One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.
— John 6:8-11
The several characters in this scene: Jesus, his disciples including Andrew, five thousand men (the text specifies that these are males), and the boy who brought the bread and fish. There is also one major character that is never mentioned in this story, yet plays a lead role. Who could it be? You can guess from the title of this essay that I mean: the person who packed the boy’s lunch.
Like packing lunches, there are many things parents do for their children every day that seem mundane and go unnoticed. And unpaid. Here are just a few:
Did I say unpaid?
Packing lunches for my kids every school morning is not the most exciting thing. You have to make sure your child eats healthy foods, yet satisfy the pickiest of taste buds. For example:
Haha, just kidding. Actually it’s more like this:
Even if it’s a great lunch, there is still no guarantee it will be eaten!
Since the person who packed the lunch is not mentioned at all, we’ll have to make a few guesses from the lunch and from what’s going on in the scene. First, I am assuming the boy did not pack his own lunch. He could be quite the responsible child and cook his own food, but if my kids packed their own lunch it would probably be potato chips and juice with a side of candy.
From a historical context, the person who packed the boy’s lunch is probably a woman, most likely his mother, so I’ll refer to this parent as female here. Baking the bread is a process that can take 2-3 hours, which would include milling the grain. I can imagine her waking up early to bake the bread and prepare the fish to pack for her son’s journey.
His mother seems unable to attend, and there could be many reasons why. The text specifically says that the crowd gathered is male, so it could be that she was excluded. She also might have been physically unable to make such a long journey on foot. She may have been working or busy taking care of her family. There seem to be no adult males attached with this boy, so she may have even been single, or married to someone who didn’t believe.
When you are responsible for another person, there are so many times when you have to give up opportunities. I remember when my first child was born, it sometimes took half an hour to just get to the car. Most of the time outings were scheduled around her nap times. It was so stressful to go to church with a fussy baby–sometimes I would be in tears as we had to leave in the middle of service because she couldn’t stop crying.
There are times parents might have to miss an important meeting at work, and get overlooked for important roles. They may have to cut down on their social time or take care of their physical needs. In this case, the parent in question misses out on hearing from Jesus, the supposed son of God. Talk about disappointment!
So the next question is, why was this boy sent alone, with his lunch, to walk this long distance to hear from Jesus? Was he the one that wanted to go or did his mom send him? Either way, from the generous lunch you can tell he probably went with his mother’s full blessing. She wanted her son to hear Jesus’ words, enough that she sent the boy on his own.
The woman seemed to be generous as well. In her generosity towards her son I imagine her packing extra food so that he could share with others. You see the boy’s generous spirit when he gives his lunch to Jesus. Perhaps it was his entire lunch, which would show the amount of faith the boy had in Jesus. Did his mother teach him this?
I like how open this child is. He sat and listened to the words of Jesus and he heard that Jesus needed food for everyone. Not every child is able to listen to long sermons, or step forward into that kind of situation. I wonder if his mother taught him to have a heart to hear, and if she had an open heart as well.
When Jesus distributed the bread and fish, note that he is not making bread and fish from thin air. I imagine him as a very sophisticated copy machine, and what he is copying is the mother’s bread and fish. That means through her son, through Jesus, SHE fed five thousand people. Those five thousand men were eating her food. Every loaf and fish was made lovingly by her hands: the same shaped loaves, the same scorch marks on every fish.
Her love for her son, her generosity, and her faith, was in the food she prepared. Jesus then took her love, generosity, and faith, and gave it power. I believe Jesus knew this woman. He knew that this mother would raise her child and send him with food to this remote place, and that the boy would offer that food to him. When he asks the disciples to feed the crowd, perhaps it was to look for her son and the lunch that she packed.
As parents we are uncertain about our children’s future. We can provide for them, keep them safe, and teach them what we think is best, but in the end we can’t guarantee the outcomes for our child. Will they be safe? Will they be able to earn a good living? Will they have enough? Will they meet the right people? Will they know right from wrong? Will they make the right choices?
When I send my children to school with their lunches, I wonder if all that care I’ve put into them will somehow be actualized in their lives, or even in others’ lives. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “If you want to bring happiness to the whole world, go home and love your family.”
My parents and I don’t have the best of relationships, but they did send me to school and packed my lunches, with their overly healthy sandwiches. They were able to provide for me in certain ways, yet there were a lot of things missing in my life. I didn’t realize fully what some of those things were until I met some of my closest friends.
My friends (and my co-parent included) have loved me in so many different ways. They recognize and appreciate who I am, even though I have trouble accepting myself. They encourage me and provide support when I need it the most. We commiserate about parenting woes, when I can’t look to my own parents for comfort. I wonder how much of that came from those who raised them–their parents’ efforts multiplied towards me.
One of my best friends from college has an amazing mother who still prays for me everyday. Even if it is a short sentence on my behalf, I can see the love and faith she has. I believe those prayers have been heard and realized in my life in ways that I can’t understand or see. Even knowing those prayers are offered up gives me joy and confidence.
And strangely enough, as I parent my own children and love them, I am able to love myself a little more as well.
I wonder what the boy told his mother when he arrived back home, and what she thought of it. He might have taken some of the extra food home as proof, and she may have noticed that several of them had the same hole that accidentally formed in the bread that morning, that some of the scorch marks on the fish followed the same pattern. I wonder how she felt about how the ordinary, unremarkable things that she did, taking care of and feeding her family, became something that could become a blessing to so many.
Perhaps in the moments we are engrossed in the mundane tasks of caring for our families, we can remember how God, through Jesus, took one mother’s simple act of caring and turned it into a powerful miracle.