When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured. The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions;
for we are here in a deserted place.” But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” They did so and made them all sit down. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces. (Luke 9:11-17 – NRSV)
Luke and Matthew 14:13-21, follow Mark’s account – see Mark 6:30-34. John has a similar account – see John 6:1-13.
However, Mark mentions that Jesus had compassion on the people (Mark 6:34 and see also Matthew 14:14) but Luke strangely makes no mention to this. Further, Mark makes reference to the people being “like sheep without a shepherd” (an allusion to Numbers 27:17 and 1 Kings 22:17) but Luke makes no reference to this either.
he welcomed them: This is a very significant observation by Luke. (Mark – and Matthew following Mark’s account – imply something of the same in their reference to his compassion for the crowds.) Jesus has just encouraged the disciples to come with him to a place where they can be alone. However, it seems that the needs of the people come first – at least on this occasion. It is perhaps worth noting that Luke has told us a few verses ahead of this event that the crowds welcomed Jesus (8:40). He has also advised the apostles that, if the people do not welcome them when they proclaim the kingdom of God, “when you leave their town shake the dust for your feet as a sign to them” (9:5). The verb apodechomai – translated here with the English verb “to welcome” – has the sense of “to understand” and “to accept”.
the kingdom of God: “In most cases Luke refers to it in this way (6:20; 7:28; 8:1, 10; 9:2, 11, 27, 60, 62; 10:9, 11; 11:20; 13:18, 20, 28, 29; 14:15; 16:16; 17:20bis, 21; 18:16, 17, 24, 25, 29; 19:11; 21:31; 22:16, 18; 23:51). Sometimes, however, he speaks of it merely as ‘the kingdom’ (11:2; 12:31, 32; 22:29, 30; 23:42). …. The ‘kingdom’ is the prime kerygmatic announcement in the Synoptic tradition, especially in Matthew, where it appears fifty-five times, whereas it occurs in Luke only thirty-eight times, and in Mark fourteen times. John uses it five times. In earlier Pauline literature it is sometimes found, but it is scarcely the operative or dynamic element that it has become in the Synoptic kerygma. In fact, save for a few places (e.g. 1 Cor 15:24; Col 1:13), it is otherwise mostly used in the Pauline corpus in catalogues of vices or similar statements that reflect early Christian catechesis.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28), Yale University Press, 2008, 557.)
Another author writes more generally of “the kingdom”:
“Although ‘Kingdom of God’ is the most frequent term, the NT writers employ several other essentially synonymous phrases to describe the same reality. ‘Kingdom of heaven’ is a variant entirely unique to Matthew, who employs it thirty-two times in instances in which the other Synoptics would have used ‘Kingdom of God’. Variants used by other NT authors include ‘the kingdom of Christ and of God’ (Eph 5:5), ‘the kingdom of his beloved Son’ (Col 1:13), ‘the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’ (2 Pet 1:11), and ‘the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ’ (Rev 11:15). In addition, Jesus speaks of ‘my kingdom’ (John 18:36; Luke 22:30) and ‘my Father’s kingdom’ (Matt 26:29); others speak to Jesus of ‘your kingdom’ (Matt 20:21; Luke 23:42), and there are many references simply to ‘the kingdom’ without any modifier (Matt 24:14, 25:34; Luke 12:32; Acts 20:25). All of these variants may have slightly different connotations, but nonetheless they denote the same reality as the phrase ‘Kingdom of God’. Some of them indicate clearly that there is no distinction between God’s Kingdom and Christ’s Kingdom (cf. 2 Pet 1:11; Rev 11:15).” (Scott Hahn, Editor, Catholic Bible Dictionary, Doubleday, 2009, 510.)
We have no more than five loaves and two fish etc.: These details are substantially the same in Mark 6:38, Matthew 14:17; and John 6:9. There may be an allusion to the story in 2 Kings 4:42–44. Twenty barley loaves and fresh grain are brought to the prophet Elisha and he is asked to feed one hundred men. Elisha’s servant protests. The man who brought the loaves insists, telling Elisha that Yahweh says this: “They shall eat and have some left over”. This would suggest that Jesus is in the great tradition of the prophets of Israel in this event.
Fitzmyer writes of the numbers: “There may be some symbolism in the five loaves, five thousand men, and groups of fifty, but it is not evident. Moreover, it would be hard to say how the two fish fit into it.” (Op cit, 767.)
“The Twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place’. But he said to them, ‘You give them something to eat’.” Jesus challenges “the Twelve” here because just prior to this Luke has told us that “Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (9:1-2). Jesus is reminding “the Twelve” that he is sharing his role and authority with them.
The reference to the “deserted place” recalls the Exodus Event. Called out of Egypt, the people were led into the desert where the real liberation could begin. There, in those unmapped places, the people were entirely dependent on God who alone held the map. There the Covenant would be forged forever. The tradition of two meals – the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread – come together as a ritual for remembering this journey into the desert under Gods guidance – see Exodus 12:1-28. Further, it is in the desert that God feeds the people with “manna” – see Exodus 16:1-36.
Jesus and “the kingdom of God” which he proclaims – and which “the Twelve” are sent to proclaim – express the very heart of that Exodus tradition. More particularly, our ritual of the Eucharist has its roots in the feast of the Passover and Unleavened Bread.
There is something very human going on here too. “The Twelve” are showing a reticence to accept the authority that Jesus has given to them. “Send them away” say the Twelve. “No,” says Jesus, “I have sent you and given you authority, you look after them!” In that mission Jesus has given “the Twelve”, the Exodus journey is also evoked. “The Twelve” were told by Jesus, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic etc.” Be like your ancestors in the desert, utterly reliant on God whose kingdom you proclaim!
We may understand “the Twelve” as a figure of the Church. We are a pilgrim people (see for example Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on the (Lumen Gentium) #6 Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), #6). We are utterly reliant on God in our pilgrimage of life. This pilgrimage, as with the people of old, is a journey towards freedom. We are sustained by the Eucharist, the new Passover and Unleavened Bread, the new “manna”, “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, #11).
St Thomas Aquinas reminds us of why the Eucharist can be the fount of the whole Christian life: “No other sacrament has greater healing power; through it sins are purged away, virtues are increased and the soul is enriched with an abundance of every spiritual gift.”(R Sargent, Walking in Newness of Life: The Sacraments of Initiation, Paulist Press, 2007, 44.)