The disciples protest with, "But we only have five loaves and two fish." Yet because they bother to scrounge around, come up with a small amount of food, and bring it to Jesus, they display enough faith for Jesus to work his miracle. It is a faltering faith mixed with a great deal of doubt, and it's hard to tell whether the disciples present the five loaves and two fish to Jesus in anticipation of what miracle he might do, or to show him that his request is ridiculous. Probably it is a little bit of both. Yet Jesus knows how to take the slightest flicker of faith, even a smoldering wick of it, and fan it into an opportunity to perform wonders.
Jesus' miracle of multiplying the food for the crowd echoes a little-known miracle performed by the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42-44. The passage is short enough to quote in full:
Now a man came from Baal-shalishah and brought the man of God bread of the first fruits, twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And [Elisha] said, "Give them to the people that they may eat." And his attendant said, "What, shall I set this before a hundred men?" But he said, "Give them to the people that they may eat, for thus says the LORD, 'They shall eat and have some left over.'" So he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over according to the word of the LORD.
Isn't it interesting that even the remark about having "some left over" parallels the way Jesus' miracle is told? Jesus is being presented as a greater Elijah/Elisha-like prophet, multiplying food for five thousand instead of one hundred. There are parallels between Jesus' situation and that of these prophets. Remember that Israel was becoming apostate during the time of Elijah and Elisha. In Elijah's time God cursed the land with a drought and in Elisha's day he brought famine upon the land, as if to symbolize the spiritual drought and famine that plagued Israel. Jesus ministered in a similar time of Israel's faithlessness. But just as Elisha was able to provide food for the one hundred who followed him during a time of mass starvation, Jesus provides both physical food and spiritual food for those who believe in him in spite of the waywardness of the Jewish nation. Even during times of spiritual leanness, Jesus is able to call forth a remnant and multiply out of their faith an abundance of spiritual blessing.