When I was younger and working in my family run vegetarian restaurant in Boston, a vegan community once asked us to cater an event. I recall that due to its environmental commitments, the group requested that we not use any Styrofoam cups or plastic plates and cutlery. I must confess that at the time, I thought it was a bit extreme, but over the years, I’ve come to a different conclusion. Liberal tree-huggers find value in preserving the world; shouldn’t a conservative Christian who loves God likewise care about the health of the world God loves? Little did I realize then, recycling and caring for the earth are biblical commands. As I read the Bible, I began to understand that caring for God’s earth is one of its fundamental principles. I don’t accept the liberal agenda on this topic, but I trust in the One who gives not only instructions to preserve His creation but also the will for sustainable stewardship.
A story that reflects Jesus’s sermon about being the bread of life describes how He miraculously fed more than five thousand people (Matthew 14:21). It was a massive crowd, and given the limited resources, the disciples wanted to send the people away, but as usual, Jesus was moved with compassion. The scarcity and want in this world greatly pained His heart, and He could not resist helping those in need. In His hands, a boy’s meager lunch of two small fish and five little barley loaves became enough to feed the many. The One who brought the kingdom to earth revealed a God of plentitude, generosity, and abundant provision. Such abundance is what God intends for our world.
After the disciples distributed the food, with everyone having “as much as they wanted” (John 6:11), Jesus told them to “gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost” (John 6:12, NRSV). I find it fascinating that even after the multitudes had eaten to satisfaction, many baskets of food remained. Some self-concerned environmentalists worry that there are too many people on the planet, convinced that there will not be enough for all of us. The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, however, tells us that with God, there is plenty to go around. God’s blessing provides us with abundance and guarantees sustenance for everyone, and if nothing is wasted, there will be more for the future.
The miracle of Jesus feeding the multitudes is not only evidence of God’s caring for humanity but symbolic of bread from heaven. The barley loaves represent the “first-fruits” of the coming kingdom—a guarantee that the rest of the harvest will come (Exodus 23:19). The story points to the future and speaks to the abundance in the kingdom of God. It alludes to Christ’s coming reign, offering a foretaste of the bountiful provisions of the messianic banquet. Jesus clearly identifies Himself as the “bread from heaven”—the kingdom food—that brings life into the world (John 6:31–33). Do we only see our stomachs filling, or can we grasp the deeper meaning of the story? Do we wait for Jesus to return to make all things new, or do we follow His command, gathering up the fragments wherever we can? Though we can’t fix the world’s problems, we can help prepare it for the kingdom to come by bringing God’s restoring and saving justice into our context. I believe that embracing God’s grace and mercy and seeking to imitate Him directly affect how we live here on earth.
So, what are some actionable ways to preserve and heal God’s world that extend beyond environmental trends? Vital to our future is principle-based cooperation that see beyond the planetary dangers looming on the horizon to focus on the underlying principles found in Jesus’s compassion and attention to leftover scraps. In the story, Jesus commanded His disciples to collect every fragment so that nothing was wasted, suggesting a recognition that someone else might need it. How much money do we waste on expensive merchandise, selfish pleasures, luxurious and unwholesome foods, and other harmful indulgences?
Jesus commanded us not to waste food, for the more we waste, the less is available for others. We should neglect nothing that could benefit others. We should gather everything we can to relieve the earth’s hungry. Studies have shown that the greatest action we can take to help the environment is to adopt a plant-based, meat-free diet. Factory farms, which produce a lot of meat to feed a growing appetite for it, are wasteful. Meat eating signifies surplus and wasted lives and resources. A plant-based diet, by contrast, minimizes waste, benefits the environment, and fosters both animal well-being and our own health.
What does vegetarianism have to do with the miracle of Jesus feeding five thousand? Didn’t the meal Jesus provide include fish? As a Jew, Jesus followed a restricted diet, so the two small fish cannot represent meats like pork, lobster, or oysters on the half shell. Any interpretation must start from Jesus’s theological framework, which reflects back to the creation order that began with a vegetarian diet (Genesis 1:29). While I know that consuming meat is permitted, vegetarianism was established at the beginning and will be again in the coming kingdom (Isaiah11:6–9). I consider it revealing that in the story, Jesus never asked for fish, only bread, and after performing the miracle, He focused on the bread alone (John 6:23, 26).
The story of Jesus feeding five thousand is meant to call our attention to the “bread from heaven,” as it recalls the narrative of the veggie manna from heaven that fed the wandering Israelites (Exodus 16:4–28). Though there was enough manna for everyone, surplus, hoarding, and wasting were not permitted. Vegetarianism was not an option for Jesus when feeding the masses, but it is a compelling option now, especially given that vegetarian manna presents a new way of life and offers hope for a new creation and the coming kingdom of God. If we are following Jesus and applying His life to ours, we should consider the conclusion of theologian Stephen Webb: “What was once permitted due to a perceived necessity should now be condemned as a waste of life and resources” (On God and Dogs, p. 161).
I commend vegetarianism, but what other creative ideas appropriately gather up today’s leftover fragments? Recognizing that there was plenty of green grass for the fed multitudes to sit upon (John 6:10), we should not neglect natural outdoor settings. Nature conservation and reducing land and water pollution are also important. Too often, the decisions of big businesses and industries loosen restrictions on excess and luxury, causing negative effects for years to come. Writer and theologian C.S. Lewis saw the potential for technological advancements to negatively impact the earth, stating that we have a choice “either to husband, or to waste the resources of the planet more extensively” (God in the Dock, 1958, p. 312).
Every day, we vote for the world we want to live in through the choices we make. Picking up the fragments and living within our means are good choices. Our purchase choices make a statement, as does knowing where our food comes from. Those of us with plenty can practice moderation, eat more organic foods, and reuse items instead of throwing them away. I have noticed that when my family gets busy and has less time to cook, we consume more prepared foods that come with more packaging, and our garbage output increases. Alarmed at the amount of trash that can accumulate, I now aim to seek foods with less packaging and processing, which produce less waste. Our world was created by the One who alone can redeem it, but living from a theological framework of creation-wide renewal gives me opportunity to partner with Jesus in gathering the fragments so that nothing is lost. To flourish and prosper in the future, we must embrace principles that point others toward the coming kingdom of God.
Craig Ashton Jr.