Readings for July 31. 18th Sunday, including Matthew 14:13-21.
There are two different instances where Jesus miraculously feeds a large crowd in the Gospels. The ‘feeding of the 5,000,’ also known as ‘the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes,’ is reported in all four Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:10-17 and John 6:5-15). Another event, the ‘feeding of the four thousand’ occurs in Mark and Matthew.
The feeding of the multitude is part of a broader genre of eucharistic stories, where bread is used as a type or symbolic element by the Gospel authors. These stories include, for example, the devil tempting Jesus to turn stone into bread (Lk 4:3-4); the bread of life discourse in John 6; Jesus’ dispute with the pharisees over picking grain on the sabbath (Mt 12:1-9, Mk 2:23-28); and the Last Supper accounts.
In many of these accounts, bread is used as an analogy for spiritual food. When the devil challenges Jesus to turn stone into bread, Jesus retorts, man shall not live by bread alone. When the pharisees challenge Jesus and his disciples for picking grain on the Sabbath, Jesus defends the disciples (Mt 12:3-4) with a story of King David doing something similar:
Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread–which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.
Under some circumstances, it would be poor exegetical form to compare this passage with the feeding of the multitude. However, both accounts are from the same author – Matthew. The Gospels use the term “bread” (ἄρτος) 62 times, with Matthew alone using it fifteen times.
In the feeding of the 5,000, we have a bit of a twist to the standard miracle story. Where Jesus generally performs a miracle at the direct request of the believer or a family member, here we have a completely different situation. The crowd does not ask to be fed. Rather, the disciples and Jesus, given the late hour and the desolate area, initiate the question – how shall we feed a large crowd?
The three synoptic Gospels agree that Jesus ordered the disciples to feed the crowd: You give them something to eat (Mt 14:16). He was, in effect, testing them, because it is obvious to the reader that they lacked the resources to feed the enormous number of people. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tests the disciples by asking them where shall we buy bread for these people? In either case, Jesus seems to be challenging his disciples to come up with a solution to a seemingly impossible pastoral problem.
When the disciples explain that only five loaves and two fishes are available, Jesus prays and gives thanks, breaks the loaves, and returns the food to the disciples. Thus begins the miracle. All four Gospel accounts of the feeding of the 5,000 share the same outline: a) the disciples note that there is insufficient food to feed the crowd, b) a small portion of food is presented to Jesus to bless, c) the food is distributed, d) the entire crowd is fed and satisfied, and e) the disciples recover more broken pieces of bread than they began with.
In my view, the central message of the passage is the pivotal role that Jesus plays in relation to the pastoral duties of the disciples and the pastoral needs of the multitude. The disciples know that the day is growing late and that they should do something to satisfy the crowd. Jesus challenges them to feed the crowd, which they cannot do alone. When Jesus is presented with the miniscule portion of five loaves and two fishes, he accepts that gift, finds it adequate, blesses it, and hands it over to the disciples to be distributed.
The passage teaches us that, even with sparse resources, the work of Christ is accomplished, when we cooperate with him, and when we work explicitly in his name. Second, the action in the passage is highly symbolic. While Jesus and the disciples appear to be caught up in the activity of satisfying the basic alimentary needs of the crowd, I would doubt that Matthew’s intention is merely to suggest that Jesus “magically” turned five loaves and two fish into enough food to feed an enormous crowd.
The implication of the passage is that Jesus and the disciples are capable of meeting the spiritual needs of a large crowd as well. This requires that the disciples rely and depend on the work of Jesus. On their own, they can do nothing. Finally, we need to ask ourselves why bread is used as the symbol for Jesus and the disciples meeting the spiritual needs of the crowd. Is the imagery Eucharistic? Of course.
Food for thought.