The Lectionary This Week — Feeding the 5,000 in Matthew 14:13-20

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:13-21 ESV)

“And they ate and were satisfied.” (καὶ ἔφαγον πάντες καὶ ἐχορτάσθησαν.) Jesus has wandered out to the wilderness, to the desolate place where he could be alone, after hearing the news that John the Baptist had been beheaded by Herod. John was a long-time critic of Herod, who desired to marry his brother Philip’s wife Herodias (in Matthew, we learn little of this, save that John said — probably often and probably very loudly — that it was unlawful for Herod to have her). Herod wanted John dead, likely because he was both enraged and embarrassed by John’s preaching. But he was bound by his fear of the people he nominally ruled (thanks largely to Roman backing; the Romans were in Palestine to begin with because they were asked to intervene on behalf of one group of Hasmoneans during a civil war), because the people believed in John as a Prophet.

An annoying character, John, who lost his head to an oath sworn to a little girl.

But more importantly, at the start of Chapter 9, we learn that Herod was convinced Jesus was this same beheaded John — meaning that John the Baptist, John the Annoying, John the Maddening, John the Moralist (“No, you cannot marry your brother’s wife!”), would not stay dead. “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” (Matthew 14:2 ESV) Such power, such miracles, Herod says, could only be done by someone risen from the dead.

Jesus is not John, of course. And he is not dead. Not yet. And hearing of John’s death, Jesus escapes, wanders out to a desert place, possibly to be far away from the very same crowds that had seen him restore life to a dead girl, heal the blind, the mute, and the wounded. He has calmed a storm, cured leprosy, cast out demons, and sent out his twelve disciples to heal and cleanse and cast-out and proclaim “the kingdom of heaven.” This is not a Jesus the crowds can leave alone. They — we — want, hunger for the work of God that he brings us, brings to the lost, brings to the world.

We follow him into the wilderness, into the desolate place. In Exodus, God’s people were driven into the wilderness by an act of horrific redemption, dragged kicking and screaming by God. Here, the people of God willingly follow God into the wilderness. God cannot get away from them.

The end of the day has come, and the people who followed are hungry. They have been touched, they have been healed, their ills and infirmities undone. The disciples see a logistics problem, and wonder — where and how are all these people going to be fed? Send them away, they say, to the nearest villages to buy food for themselves. It’s the “smart” answer, the one born of experience and wisdom and observation. This is the wilderness, and there is nothing here for anyone to eat.

But what is a matter of logistics and organization for the disciples is an opportunity for the miraculous kingdom of God. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat,” Jesus commands. I’m fairly certain the disciples were stunned. After all, we are in the middle howling nowhere, and we have so little — five loaves of bread and two fish. “That might feed six of us, but not all of these people” I imagine someone saying.

I’m reminded of the Exodus with this passage:

1 They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2 And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, 3 and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:1-3 ESV)

What does God then say to Moses? “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you (plural, לָכֶ֛ם)” (Exodus 16:4) Israel, the people God has just redeemed from slavery in Egypt, the people who have grumbled because in their servitude, in the well-stocked cities of Egypt where they served — worshiped — Pharaoh, their puts were full. And they ate their fill.

They were able to cook their meals, fill their pots, bake their bread, through the work of their own hands. They earned their keep, supported themselves, even as they labored for ends not their own. And now, here in the wilderness, Israel had gone maybe a a day or two, eating away at whatever rations they were able to take with themselves from Egypt, growing hungry. As only the once-comfortable can. “Would that we had died safe and warm and well-fed in Egypt!”

Instead, God rains bread from heaven. For the next 40 years, for the entire length of its wilderness wandering, God will feed Israel. A meal Israel will not earn, cannot earn, a meal that will fall from the sky every day — save on the sabbath; double would fall the day before — and provide enough for each Israelite as they wander.

In both instances, there is an objection. “We have only two small fish and five loaves!” “Would that we had died well fed in Egypt!” In the desert, God rains bread from heaven. Here, in this wilderness, Jesus takes what the disciples have, and blesses them. He then takes these five little loaves and two little fishes (to quote a song I wrote on the subject) and gives them to the disciples, and they distribute. This is communion. Jesus uses simple things at hand, blesses them, and offers them up to be signs of the kingdom of heaven.

Like at Exodus, this is a miraculous feeding in the wilderness, where there is no food.

Unlike at the Exodus, the hands of man are all over this. Jesus takes the bread and fish and blesses it. He then hands both over to his disciples, who “then gave them to the crowds.”

This is still an unearned meal, still the miraculous work of God, but this time, instead of each gathering enough for themselves, human hands pass this bread and fish onto other human hands. This is a shared meal in the way the manna was not.

There are also leftovers, which was apparently not true of the manna (though some was kept in the ark of the covenant). There was enough manna for everyone. There was more than enough for the five thousand men (plus women and children), enough left over to fill up twelve baskets.

This is not just subsistence. This is abundance. This is the kingdom of heaven, the economy of God, the miraculous provision. In the wilderness, when all we have is five loaves of bread and two fish, there is more than enough for many thousands.

Paired with this gospel reading is a passage from Isaiah 55, promising a banquet for all those who hunger, and rich food for all those too poor to afford such a thing. This passage comes in a series of prophetic messages of the coming redemption or Israel and of those “foreigners” (בֶּן־הַנֵּכָ֗ר, literally “the sons of the stranger”) who have joined themselves to Israel.

But I’m not going to say much more about this passage, except to note, I wrote a song about it — one I really, really like.

1 “Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
 come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
 hear, that your soul may live;
 and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
 my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
 a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
 for he has glorified you
(Isaiah 55:1-5 ESV)