Nearly every familiar Bible story has what I like to call "orphan" verses in it. We may notice them and even read them instead of skimming past them, but when it comes time to get the meaning of the story we usually don't emphasize them very much because they don't really add to that meaning.
The feeding of the multitudes emphasizes some important things about Jesus -- his concern for those who followed him, for example. Probably nobody in the crowd would have perished from hunger, but they'd probably wind up pretty miserable by the time they got home or found someplace to buy food. That mattered to Jesus, so he dealt with it.
We also see a physical example of the spiritual truth that when we depend on Jesus, we will find more than we need. Though he began with a handful of loaves and fish, he wound up with twelve baskets of leftovers.
We need these important lessons, so we shouldn't ignore them. But because they're tied so closely to the big event of the story, we can miss some meanings that attach to those orphan verses, and they have something to teach us as well. In this case, Jesus' words to the disciples when they first approached him with the problem stick out to me: "You give them something to eat."
I'm sure this response confused the disciples -- after all, a whole lot of what Jesus said confused the disciples. But especially since they had just said there was no food. "Ha ha! Good one, Teacher! No, seriously, this is a lot of people and we need to get them on their way before the villages close up for the night and they can't get anything to eat."
Matthew doesn't offer us any more to this conversation, so we don't know exactly what Jesus wanted to do when he said this to the disciples. I think he wanted to teach them something or to see if they had learned something yet, but I can't be sure. If I'm right, a fuller version of the conversation might have gone like this:
"You give them something to eat."
"Ah, Lord, we don't have any food here," one disciple says.
"And we don't really have enough money to buy enough food for this many people," says another.
"Which even if we did we don't have any way of getting it back here for them," adds another.
"You give them something to eat," Jesus repeats.
The disciples mutter amongst themselves. "Is he not listening to us? Are we mute or something? What's going on." One speaks to Jesus. "Lord, we really don't have what it takes to feed all these people."
"I understand," Jesus says. "You don't have any food." They nod. "You don't have any money." They nod again. "You don't have any way of getting the food from where it is to here." They nod again, relieved. He gets it.
"What do you have?" he asks. Now they are mute. They don't know what he's talking about. In order to feed people, you need food, and they don't have and can't get food. What else could possibly have an impact on this situation?
A quick side note -- by this time, the disciples have seen Jesus heal more people than Matthew can count -- some he cites specifically, like the man with the withered hand or the centurion's servant. They've seen him heal a woman who touched his robe and raise a young girl from the dead. They've seen him still a storm and compel demonic spirits to release their victims.
Back to the story -- what do the disciples have available to them that might affect this lack of food? No food, no cash, no way to move the food if they had it. If only they had access to something that could overcome this problem, some greater force that could handle the lack of supplies, funds and viable mass transport systems. If only they had, say, followed around a man who had done spectacular things that seemed to defy natural law and might be persuaded, if asked, to provide food for people who'd followed him out into the middle of nowhere.
Which of course they had done and had been doing now for some time. They had nothing that they thought they needed, but all along they had the one thing they needed most of all -- Jesus himself.
Our parallels ought to be fairly obvious. Jesus called each Christian to share the gospel, regardless of ordination or overly expensive graduate education. He pretty much said it's our mandate. And it ought to be a natural response. To paraphrase Penn Jillette, who do you hate so much you don't want to tell them about eternal life? We've been given the best, most amazing gift in the history of gifts and there's no person in the world I could justify keeping that from. And I've Scots heritage, meaning I know how to hold grudges.
But it's not that we don't want to share the gospel, it's just that we aren't equipped for it, with us not having the training or knowledge or courage or whatever else it is we can think up. See "mandate" above. We have all we need, all we'll ever need, which is the presence of Christ in our lives. It's all the disciples needed, even if they didn't know it, and it's all we need too.
Well, we might say, if we go about sharing the gospel with people we know and doing God's work and all, what will the pastor we hired do? Trust me, he or she will be just fine. Augustine may have formulated the doctrine of original sin as a way of explaining the necessity of Christ's atoning sacrifice, but it works out fine as job security for pastors, too. There are always people who need to hear the gospel. Even if we somehow managed to run out of them, I know I can always benefit from a reminder and I bet most other folks could as well.
Again, to paraphrase: It's still 106 miles to Chicago, it's still dark and we may be wearing sunglasses, but we haven't got a full tank of gas or a half a pack of cigarettes. What we do have is our Lord and Savior, and his grace that's changed our lives.