Stories of Jesus feeding huge crowds with only a little were an important part of the earliest traditions of Jesus' followers.
Matthew's Gospel includes two near-duplicate stories (see also Matthew 15:32-39) which are close parallels of two in Mark (6:32-44 and 8:1-10). Luke (9:10-17) and John (6:1-13) also include the "feeding of the five thousand" or a parallel.
Bread: Blessed, Broken, Given
Multiple feeding stories in the gospels should not surprise us. They echo a common theme in Israel's scriptures. As bread and fish feed the hungry crowd in the wilderness (translated "a deserted place" in Matthew), manna in the wilderness provided daily sustenance for the Israelites. Isaiah speaks of the abundance of food, drink and rich food for those without money to buy it (55:1-2). The gospel narratives of Jesus are reminiscent of the accounts of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kg 17:8-16) and Elisha feeding one hundred (2 Kg 4:42-44). Jesus' actions over the bread echo customs of Jewish meals. Christians hear in these actions the elements of the Christian Eucharistic meal. Jesus' blessing and breaking bread are the same as those in the gospel accounts of his last meal with his disciples (see Matthew 26:26; see also I Corinthians 11:23-24; Luke 24:30; Acts 27:35).
Breaking bread together is a communal and sacramental act that echoes through scriptures and through the centuries. Sharing a meal is a primary means of creating and maintaining community. When Christians gather to break bread together, we remember and repeat Jesus' words and actions. In this sacred meal Christ satisfies our deepest hungers, heals our brokenness, binds us together as if one body, and strengthens us for service in the world. The symbols of the sacramental gathering and their multivalent meanings resonate in this narrative of Jesus feeding the crowds.
In the Wilderness
A distinctive feature of Matthew's story is the way the gospel writer makes the transition from John the Baptist's grisly death to feeding the crowds. In all three synoptic gospels, "the feeding of the five thousand" follows the account of John's death, but each gospel narrates the transition differently. While Mark and Luke disconnect these stories, Matthew seems intentionally to connect them. According to Matthew, Jesus withdraws by himself into "a deserted place" (erēmos) upon receiving the report of John's death. The mention of "wilderness" (erēmos) invites the listener to consider another potent biblical metaphor.
The wilderness is a barren place─lonely, deserted, uninhabitable, and desolate─literally and metaphorically. John the Baptist preaches repentance in the wilderness. Jesus was led by the spirit into the wilderness, immediately following his baptism, to fast and be tested in preparation for his ministry. Wilderness time can last a long time, forty days or forty years, or it may be brief. Wilderness is a good place to grieve, pray, repent, and fast. It is a lonely place, but God is not absent. Because there are no distractions in the wilderness, it can be a place of spiritual intensity. In this narrative, Jesus' time in the wilderness is cut short not by his own choosing, but by the crowds who follow him there.
Feeding a Crowd
The narrative of the feeding of the crowds in the wilderness is notably straightforward. Jesus was moved by compassion for the crowds and healed them. Late in the day, the disciples assessed the situation (in the wilderness there is nothing for the hungry crowds to eat) and perhaps they, too, were moved by compassion when they suggested the crowds be sent to nearby towns where they could buy food. Jesus had another idea: feed them right here with what we have. Taking the five loaves and two fish the disciples had on hand, Jesus blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples. The disciples fed the crowds, numbering five thousand men, plus women and children. Everyone had enough to eat, and they gathered up the leftovers. The story does not tell us how the hungry crowd is fed in the wilderness; only that no one leaves hungry. And so the story invites us to use our imaginations.
I wonder if the "miracle" of the feeding is not so much what Jesus does as what happens among the crowds in the presence of Jesus. Maybe the crowds experienced the transformative power of Christ's presence when he ordered them to make themselves comfortable on the grass, as if they were honored guests at a meal. And when he blessed the loaves, the crowd sensed this meal was special. Perhaps as the disciples moved through the crowds distributing the food, no one feared there wouldn't be enough, and so they didn't think of themselves and their own needs. The men shared with their wives and sisters and mothers, and the children were fed first. Maybe Jesus' compassion was contagious in the way they cared for each other. And Jesus' healing touch inspired them to gratitude for a simple meal abundant by wilderness standards. Conceivably the most profound thing Jesus does in the story is to insist that the disciples imagine possibilities for distributing food for a hungry crowd so that there is enough for everyone.
In his book Provoking the Gospel of Matthew, Richard S. Swanson writes, "This scene in the wilderness is not just a scene about hunger and nourishment. And it's not just a scene about providing food for the hungry. Every mouthful of this scene is rich with layers and layers of traditional flavors."1 The images and experiences evoked in this simple feeding story are present-tense. They open us to the transformative power of Christ in our lives when we break bread together.
1Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller's Commentary (Cleveland: The Pilgrim's Press) 191.