Matthew and Mark both record that Jesus once fed 5000 (men, not counting women and children) and later fed another 4000 or so people.
The repetition of these feeding stories serves a narrative function (especially in Mark) that highlights the disciples' lack of comprehension. That is, when we come to the second situation where a crowd needs bread, we who are reading the story know that Jesus can feed them, but the disciples apparently do not.
The narrative effect, then, is that the reader has the opportunity to demonstrate a better understanding of Jesus than the disciples. As we follow the lectionary readings, however, we will never have a chance to experience that second feeding, so we need to treat this one in Matthew as an isolated incident.
We are, therefore, more in the position of Luke and John who only record a single feeding. In John, all of chapter 6 is a long discourse on the feeding that keeps pushing the possibilities inherent to it until we ultimately hear Jesus say, "I am the bread of life," and that people are to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Reading John 6 draws attention to some aspects that surprisingly are not in Matthew. In John, after the people are fed, they proclaim him to be "the prophet who is to come into the world" and intend "by force to make him king." (John 6:14f.)
Jesus withdraws, but they come after him again the next day because, Jesus observes, they really just want more bread. Compare this to the end of Matthew's account. All eat their fill, the abundant leftovers are gathered, the number of people is given and... nothing. If this were a typical miracle story, we would expect some kind of response from the people, but it's almost as if nobody has noticed what has happened.
So what is going on here? It is an impressive miracle, but Matthew seems to be highlighting other aspects than simply the miraculous.
1) Jesus' "compassion" provides the context for the event.
2) Jesus indicates that the disciples should give them something to eat, and they are in fact the ones who actually distribute the food to the crowds.
3) In the sequence of Jesus taking, blessing, and breaking the bread, there is a clear connection made with the last supper account in Matthew 26:26ff, but there, Jesus goes on to say, "This is my body... This is my blood..." (Matthew is not so far removed from John 6 as we perhaps first thought!)
A preacher should be able to work with those themes to proclaim God's compassion, our participation in God's work by helping to feed the world, and ultimately celebrate the real life-giving bread we experience in the Lord's Supper. That's all well and good, but...
I suspect most of you will be preaching to fairly well-fed congregations. Rejoice! God is good! But look at the statistics on hunger, globally and nationally. If Jesus can so easily feed the multitudes, why is there so much hunger in the world today? The quick answer is to point to #2 above and say it's our problem, not God's. However, the disciples' inability didn't stop Jesus then, so why should our inability or even delinquency stop God now? When we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "Give us today our daily bread," are we not expressing what God is indeed willing for us? So again, why is there so much hunger in the world? So much suffering? So little of daily bread?
Dostoevsky, in the magnificent "The Grand Inquisitor" chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, ties the matter of bread and hunger to the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4:1-11. You would do well to read the story,
but the point of the devil's challenge to Jesus regarding the stones is explained: "Turn them into bread, and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though for ever trembling, lest Thou withdraw Thy hand and deny them Thy bread." It is the Inquisitor's contention that people will not think about virtue unless they are fed, and that for the sake of bread, people are willing to become slaves. (Remember Israel in the wilderness: Exodus 16:3.) So is bread the end all? The Inquisitor continues, "In bread there was offered Thee an invincible banner; give bread, and man will worship thee, for nothing is more certain than bread. But if someone else gains possession of his conscience -- Oh! then he will cast away Thy bread and follow after him who has ensnared his conscience."
History repeatedly bears this out. People will riot when they can't get enough daily bread to live. Yet history has also shown that those same people are willing to die to fight the perceived injustice. Jesus was right, therefore, in John 6 to fear that they just wanted to turn him into a bread king, and he was also right to move the discussion so that it became a matter of the "food that endures for eternal life." (John 6:27)
Returning to the Matthew text at hand, it is now clearer why this isn't a typical miracle story. It's really not about the earthly bread and how many people were fed. That isn't the Gospel anyway. We still want to highlight the compassion of Jesus. We still want to insist that as Jesus' disciples we be faithful in seeking to provide daily bread to all in need. Most importantly, we want to make them hungry for something more. Ultimately, give them what they really need to live and for which they will also be willing to die. Preacher feed the people! Give them Jesus, the Bread of Life!