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. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children (Matthew 14:13-21) – NRSV).
Matthew’s account of Jesus feeding the five thousand is paralleled in the other three Gospels – see Mark 6:35–44, Luke 9:12–17 and John 6:1–15. Matthew also has an account of Jesus feeding four thousand – see Matthew 15:32-39. Mark has a similar account – see Mark 8:1-10.
Matthew’s text – 14:13-21 – is clearly based on Mark 6:35-44. Though Matthew shapes the story is his own way: “Whereas in Mark the disciples misunderstand much of what takes place and need explanations at every point, in Matthew they show more understanding and function more clearly and positively as assistants to Jesus. They understand but are lacking in faith” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 220).
“In Matthew’s order of events the first feeding follows the flashback about the death of John the Baptist, which also took place in the context of a banquet. The juxtaposition of Herod’s banquet and Jesus’ banquet is powerful. At Herod’s banquet there is pride and arrogance, scheming, and even murder. It takes place at a royal court. At Jesus’ banquet there is healing, trust, and sharing. It takes place in a ‘deserted’ place—an erēmos like the wilderness in which ancient Israel was fed with manna” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 220-221).
when Jesus heard this: This account of the feeding of the five thousand follows immediately on Matthew’s account of the beheading of John Baptist – see Matthew 14:3-12. There is a similar sequence in Mark – see 6:17-29.
a deserted place: Jesus sought out the wilderness, the place in which God forged the Covenant with the Chosen People. Jesus goes back to his roots. For him, the wilderness has positive meaning, it is a place of encounter with the Living God. The phrase is used again when the disciples complain that because this is the wilderness they will not be able to feed the people. This is hugely ironic! A new manna from heaven is about to be shown them.
compassion: The Greek verb used here is splagchnizomai, from the noun splagchna which refers to the noble viscera – the heart, lungs, liver and intestines. Jesus cared deeply about the people. In the Greek culture, these words would never be used of someone who is divine. The gods are above feelings. Thus we are reminded of the Incarnation – Jesus is truly human.
five loaves and two fish: “There is no clear symbolic significance associated with the numbers five and two. The reason for the fish has always been a puzzle for those who search for symbolism. It has been interpreted as proof that fish were used in early Christian Eucharists, as related to the quails on which Israel was fed in the wilderness (Num 11:31; Wis 19:12), or as part of the messianic banquet (4 Ezra 6:52; 2 Bar 29:4)” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 219).
he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves: This is probably more a reference to Jewish practice than early Christian eucharistic practice. The father of the family prayed the blessing before meals as follows: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” The breaking and distribution of the bread then follows. This can also be seen as a pointer to the Last Supper – see Matthew 26:26.
the disciples gave them to the crowds: Jesus involves the disciples in the distribution of the bread – an intimation of the way the community would celebrate the Eucharist after Jesus had gone.
twelve baskets: Probably a symbolic reference to the twelve apostles.
Our English word “Utopia” comes from two Greek words – ou, meaning “not” and topos, meaning “place”. Thus, to say someone’s ideas are “utopian” is to condemn the ideas as unreal. It is a recognition that to be human is to be in a place. Think about your experience of place. It is geographical, spatial, psychological, spiritual? It is affected by presence and absence. In fact, place always has an “elsewhere” factor to it, waiting to assert itself. Place is not straightforward. The indigenous peoples of this land seem to have had – many still do have – a very profound sense of place. Modern Westerners, on the contrary, do not seem to have such a deep sense of place. Unless it is the source of power and control, then we are prepared to shed blood for it. Listen to the Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), writing of his contemporaries at the beginning of the 20th century:
“Don Quixote has not arrived at the age of taedium vitae, which is commonly manifested among not a few modern spirits in the form of topophobia: these people spend their lives running at top speed from one place to another, not from any love of the place to which they are going, but from odium of the place they are leaving behind, thus fleeing all places, which is one of the forms of despair” (Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations, trans Anthony Kerrigan, Princeton University Press, 1990, 354). This calls to mind St Benedict’s denunciation of “gyrovagues” – from two Latin words, gyro meaning “circle” and vagari meaning “wander”. Benedict recognized the importance of place as holding a key to one’s journey. Those who cannot remain in place are almost certainly evading life. In turn, Benedict reminds us that any and every place is an entry point for our being with God. This is why we cannot possess a place – not one that is ultimately worth anything. The Divine Being is our proper place. It is called the Kingdom.
At the beginning of John’s Gospel, the disciples of John the Baptist approach Jesus and ask: “Where is your place?” (1:38). This begins a long journey for those disciples. They only gradually discover Jesus’ place – and theirs. Luke tells us “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (9:58).
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 14:13-21 – Jesus seeks out a deserted place. This is reminiscent of the wilderness of old where God and the People become united in the Covenant. How ironic it is when the disciples say to Jesus: “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away ….” In this deserted place the People will once again be fed by manna from the heavens.
Is it possible that when we find comfort in a place we become forgetful of who and what we are? A place – no matter how comfortable or painful – is always an invitation.