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Gospel of Matthew 14: 13-21
13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so that they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Jesus had set out to be alone with his disciples, presumably to pray with and teach them. Uninvited crowds followed him. Their presence in this remote place at day’s end presented a logistical challenge: having received spiritual food (Luke 9: 11), how were they now to be fed in a physical sense? Jesus’ way defies natural-world attempts to explain it. Perhaps that is why this is the only one of Jesus’ miraculous signs (other than his resurrection) that has been recorded by all four evangelists.
Why did Jesus provide bread and fish in this manner for “five thousand men, besides women and children”?
It was certainly not a case of self-aggrandisement, an attempt to buy favour with the people! John’s Gospel explains that Jesus would not allow himself to be controlled by the crowds (6: 14-15):
After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again into the hills by himself.
I do not think his compassion prompted it, though we read that when he “saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matthew 14: 14) and that “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6: 34). This compassion, I believe, was for their spiritual state.
Could it be that Jesus primarily wanted to teach his disciples? There were other options for feeding these people; the disciples proposed one to Jesus. His reply, “You give them something to eat,” is recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Having taken the five loaves and the two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, indicating his communion with the Father. All four evangelists record that he then gave thanks. The glory and the thanks were directed to the Father. What the disciples may have considered to be beyond the limits of possibility suddenly became viable through Jesus’ prayer and gratitude to the Father.
This supernatural feeding of the crowd in a physical sense points to the supernatural spiritual nourishment offered by Jesus, “the bread of life” (John 6: 35).
What do we, his disciples, learn from this? Offer prayer to God in all circumstances with thanksgiving.