Question: how many of Jesus’ miracles are recorded in all four Gospels?
Answer: the feeding of the five thousand is the only one.
Why this story? What’s so important about it? What does it reveal about God, about Jesus, about who we are called to be as followers of Jesus – that each of the Gospel evangelists said, “Now this story is definitely worth remembering?” Of course, there’s the obvious answer: this is an awesome miracle story.
But rather than speculate on whether or not Jesus actually physically multiplied 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish to feed thousands of men, women and children in a deserted place far away from towns and villages, let’s focus on what this miracle story means and how the early church interpreted this story.
As Matthew’s version of the story goes, Jesus is on retreat, having just learned of John the Baptist’s murder by Herod Antipas. Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But the crowds followed him and when he went ashore and saw them, his heart went out to them and he healed them.
The people are away from home, without food and the hour is late. The disciples are in favor of dismissing the crowds. But Jesus says to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” And they reply, “We have nothing here but 5 loaves and 2 fish.”
Jesus takes the 5 loaves and 2 fish, looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks them, and gives them to the disciples and the disciples give them to the crowds. All ate and were filled.
Now we can debate whether Jesus suspended the natural order to feed the crowds or whether his example merely prompted the crowds to share what they had brought with them. These simply weren’t the concerns of the early Christians. Neither Jesus nor his early followers imagined that stories about wondrous acts would convince people of Jesus’ divine origins.
Note how the story ends – no amazed crowds, no one asking “Who is this?” No comment of Jesus’ spreading fame. Why? Because by the time the Gospels were written, this was an inside story of how Jesus feeds his followers.
The point of this story isn’t what Jesus does, but why. Because the character of the God that Jesus reveals is compassion. And this brings us to the first of two miracles described in today’s Gospel passage.
Matthew says that when Jesus saw the great crowds that had followed him he had compassion on them. And so he healed the sick, tended to their needs and shared himself with them. And when evening came and they found themselves without food, he fed them.
Make no mistake, this was no minor endeavor. What we now call “food scarcity” wasn’t only known in the ancient world, it was rampant. And so the disciples’ suggestion that these hordes of people go buy food isn’t just unrealistic – they are, after all, out in a deserted place – it’s ridiculous. Many of the folks making up these desperate crowds probably didn’t have the money to buy food in the first place. And so Jesus tells the disciples to get over their reluctant self-concern and feed the people themselves.
Which brings us to the second miracle of the story. Jesus empowers the disciples to tend to the needs of these thousands of men, women and children. Using words and actions that foreshadow the Eucharistic actions of the Last Supper, Matthew describes what happens when you move from a worldview of scarcity – “we have nothing here but 5 loaves and 2 fish” – to one of abundance – “thank you, God, for these loaves and fishes.”
Whatever their initial skepticism or self-preoccupation, the disciples are caught up in Jesus’ words and actions of abundance and gratitude and distribute what is offered to God for the benefit of others. And all ate a meal, not a symbol, and were filled.
Jesus worked through the hands of the disciples that day, and he still does. Jesus says to us, “Come to me as you are, however ill-equipped you may think you are, bring to me what you have, however little, and I will use it abundantly for the benefit of others.” Little is always much when touched by God’s abundant grace.
God still cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable – the poor, the hungry, the immigrant, the outcast – and God continues to use us to care for them. That’s why the church has ministered for centuries to the hungry. After all, Jesus said the question, “What did you do for the hungry?” would be on the final exam (Mt.25.25).
We who are called and gather in Christ’s name, even in this pandemic time of social distancing and virtual church, are to go and do likewise, sharing God’s love with all we meet, especially those in need. No matter how we understand the miracle of today’s gospel story, one thing is for sure – when Christ, the living bread, is present, the weary find rest and the hungry are fed. Amen.
Resources: Mark Vitalis Hoffman, 2014; David Lose, 2014; Synthesis, 2014; Craddock, et.al., 1987; William Barclay, 1975.