Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:13-21 – NRSV)
Similar texts can be found in Mark 6:30–44; Luke 9:10–17 and John 6:1–14. Matthew is clearly dependent on Mark, though he does made some changes to Mark.
This text in Matthew follows immediately after his account of the execution of John the Baptist. This is similar to Mark. We notice that the banquet here in the desert is paralleled by a the birthday banquet for Herod. This is a subtle but powerful contrasting of the two vastly different worlds Jesus and Herod inhabit.
The place for Jesus’ banquet – ‘a deserted place’ – calls to mind the Exodus event and the feeding of the people in the desert – see Exodus 16:15 and Deuteronomy 8:3. See also 2 Kings 4:42-44: “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.”
Jesus is drawn away from his own desire for solitude to serve the people by his experience of compassion for them. The Greek word for compassion – here, splagchnizomai (σπλαγχνίζομαι) – is only used in the synoptic Gospels and, apart from three occurrences in the parables – Matthew 18:23-35 (the parable of the unforgiving debtor), Luke 15:11-32 (the parable of the lost son) and Luke 10:29-37 (the parable of the good Samaritan) – is always used directly of Jesus himself.
Scholars cannot agree on the significance of either the loaves and the fish or the number five thousand.
Nor is there agreement about what event might have been behind this text which appears in all four Gospels and twice in Matthew and Mark. One author speaks in a way that might be considered representative of the best scholarship: “The miracle has been understood as a “miracle” that took place in people’s attitudes. When the small boy gave his lunch to Jesus, this reasoning runs, he shamed those many who were keeping the food they had brought with them well hidden lest they have to share it. Now they brought it out and shared, and behold! there was enough for all and plenty over. Another suggestion is that we should understand a
token meal, something like Holy Communion (indeed, Gundry speaks of Jesus as “the host at this ‘Lord’s Supper,’ ” p. 293). But neither suggestion does justice to what the Evangelists say. Any fair exegesis of the Gospels leads us to see a striking miracle wherein the incarnate Son of God multiplied a small amount of food so that there was abundance for the crowds. “It is impossible to reduce the event to ordinary human dimensions. It stands as witness to the fact that God can and does supply human need in the way he sees best” (Melinsky).” (L Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew,W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 375.)
The following is from N T Wright:
“Come and be a character in this story. There’s plenty of room, and there’s a lot to learn.
“To begin with, cast your mind back to the last time you were really, really sad. After the death of a parent, perhaps, or a close friend. After you didn’t get the job you’d set your heart on. After you had to move out of the house you had loved. What you needed and wanted most was to hide away and be quiet. To reflect, perhaps to pray; but above all to be still, and not have people bother you.
“Then supposing the quiet place you chose was invaded by hundreds of others. The little church you thought you’d slip inside was full of a wedding party. The lonely hillside where, surely, you could be private was
covered in cheerful hikers. How would you react?
“Jesus’ reaction here is the more remarkable. He had lost John, his cousin and colleague. He had lost him in a manner which must have warned Jesus of what lay ahead for him, too. Yet when he slips away to be quiet
and alone, the crowds discover and throng all around him. And his reaction is not anger or frustration, but compassion. He translates his sorrow over John, and perhaps his sorrow over himself, into sorrow for them. Before the outward and visible works of power, healing the sick, comes the inward and invisible work of power, in which Jesus transforms his own feelings into love for those in need.
“You have come into the story of Jesus, perhaps, because you’ve been touched yourself by that compassion. Imagine yourself as one of the disciples—not a leader, just one of the Twelve, or perhaps one of their other friends or cousins, hanging around on the edge. You see how Jesus cares for people, and you’d like to care for them too. So you think what might be best for them, and come to him with a suggestion. Wouldn’t it be good to send them away now, so that they could go and buy food rather than all getting hungry here, miles away from anywhere?
“Jesus is always delighted when people around him come up with ideas which show that they’re thinking of the needs of others. But often what he has to do is to take those ideas and do something startling with them. If you really care for them, he says, why don’t you give them something to eat? This is, perhaps, the typical note of vocation. Our small idea of how to care for people gets bounced back at us with what seems a huge and impossible proposal. You protest. I can’t do it! I haven’t got the time. I haven’t got the energy. I haven’t got the ability. All I have is …..
“Ah, but that’s the next step, and again typical of how God’s calling works. By hanging around Jesus, you’ve had an idea. It wasn’t quite in focus, but your main intention—in this case, that the people should be fed—is on target. Jesus proposes achieving that aim by a different means. You say it’s impossible—but you’re prepared to give him the little you’ve got, if it’ll be any good. Of course it means you’ll go hungry yourself … but by now you’re in too deep to stop. Once the power of Jesus’ compassion has begun to catch you up in its flow, you can’t stop.
“What precisely Jesus does with what we give him is so mysterious and powerful that it’s hard to describe in words. Imagine yourself standing there, while Jesus, surrounded by thousands of people, takes this pitifully small amount of food, hardly enough for two people, let alone a crowd, and prays over it. He thanks God for it. He breaks it, and gives it to you and the others, and you give it to … one person after another after another, without knowing what’s happening or how.
“Think through how it’s happened. Being close to Jesus has turned into the thought of service; Jesus takes the thought, turns it inside out (making it more costly, of course), and gives it back to you as a challenge. In puzzled response to the challenge, you offer what you’ve got, knowing it’s quite inadequate (but again costly); and the same thing happens. He takes it, blesses it, and breaks it (there’s the cost, yet again), and gives
it to you—and your job now is to give it to everybody else.
“This is how it works whenever someone is close enough to Jesus to catch a glimpse of what he’s doing and how they could help. We blunder in with our ideas. We offer, uncomprehending, what little we have. Jesus takes ideas, loaves and fishes, money, a sense of humour, time, energy, talents, love, artistic gifts, skill with words, quickness of eye or fingers, whatever we have to offer. He holds them before his father with prayer and
blessing. Then, breaking them so they are ready for use, he gives them back to us to give to those who need them.
“And now they are both ours and not ours. They are both what we had in mind and not what we had in mind. Something greater and different, more powerful and mysterious, yet also our own. It is part of genuine Christian service, at whatever level, that we look on in amazement to see what God has done with the bits and pieces we dug out of our meagre resources to offer to him.
“Within Matthew’s story, of course, there is much more going on than simply a remarkable example of Christian vocation. The twelve baskets left over may point to Jesus’ intention to restore God’s people, the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus feeding people in the wilderness fits so well with Matthew’s theme of Jesus as the new Moses (God gave the Israelites manna, special bread from heaven, when they were in the desert in the time of Moses) that we can be sure that Matthew intended us to see this too.
“This probably explains why Jesus sent the crowds away as soon as the feeding was over. He didn’t want them hanging around and celebrating his power. The likeness with Moses stops there. Jesus was not intending to march through the land at the head of a great crowd, or to win military victories against God’s enemies. He was going to achieve at last the loneliness he sought at the start of this passage, hanging desolate on a cross. If you sense a call to follow him, to share his compassion, to give him what you have so that it can be used in his service, you must remember that it cost him everything as well.” (N T Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15, SPCK, 2004, 185-188.)