Feeding the Five Thousand

Ordinary 18A

Matthew 14: 13 21


After our Lord's major teaching by parables in chapter 13, he retired back to his own area only to find he was causing an unwelcomed stirring among the locals. They were uncomfortable with his air of authority as well as the miracles he performed declaring: "We know his family and circumstances; where did he get all this?" And because of their unbelief, he did not work any miracles there.

Matthew moves on into chapter 14 with an account of John the Baptist's wonderful witness to spiritual values of the Kingdom of God and his grizzly, dreadful execution for the sake of the fickle daughter of Herodias. Our text follows on from this sad but inspiring incident.

Some Notes on the Text

Verse 13

When Jesus heard about Herod's interest in him and his ministry, he took a boat from wherever he was (we are not sure where) across the Sea of Galilee to a favourite "deserted place", to be alone. We do not know when and how he was joined by his disciples, but we know Jesus regularly took time apart, in quiet for prayer and solitude. On this occasion particularly, upon hearing of the cruel death of his cousin in the foul prison of Herod's fortress, Machaerus, Jesus just simply wanted to be alone for a while.

Word spread quickly that Jesus was in the vicinity, and those who desperately wanted healing from various ailments and afflictions, rushed round the lake in the direction Jesus was moving.

Verse 14

When Jesus stepped out of the boat, a crowd had already assembled and looked eagerly upon him, hoping he would not be offended, and would cure them. Sure enough, Jesus took one look at them and was deeply moved by their faith as well as their needs. He responded immediately and healed all the sick who were brought to him. This continued all day without any break.

Verse 15

As evening began to fall, and Jesus had completed his healings, his disciples came to him and remarked that he should send the multitudes away. After all, they were in the 'middle of nowhere", and while it was light the sensible thing to do was to send them off to the nearest villages to buy food for themselves.

Verse 16

"They do not need to go away," said Jesus, "You give them something to eat".

Verses 17 and 18

The disciples quickly replied, implying: "What do you expect us to do with five barley pancakes and two little dried fish?" Jesus simply replied, "Bring them here to me".

Verse 19

Our Lord then performed six distinct actions:

  • He commanded (not, "invited") the people to recline (not sit) on the grass as a formality in preparation for a meal. It was not a picnic!
  • He took the five small loaves and two fish.
  • He looked up to heaven.
  • He blessed God in the traditional and beautiful Jewish custom as recorded in the Talmud:
  • "Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth."
  • He broke the loaves into pieces.
  • He gave the loaves to the disciples, who were then able to fulfil his earlier command: "You give them something to eat".

The scholars, ancient and modern, tell us that verse 19 is no ordinary piece of descriptive prose. By the time the Gospel account was written, the pattern and form (or order) of the Sunday Eucharist service had taken shape, and was adhered to with very great attention to detail. The first Christians soon came to understand that several times during his public ministry, our Lord performed actions which reflected elements of what later became the Christian memorial of his passion, death, and resurrection.

This incident is one of those special moments. There is no mention whatsoever of any wonder or amazement. Nor, incidentally, is there any inclusion of the two dried fish after Jesus took them. The incident has not been related for the spectacular element but rather because it is the symbol and anticipation of the Eucharist, which in turn, anticipates the Parousia and Messianic Banquet, at the end of time.

For this reason, the feeding of the five thousand has always held a special place in all the teaching materials and sermons of the Church from its earliest days.

Verse 20

Everybody ate as much as they required to be filled. Twelve baskets were filled with uneaten fragments collected after the meal.

Verse 21

There were about 5,000 men in the crowd who had been fed. The women and children present may have taken the numbers as high as 10,000


Nowhere do we find Jesus explaining the meaning of this miracle, not even to his closest disciples. Understanding would follow, especially as the infant Church looked back and reflected on the Last Supper and all that followed.

We may find ourselves wondering why our Lord didn't just produce food "out of the blue". Why take a hungry boy's lunch? This is God's chosen way, to take what is offered to him, no matter how humble or inadequate, and to make up the difference himself.

As Bishop Ellicott wrote (around 1900): "It was the fullest manifestation of the sovereignty of the Son of Man over the world of nature, i.e. it was an act of creative power." Great as it was, it seemed to pass largely unnoticed by the crowd. But is this not how Jesus often chooses to work?"

We call this very great event the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, knowing that this number accounted for only the males 13 years and over. What we need to remember is that it really only showed a tiny glimpse of what he is doing all the time: providing the necessities of life for all creatures. It was a privileged but momentary window of opportunity to take a glimpse beyond "time" as we know it. For those if us privileged to be trained in the Scriptures, the opportunity remains open; but we must honour this privilege by meditating on the miracle and allowing ourselves to be drawn into it.

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