One of the most iconic photographs in American history is the image snapped by famed photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. The photo is of a sailor planting a celebratory kiss on a white-clad woman in the middle of New York City’s Time Square. The picture was taken on August 14, 1945. The day known as V-Day. The day it was announced Japan had surrendered to the Allies. The day World War II officially ended. This photo became iconic after it was published
in LIFE magazine on August 27, 1945. So excited by the end of the war, and so caught up in the celebration, Mr. Eisenstaedt failed to get the names of the couple. Mr. Eisenstaedt said, “There were thousands of people milling around. Everybody was kissing each other.”
Over the years several people claimed to be the couple in the photo. However, in 2012, in a book called, The Kissing Sailor, the couple was identified as George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer, not a nurse, but a dental assistant. And get this, the two did not know each other at the time of this spontaneous smooch! It was a wonderful moment in history. Today Mr. Mendonsa would have been charged with sexual assault! According to Mr. Mendonsa, he and his girlfriend, Rita Petry, were in a nearby movie theater when the movie was interrupted, announcing the surrender. Everyone ran out side to celebrate. Mr. Mendonsa grabbed the first girl he saw, dipped her and gave her a kiss, with his girlfriend standing a few steps behind him. But all’s well that ends well. George Mendonsa and his girlfriend, Rita Petry, got married and spent more than sixty years together. In the words of legendary radio broadcaster, Paul Harvey, “Now you know the rest of the story.”
Don’t you just love stuff like that? I don’t know about you, but often I find the story behind the story more interesting then the story itself.
Feeding the Five Thousand
One of the more familiar stories in the Bible is Jesus feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. Besides the resurrection of Jesus, it is the only miracle mentioned in all four gospels. This miracle made a huge impact on Jesus’ first followers. Luke says there were about “five thousand men” there (v. 14). More than likely, women and children were also present, so the real number of people fed was somewhere between 15,000 to 20,000.
I have preached about this miracle many times. As I was once again reading this story, I asked myself, “How can I come at this miracle from a different angle?” My answer was to look at the story behind the story. What were the events leading up to this miracle? What can we learn from the story behind the story?
Luke writes, “Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here’” (Luke 9:12). Why were Jesus and His disciples in a “remote place” with 20,000 hungry people? Jesus would regularly try and escape the crowds by going into the wilderness to be alone so He could pray and recharge. But this time, Jesus could not get alone. Thousands followed Him. But what was it that led Jesus and His disciples to want to get away from the crowds and why did the crowd follow Him? The answer to that question is the story behind the story.
At the very beginning of this chapter, Luke writes, “When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:1-2). Jesus came, preaching, “The time has come…The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). He announced what this meant, and what God’s kingdom looked like, in Luke 4:18-19 when He read from the Prophet Isaiah while visiting His hometown synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
By preaching and announcing these things, Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah, the Promised One, God’s Only Son. His ministry was one of healing the sick and casting out demons. Jesus gathered twelve apprentices around Him, taught them, trained them, and then sent them out with His power and His authority to continue doing what He initiated. Likewise, we are now His apprentices (disciples) and we are to be continuing His ministry of proclaiming the kingdom of God, healing the sick, and casting out demons. To put it another way, as disciples of Jesus, we are to preach the kingdom, and then practice what we preach. How? Well, according to Jesus’ own words, we do so by preaching the gospel through a life that offers hope to the poor, justice to the mistreated, healing to the sick, deliverance to the oppressed, and complete and full redemption in the future (see Luke 4:18-19).
Jesus commissions His disciples and then tells them, “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. If people do not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave their town, as a testimony against them” (Luke 9:3-5). Jesus was telling His followers to be completely dependent on the provisions of God and the hospitality of others. If people reject you, Jesus was saying, they are not really rejecting you; rather, they are rejecting Me. Here is the lesson: As we live our lives, continuing the ministry started by Jesus, God will provide our basic needs; and He usually does so through the generosity of other people. With Jesus’ blessing, the Twelve, “set out and went from village to village, preaching the gospel and healing people everywhere” (Luke 9:6).
But that still doesn’t answer the question, “Why were they in a remote place with 20,000 hungry people?” Hang on, we are getting there.
Luke continues, “When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida” (Luke 9:10). After an unspecified time of “preaching the gospel and healing people” (Luke 9:6), the Twelve reported back to Jesus and it was then that Jesus took them to a remote place. The place was near the town of Bethsaida (beth-SAY-ih-duh, “house of fishing”), a small fishing village on the edge of the wilderness. In Matthew’s account of this story, he states that Jesus wanted to get away from the crowds, with His disciples, because He had just heard about the beheading of His cousin, John the Baptist (Matthew 14:13). There’s the answer to the question! Jesus’ heart was heavy. His cousin had been executed. He needed time to grieve, and so He travels to a small village on the edge of nowhere to be by Himself with only a few close friend. So, how do 12 close friends become 20,000 hungry people?
At this point in His ministry, Jesus had become so famous that He could not escape from the crowds. News spread as to where He was, and so the people followed Him. Yet, even through His grief, Jesus showed compassion. Even though He wanted to be alone, when the crowds came to Him, “He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing” (Luke 9:11). There will be times in your life when following Jesus is inconvenient. Follow Him anyway. Preach the gospel and practice what you preach, even when you don’t fill like it. Even when it is difficult. Even when it would be easier to do something else. Another lesson to learn is that there will always be more needs than your ability to meet those needs. Thus, it is important that you spend time along, and with close friends, praying and recharging your batteries.
We are now getting closer to the story behind the story. There were more needs then there was time in the day, and so, “Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place” (Luke 9:12). I think it is safe to assume, that behind this statement the disciples were saying, “We are tired and hungry. We need to find something to eat and somewhere to sleep. Send everyone away.”
Jesus response was shocking. He said, “You give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13). How were the disciples to do that? Jesus had commanded them to take “no bread (or) money” (Luke 9:3). They had no resources whatsoever, and now Jesus has asked them to feed thousands of people. Even if they wanted to, doing so was completely impossible. Here is another lesson: Place your faith in Jesus and then hold on, because after you place your faith in Him, He will test your faith! In John’s telling of this story, Philip estimates it would take more than “eight months’ wages” to feed everyone (John 6:7). Furthermore, John tells us that all they could find among 20,000 people was one boy who had “five small barley loaves and two small fish” (John 6:9). What that means is that all they had among them was five biscuits and two sardines. How would it be possible to feed the multitude with such a small amount?
Undeterred, Jesus said to His disciples, “‘Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.’ The disciples did so, and everybody sat down. Taking the five loaves and two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to set before the people. They all ate and were satisfied” (Luke 9:15-17a). I am not sure how this miracle occurred, but the way I read Luke’s telling of it, no one but Jesus and His disciples knew about the miracle. In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus performs a miracle in front of the people, he states that they were amazed. But here, nowhere is it even hinted that the people knew a miracle had even occurred. All the multitude knew what that everyone got more than enough to eat.
Then, as if that were not enough, a second miracle occurred! Luke writes, “…and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over” (Luke 9:17b). This second miracle could be called, “The Miracle of the Leftovers.” Remember, Jesus had told His disciples to not even carry a bag with them. Thus, the twelve baskets that held the leftovers could have very well been the lunch pails each disciple carried with them. One thing we know for sure, these baskets were a lot smaller than the baskets that were used to collect the leftovers in Matthew’s account of another occasion where Jesus fed thousands of people. In that story, the Greek word for “basket” refers to a larger, hamper like, basket (Matthew 15:37, the Greek word is sphuris). The same word (sphuris) is used in Acts 9:25 to describe Paul being lowered down a wall in a “basket.” But here, in Luke, the Greek word translated “basket” is kophinos and refers to a basket no bigger than a couple of gallons.
Within Judaism, leftovers are important. The Old Testament commanded that you always leave crops behind for the poor and the traveler to collect, and you collect leftovers from your dinner table to give to your servants. Wasting food was seen as an insult to God. Through this miracle behind the miracle, Jesus was teaching His disciples to trust Him for their daily provisions, to trust Him for what they needed next, while at the same time reminding them they were servants, not masters. Likewise, you and me. Our daily provisions come from God, as well as our provisions for tomorrow. We are His servants, and we are here to serve others. Everyday, when God gives us exactly what we need for that day, we are experiencing a miracle, and we experience another miracle the next day and the next and the next. How many times has God given you, not only what you need, but also what you needed next? God, if He chooses, can bless you with abundance, but God’s abundant provision is no greater miracle than His daily provision. Jesus is our living bread (John 6:35), and He taught us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:12).
Why were Jesus and His disciples in a remote place with 20,000 hungry people? One reason is because Jesus wanted time to grieve over the beheading of His cousin, John the Baptist. But another reason was to teach His disciples (and us) an important lesson. Jesus miraculously fed 20,000 people with five biscuits and two sardines so He could teach His disciples (and us) that they (we) could trust Him to provide for their (our) daily needs. Simply put: God can be trusted to provide what you need next.
Has following Jesus led you to a remote place?
Even in a group of thousands, do you feel as if you are all alone?
What are you facing today?
Is your faith being tested?
What is that has got you anxious and worried?
Are you serving Jesus and other people?
What is your need?
Are you preaching the kingdom of God and then practicing what you are preaching?
Are you continuing the ministry Jesus started?
Do you trust Jesus to meet that need, and the next need, or are you trying to figure out a way to do it on your own?