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Praying about Jesus’s miracles: The feeding of the 5,000

Lynne Baab • Wednesday June 12 2024

Praying about Jesus’s miracles: The feeding of the 5,000

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
     he makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters;
     he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I fear no evil;
for thou art with me;
    thy rod and thy staff,
    they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil,
    my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
        —Psalm 23 (RSV)

I hope Psalm 23 has given you comfort and encouragement many, many times. I’m giving you the RSV version of the psalm because these are the words I memorized as a young adult. I still sometimes say the psalm at night when anxieties keep me awake.

I’ve copied the whole psalm into this post because I love it, but also because I want you to see some similarities with the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus’s miracle involving bread, fish, and a huge crowd of people. The miracle appears in all four gospels, something quite rare (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-15). The passage in Mark gives more details than the Matthew and Luke versions, which is also not common.

The first parallel between this miraculous feeding and Psalm 23 comes before the meal. The disciples and Jesus are tired from helping people: “They had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31). Jesus and the disciples are in a boat, seeking refuge, and the crowds follow them along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Despite his fatigue, Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (verse 34).

After getting out of the boat, Jesus and the disciples discuss the need for food. Then Jesus “ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass” (verse 39). Notice that the grass is described as “green,” like the green pastures in Psalm 23:2.

All four gospels make clear that this event took place beside the Sea of Galilee, which can become quite choppy but can also be smooth as glass. “He leads me beside still waters,” Psalm 23:2 says. The story, of course, is about Jesus feeding people, and Psalm 23:5 refers to God preparing a table for us.  

This story illustrates Jesus as the Shepherd of Israel, a name and picture of God used numerous times in the Hebrew Scriptures. The first time occurs in Genesis 48:15, when Israel (Jacob) blesses his son Joseph and refers to God “who has been my shepherd all my life to this day.” In Genesis 49:24, Jacob refers to God as “Mighty One of Jacob . . . the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel.” Psalm 80:1 says, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock!” Psalm 78:52 describes the Exodus: “Then he led out his people like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.” The tender picture in Isaiah 40:11 refers to God feeding his flock like a shepherd and gently gathering the young sheep and the mother sheep.

Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd in John 10:1-18 using words. In the feeding of the 5,000, he is enacting the role of Good Shepherd, teaching with actions.

God expected the rulers of Israel to be shepherds who cared for the sheep, and one of the primary responsibilities was to feed them. Ezekiel 34 is a scathing condemnation of the rulers of Israel: “Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” (verse 2). Yes, Jesus replies through his actions. Shepherds feed the sheep.

The fact that all four Gospels describe this miracle emphasizes its importance in showing Jesus’s compassion, concern for concrete and practical needs, and identification as the Shepherd of Israel.

I invite you to return to the top of this blog post and read Psalm 23 again, praying it slowly as you read. You might identify times that God has done the actions described in the psalm for you.

I also invite you into a prayer of confession. In what ways do you resist God’s shepherding? God forgives you for moments when you do not follow well. 

Shepherd of Israel, thank you for feeding us physically and spiritually, giving us rest and refreshment, guiding us, and being with us when we need help. Help us draw near in trust.

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New book! I combined all my blog posts from late 2023 and early 2024 about friendship, loneliness, listening, and empathy into a book with color illustrations by my talented husband, Dave. Friendship, Listening, and Empathy: A Prayer Guide has 28 short chapters, each one illustrated with one of Dave’s gorgeous watercolors. I am thrilled with how well the images printed. It is available for kindle at a lower cost. If you liked the series and want to share it with others, here’s a great opportunity.

Next week:  The feeding of the 4000. Illustration by Dave Baab: Botanic Garden, Dunedin, New Zealand. Note the green grass! 

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