Matthew 14:13-21

Anticipating the Heavenly Banquet  

Matthew 14:13-21     Feeding the Five Thousand

(Mk 6:30-44; Lk 9:10-17) 

13 After he heard the news,
Jesus withdrew from there by boat
to a deserted place by himself.

Matthew’s reference to timing was awkward.  Jesus’ sudden withdrawal to a deserted place would suggest that Jesus had just heard the news of John’ death.  Yet, for Herod to reach the conclusion that Jesus was really John raised from the dead, John’s death would need to have happened some time earlier, long enough for reports of Jesus’ activities to reach Herod.

Obviously, Matthew wished to connect Jesus’ withdrawal to a deserted place to his learning of the fate meted out to John: Jesus needed to come to terms with its implications.  He took a boat to somewhere along the western shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, still in Herod’s territory, but safer.

References to movement across water to a deserted place echoed the escape of the Hebrew slaves across the waters of the Reed (Red) Sea to the Sinai desert, and called up a sense of expected liberation.

The crowds learnt of this
and followed him on foot from the surrounding towns.  
14 When he disembarked,
he saw the big crowd,
and felt strongly moved for them
and healed their weaknesses.

Earlier in the Gospel, Matthew had commented on the compassion of Jesus and its reason: When he saw the crowd, he he was deeply moved by them. They were pressured and oppressed, like sheep without a shepherd [9:36].  Jesus’ response stood in marked contrast to the behaviour of the shepherds of Israel, both regal and priestly, castigated by Ezekiel centuries before (and still continuing in Jesus’ day):

... you do not feed the sheep. 
You have not strengthened the weak ...
but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 
 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd [Ezekiel 34:3-5].

Unlike their present rulers, Jesus healed their weaknesses, and would soon feed the sheep, thereby anticipating the Kingdom experience of wholeness and plenty.

15 Evening had come and the disciples approached him and said,
“This is a deserted spot, and the time is already past.  
Send the crowds away so that they can go into the villages
and buy something to eat for themselves.”

Matthew had omitted to indicate whether the disciples had gone with Jesus in the boat, or had come with the crowds on foot.  Matthew was not clear whether Jesus’ option to withdraw by himself meant away from crowds or away from disciples.  Whatever his intention, he was not left alone.  The disciples were the ones who noticed the crowd’s need for food and brought it to the attention of Jesus.  Their suggestion seemed sensible.

16 But Jesus said, “There is no need for them to go away.  
You give them something to eat.”  
17 They replied, “We have nothing here
beyond five loaves of bread and two fish.”

Matthew softened the tone of Mark’s dialogue between the disciples and Jesus: the disciples were more objective than argumentative.  

Bread and fish were the staple foods of the district.  Dried fish was the major export industry of Galilee.  The point of the dialogue was to highlight the inadequacy of the resources in order to illustrate the extent of the power that Jesus would soon exercise.

18 Jesus said, “Bring them here to me.”
19 He directed the crowd to recline on the grass.
He took the five loaves of bread and the two fish,
looked up to heaven and said the blessing-prayer,
then broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples,
and the disciples gave them to the crowds.  
20 They all ate and had enough.  
They picked up what was left over –
twelve baskets full of broken pieces.

Many of these words and phrases used by Matthew – when it was evening, loaves, took, looked up to heaven, blessed, broke, gave, disciples, all ate – would appear again in his account of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, when he instituted the Eucharist.  The benevolent, compassionate, generous, powerful Christ would continue his work in the Church, which would celebrate that presence and action in every Eucharist.

Matthew slightly re-worded Mark to highlight the disciples’ role in Jesus’ project: the disciples gave the loaves to the crowds; the committed served those who were still uncommitted, but needy.  Discipleship meant service.

The reference to the abundance of broken pieces left over echoed similar passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, and connected the actions of Jesus with those of the prophet Elisha:

A man came from Baal-shalishah,
bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: 
twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. 
Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” 
But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” 
So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, 
for thus says the LORD, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’ ” 
He set it before them, they ate, and had some left,
according to the word of the LORD. [2 Kings 4:42-44].
21 And those who ate were about five thousand men,
besides women and children.

Matthew omitted some of the details of Mark’s original narrative, among them phrases that were evocative of Moses’ dealings with the freed Israelite slaves in the deserted place around Sinai.  (There, Moses had acted as God’s instrument in forming the former slaves into an organised Covenant People, and had fed them with manna in the desert, “the bread from heaven”.)  Missing the point of some of Mark’s nuances, Matthew felt it helpful to complement the five thousand men by adding women and children (which, to modern ears, unfortunately comes across as patronising).

Feeding the Hungry Crowd

Jesus’ feeding of the crowd (with the help of his disciples) had a profound significance in the whole ministry of Jesus.  Together with the healings that preceded it, it served to illustrate the message of the Kingdom.
The Kingdom would be about wholeness and salvation, about abundance and about service.  It would be the combined work of God and of disciples.  Its effect would overwhelmingly exceed both the paucity of natural resources and the extent of the need.
It expressed in practical terms the mystery symbolised by the hundredfold of the previous parables, the birds nesting in the branches and the leavening of three measures of flour.
The wording of the story connected it with the later celebration of Eucharist in the Church. Eucharist would symbolise and anticipate the final outcome of the Kingdom, when Jesus would “drink the wine new in my Father’s kingdom” [26:29].

Next >> Matthew 14:22-36