31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
January 24, 2021
Matthew 10:1-4 & 15:32-38
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
There are lessons galore to be learned from the miracles of Jesus feeding the five thousand and feeding the four thousand; however I want to look at a different aspect of our Bible reading. Usually, as preachers discuss the what, how, and why of this miracle of feeding so many people, we forget about the disciples. We forget that the disciples were even a part of it, and yet, the disciples are a really important part of this miracle.
As you may know, the word disciple means student, apprentice, follower. In Jesus’ time, the word means more than a basic learner. Every Jewish man would have gone to the synagogue to further his studies of God’s word. Then some would have been called by God to go father in their learning and attend a bet midrash, a “house of study”. There, in small groups, they would have been instructed by rabbis/teachers. According to Reader’s Digest, Jesus and His Times:
There was no fixed time for completing studies in a bet midrash. When a master believed that a student could, on his own, make a correct decision on a difficult matter of [Jewish] law, he would then declare the young man was an ordained scholar, who could himself be called a teacher (rabbi). (Reader’s Digest, Jesus and his Times, pg 160)
And still after all of those years of study, there was one more step to becoming a disciple. The man would seek out a sage, a “great teacher whose entire life was devoted to meditation and teaching”, and the sage would teach his circle of disciples as they went about their daily lives, using current events as teachable moments. (Reader’s Digest, Jesus and his Times, pg 160)
Jesus’ disciples had not sought out a teacher and further education. Jesus chose them to come and follow him. And yet, just like other Jewish disciples of the time, Jesus taught the twelve about God and God’s word through their daily encounters. Jesus invested his wisdom, energy, and time in the twelve, teaching them about the kingdom of God and about God’s Messiah.
The reason why I chose this passage is because it shows us the teaching, nurturing relationship Jesus had with the twelve, his inner circle. After three long days of healing the blind and the maimed, Jesus calls his disciples together to teach them another lesson.
If you are a visual learner or have your Bible or worship bulletin close, I invite you to look back at the 15th chapter of Matthew with me. Notice that Jesus starts with compassion. It’s always about compassion. It’s who Jesus and God are.
Jesus does not want to send the crowd away hungry. He’s concerned for their safety – that they may faint on their way. And the disciples reply with a question – as you might expect of inquisitive, life-long learners – “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” (Matthew 15:33)
You heard how the rest of this goes, Jesus asks them how much bread they have. They say seven loaves and some small fish, and Jesus, in an act that foreshadows the last supper and communion meal, gives thanks to God and breaks the loaves. And then, Jesus gives the bread to the disciples, who then give the bread to the crowds.
After healing people for three straight days, Jesus had a captive gathering of thousands of people. Jesus could have used this moment as an opportunity to teach the whole crowd. He could have nurtured four thousand plus with this miracle instead of nurturing the twelve people of his inner circle. So why didn’t he?
Because relationships with four thousand plus people are impossible for any creature, including human beings. Our brains cannot handle relationships with that many people or so British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar and his research team, hypothesize. His theory, created in the 1990’s, has come to be known as Dunbar’s Number, and it says that our brains have a limit on the number of people we can maintain stable social relationships with.
Dunbar’s number is actually numbers. He proposes that people can handle being acquaintances with about five hundred people. How does that compare with your number of Facebook friends?
150 is the number of people most of us can have meaningful contacts with – know their names, faces, and general details of their lives. The number decreases to 50 when it comes to friends. Good friends, though? Your inner circle? – 50 drops to 15. Loved ones? – Five.
We can’t be friends with everyone. We can’t nurture relationships with an infinite amount of people. Our brains are capable of having deep and abiding relationships with a limited amount of people. The founders of my college fraternity knew that back in 1921 when they wrote the guiding words for our members to live by. The Alpha Gamma Delta purpose calls me to “cultivate acquaintance with many whom I meet. To cherish friendships with but a chosen few and to study the perfecting of those friendships.” (AGD Fraternity Purpose, 1921)
The number of people in our inner circle has a limit. Jesus taught us that long before Dunbar and my fraternity’s founders. Dunbar says the number is fifteen; Jesus teaches us it’s twelve.
So here is where your piece of paper or journal come into play. Who is on your inner circle list? Who are your five, twelve, fifteen? Who is on your inner circle list?
I did this last week, and it was hard. I felt a little guilty and then I reminded myself and I remind you – this is the way God has created our brains and this is the way Jesus lived. He did not feel guilty when he turned from teaching and healing the crowds to invest his time and energy in his twelve disciples. Clearly, Jesus knew what it took anthropologists 2,000 years to learn – our inner circle has a limit. So who is on your inner circle list? What relationships are really important to you? worthy of the investment of your time and energy?
And if someone were to look at your phone records, your emails, your calendar, would they know what people were in your inner circle? Would they know who was important to you by how you spend your time? Do the people that you love the most get the most of your time?
And if they do not, how can you change that so they do?
Jesus taught and healed thousands of people, and he invested the majority of his wisdom and energy in twelve. That is an important lesson from Jesus’ life to ours. It’s okay to not stretch ourselves thin, to not try to be everything to everybody. It is faithful and life-giving to focus our love and attention on the twelve people God has given to be our inner circle. It honors the way we have been created, and it honors the way of Jesus Christ.
As we walk the way of Jesus Christ, may we cultivate acquaintance with many whom we meet and study the perfecting of twelve important, life-giving, loving relationships.