.”
Depending on how you figure, that amount could be as much as $30,000 in modern currency. (2/3 of a year’s wages [300 working days a year] x $50,000 for an average family [total income]). What Philp means, of course, is that it is impossible to buy that much bread on the spur of the moment. There certainly is nowhere to buy that much bread there, but even if they were in Rome or the biggest city on earth, they still wouldn’t be able to just walk into a bakery and walk out with $30,000 worth of bread. That is still true today.
What the Lord would teach the apostles through this is that we cannot buy, anywhere, for any amount of money or good works or favors, what we desperately need. In the first place, it is not for sale, but even if it were, we could not afford it.
Andrew seems to be on to something, however. He says: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” He looks to what the Lord has given instead of what to buy. But this next bit isn’t wrong either. He asks, rhetorically: “What are they among so many?” Not much. And the Lord doesn’t answer. For it doesn’t take much, in fact, doesn’t take anything, when the Lord gives His Word and blessing. He created in the beginning out of nothing. But here He has something, so He uses it. And if Andrew is giving in to despair, he is wrong. Because the Lord always provides.
Perfect faith is patient and calm. It does not despair and it does not panic. Because it knows and trusts that the Lord will provide.
Now the Lord shows something more of what He gives. He tells them to have the people sit down. There is nothing to be done. They can’t buy bread for these people. They can’t provide. What should they do? Nothing. Sit down. Stop fretting, stop working. The Lord will provide.
The He takes the bread, breaks it, and when He has given thanks, He gives it to them to distribute to the people. The Lord provides – in the wilderness no less than in the city, no less than at Peniel with the ram caught in the thicket. The lambs for the Passover came from the Lord. His wrath was appeased by their blood and the angel passed over. He brought them through the Red Sea on dry ground and shut the path of pursuit to Pharoah. He gave them bread and meat in the desert for which they did no labor and He followed them and gave them fresh water each night. The Lord provides. He also gave them His holy Law. He established the Tabernacle and the Temple and provided means by which the people could be cleansed through sacrificial blood and approach Him safely. He gave them the promised land, victory over their enemies, and ever kept them close to Himself.
Many times they meant it for evil, always He meant it and used it for good. The Lord who provides is above all else merciful. And mercy that endures forever is, by definition, patient and long-suffering.
The apostles need this lesson. The Passover to come is not the slaughter of a lamb on the Temple grounds, but the slaughter of the Christ outside the city gates. All that has come before was pointing to and delivering this moment: the Christ lays down His life to give Himself as food for His children and to shield them from death. He takes up the cost of their rebellion and sin in Himself. He suffers the accusations and guilt of their sin and dies in their place so that they would be freed from the slavery of Hell. He is the Lord who provides.
The apostles need this lesson, but they are slow to accept it. Just after this miracle, they will be struggling on the Sea of Galilee and the Lord will come to them across the water. But they will think He is a ghost. St. Mark tells us that this is because their hearts were hardened and they did not understand the miracle of the loaves.
The feeding of the five thousand means that Jesus is not a ghost bent on hurting them. He is the Savior who comes to calm the storm and overcome the devil. He is the Lord who provides. Their confusion over this denies them the comfort and peace they might have had during Holy Week. But the Lord is patient in His mercy and does not give up on them. On Easter, in the breaking of the bread, He reveals Himself to the Emmaus road disciples and they see how the Passover, the Temple, the prophets, and all the history of Israel pointed to and delivered the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All the Scriptures testify of Him. All of the prophets preach Christ crucified. Then, in the Holy Communion, they see the point of the feeding of the five thousand. The Lord is compassionate and the Lord provides. Soon after that the apostles will be emboldened as the Holy Spirit kindles in them a fiery faith that fears no man.
Thus they will take this Gospel – the Lord’s providence in the cross – to the ends of the earth and proclaim that the Lord provides the wholesome loaves that all men need in His risen Body and Blood. And what we could never buy, what we could not earn, the Lord gives in mercy and grace for free. He gives Himself in the Holy Supper as meat and drink, for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of faith, in order to shield us from the angel of death.