Summary: When Jesus' followers give Him what they have, little though it is, He does a miracle and feeds many through them.
The events in today's text took place at a pivotal time in the apostles' relationship with the Lord. They had just returned from their first "mission trip", when He had given them authority over unclean spirits and diseases and had sent them out to preach. They had a lot to tell Him, but there was no time to do it because people around them were making too many demands; therefore, Jesus took them with Him on a spiritual retreat across the lake. At least, that was the plan--only when they went ashore a great crowd was waiting for them. Now I would have been a bit put out, and I'd bet the apostles were. Jesus, however, saw a need (v. 34), so He changed the agenda and spent the day preaching and teaching instead.
As the day drew to a close (v. 35), the apostles saw a need too. Not counting women and children, they saw 5,000 men in a rural area who were going to be very hungry very soon. Verses 35-36 tells us how they reacted to this perceived need. Note whose problem the apostles thought it was. It was the crowd's problem! Let the crowd take care of it!
Let's think about that for a minute. How would 5,000 plus people in an isolated spot go looking for food? There weren't any supermarkets. I doubt it would be done in a very orderly way. In all likelihood, too many people would converge on the same village so that the merchants there sold out their stock, which would force the unlucky ones to move on to the next village, where the same scenario would repeat itself, on and on. While some would get fed quickly enough, others would likely still be on the road late into the night. In short, this situation had the makings of a real mess. Now, I don't know if the apostles considered any of this, but if they did it didn't change their attitude. All they saw was aneed that wasn't theirs.
No doubt they thought they were being perfectly reasonable. In the world we live in, the Not My Problem attitude is generally thought to be reasonable. In verse 37, however, the Lord replied in a most unreasonable way: "You give them something to eat." Now, He could have said, "I'll give them something to eat" and then gone through the same steps He did in our text. If He had done so, however, the apostles would have been merely spectators. Instead He involved them, even though their involvement consisted of saying (and I'm paraphrasing here), "You want us to WHAT?" It may not seem like much, but He had moved them from apathy to helplessness. Realizing that the problem was too big for them was better than treating it as someone else's problem. Once they had made that admission, He took them to the next step (v. 38): "How many loaves do you have? Go and see." Next, He had them bring their few loaves and fishes to Him. Then a miracle happened. He took the loaves and fishes, blessed them, gave them to the apostles to pass out, and gave, and gave, and kept on giving until nobody could eat any more, "and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish" (v. 43).
This is an important lesson for all Christ's followers. We too are surrounded by a mass of people "like sheep without a shepherd". Sheep cannot defend themselves, nor can they effectively run away. Without someone to protect them, they are easy prey. I would say that with the pressure of rising prices, stagnant wages, the furor over the "one-percenters" and the ever-present specter of terrorist activity, that is how many people around us feel. When we look at the spiritual picture, we see beliefs under attack on every side. We see institutions that people have always relied on for stability tottering and falling. People are starving for a rock to build on (Matthew 7:24-25). The first question today's passage forces us to ask ourselves is, how do we react to the hunger around us? Do we treat it as someone else's problem? Do we adopt the attitude that we have enough to do to take care of our own group and its needs? That's natural enough to do. If we take that approach, though, we are missing out on the chance to see God do a miracle. We must recognize that our God does not change. He says the same thing to us that He said to the apostles: "You give them something to eat!"