He squinted into the sun, a bronzed hand shielding his eyes against the afternoon glare. It had been a long day. Raking tanned hands through his coarse, dusky hair, the man sighed heavily as he surveyed the seashore from the boat's battered prow.
He had just received word from the infamous Machaerus prison that his imprisoned cousin was dead, murdered by the local tetrarch. He wanted to be alone with his grief.
His followers had just returned from a preaching tour, teaching repentance and driving out demons. Weariness clung to them like a spider's web to a trapped fly. The 13 men traveled by boat to Bethsaida in hopes of slaking their thirsty souls with some solitude and peace. But it was not to be.
The women paused where they knelt with rough soap, pounding fish odors and sea stains out of frayed tunics. Miriam peered at the tall, lanky stranger and his ragged band of followers. "Isn't that the carpenter's son?" she pointed, nudging her daughter, Rebekah. "The one who told stories by the sea last week?"
Rebekah followed her mother's gaze. "Yes," she nodded, recalling the tales of the sower, the leaven, and the mustard seed. "They say he can heal anyone of anything." Miriam coughed and spat, "He did nothing here except stir up dust and offend the temple guards." But Rebekah was already running, spreading word through the village.
Matthias saw her first. A skinny girl of 10 or 11, Rebekah sped through the town on fleet bare feet, raven braids flying. She paused at her house, seeking her younger brother and urging him to make haste.
At the sea, the Teacher had withdrawn by boat, hoping to escape the crush of humanity. But his whereabouts became known. Word of his arrival spread. Hurrying around the lake on foot as the fishing boat battled a head wind, the people arrived on the northern shore ahead of the boat.
They followed him from the villages, bringing those sick in body and soul. Some came out of awe and wonder. Others from sheer curiosity, like schoolchildren anticipating an especially captivating magic show. Some came sneering and critical, peering over beakish noses out of eyes caked with hypocrisy. Others followed the rocky, dusty path out of sheer desperation, east to the shores of the Sea of Kinnereth. Bowed under Need like heavy millstones, they came to him because they had no where else to go.
Mattahias saw the girl again, weaving in and out of the pungent, muddied crowd. A small, boyish hand clutched Rebekah's dress as she fought to get closer to the Teacher. Isaac struggled to keep up with his big sister, one hand gripping her dress so as not to lose her in the throng, the other clutching the basket she had thrust into his arms as they hurried out of the house and into the street that morning.
When the Teacher landed and disembarked, the ranks of the waiting rivaled the sands of the sea shore. He saw them. Recognized them all. Would the Teacher lay aside his own grief to answer theirs? With his own loss so recent and raw, could he receive theirs as well?
They need not have wondered. Compassion and healing bubbled from strong, callused hands like water from an oasis. The thirsty drank.
But not everyone was pleased.
Surveying the crowd, hands on his tree trunk waist, the big fisherman muttered, "Can't the Teacher see that we're all tired? We've been preaching and teaching in His name. It's late. We're weary and haven't even had time to eat. Besides," he groused, "we have much to do tomorrow. Why doesn't the Teacher just send them all home?"
The others nodded. Pink strips of evening glazed the horizon. "Send the people away" they whispered to the Teacher, gesturing at the masses. "Some have been walking all day with nothing to eat. This place is desolate and it's getting dark. Send them into the villages so they can buy food for themselves."
The Teacher smiled, "You give them something to eat."
Jaws dropped. The twelve stared at the crowd. The grass around the Sea of Kinnereth was green and fresh from the early spring rains, jammed with hundreds, no, thousands--of hungry people.
"Feeding this crowd would take eight months of a man's wages! Are we going to spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat!" The money bag was already light.
"How many loaves do you have?" the Teacher asked again, umber eyes crinkling. "Go and ask."
Isaac smiled. Rebekah had packed him a good lunch, enough for dinner, too. "Here," Isaac offered, extending his basket, "I'll share."
The big fisherman peered at the boy as Isaac stared back, young eyes wide and expectant. Shimon took the wicker basket and counted five barley loaves and two fish. A substantial lunch for a little boy, but...
Shimon looked at the crowd again. The fish were small. So were the loaves. But the Teacher accepted the basket. Taking the five loaves and two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave the pieces to his followers to set before the people. The Teacher also divided the two fish. All ate and were satisfied.
Rebekah brushed off her sandals and took another bite of the crusty loaf. Her gaze settled upon the Teacher. Had she ever seen eyes more kind, more deep or knowing? Like an arrow loosed from its bow, his gaze pierced the craving depths of her soul-starvation.
This morning Rebekah left the house in a hurry, basket empty. The girl at the seashore eyed Isaac's lunch basket, its meager contents multiplied miraculously into a feast that fed thousands. The fragments filled twelve baskets! But what of her hungry soul, barren but for a few scraps of temple leftovers?
Munching her barley loaf, Rebekah looked at the Teacher. Hadn't God promised that when the true Shepherd came, the desert would become rich pasture where the sheep would be gathered and fed? The words of the prophet stirred in her soul, the promise of the Most High spoken through Ezekiel:
"I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and a ruler like David and from his line will be prince among them."
Who was this promised "one shepherd" from the line of David foretold by the prophet?
"I will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the land of wild beasts so that they may live in the desert and sleep in the forests in safety. I will bless them and the places surrounding my hill. I will send down showers in season; there will be showers of blessing."
These "showers of blessing" were the power of life promised to her people through Abraham. But what about the covenant of peace, the shalom of a restored relationship with Yahweh?
She looked at the Teacher again, realizing she would not be full but for him. Who was this laughing, smiling man, strong and sturdy like the cedars of Lebanon, yet meek and tender like her mother with her brother? Was he the Coming One? Was this Nazarene her ultimate Shalom, this Teacher more than a teacher?
I am hungry. Like the throngs of old I come. Basket in hand, a crowd of one. Eyes caked with hypocrisy. Bowed under Need like heavy millstones. No where else to go.
The Teacher looks at my basket. "Bring that to me" He says.
I clutch my basket possessively. It's coated with grime. Stained and tattered. Leaking, torn, worn. But it's all I have. And He wants it.
"Let me have your basket."
I balk, hesitant. Callused hands outstretched, He waits. I shrink back, chagrined. How can I offer this foul thing to you? My soul, still unsated, rumbles an emphatic rejoinder.
"Give me your basket" he repeats gently, dark eyes dancing. "Bring those meager morsels to me."
Can you feed my soul? Fill my basket? Multiply my stale leftovers? Are you the One?
Rimming with reluctance, I gingerly place my fragments in the Teacher's hand. Kneeling, I am the blind beggar, the lame man at the pool called Beautiful, the cripple lowered through a hole in a roof. The girl at the seashore.
He blesses my feeble offering. Makes it His. Clean. New. Full. A basket ballooned by His touch with not mere leftovers, but soul-satiating plenty.
He holds out sturdy hands. Grasping them, I rise, knowing I couldn't have gotten up without Him.