The miracle story of Jesus feeding the Five Thousand with five loaves and two fish is the only miracle story that is narrated in all four gospels. The first feeding story in Matthew is widely based on Mark 6:35-44 and its source. Matthew then takes the Markan and Q traditions to compose a concise and abbreviated form; Matthew’s ultimate goal is to elevate the image of the Jesus’ disciples. While this story exists in all four gospels, the account in Matthew is told with a message of grace and attention to social justice. This literary account presents the story in traditional miracle form including a healing miracle and a feeding miracle. While the traditional form of a miracle is followed, readers are also presented with four literary tensions, three of which are resolved. In order to gain a better understanding of the traditional miracle form and the four literary tensions one must properly examine the context that surrounds both the immediate miracle and the gospel of Matthew.
The gospel of Matthew was written for educated Jews who believed in Jesus but argued over the Law; hence, this theme is present throughout Matthew’s texts (Thomas Tobin). In Matthew’s gospel, the disciples are called to go beyond keeping the better parts of the Law. In the feeding of the Five Thousand, Jesus attempts to train His disciples to show initiative and become Church leaders. The central theme of Matthew’s Gospel is apparent and involves entrance into the “Kingdom of God”.
The main theme of Matthew’s gospel is entrance into the kingdom of God; this is outlined in chapter 13. Anyone who chooses to enter the God’s kingdom has to decide for themselves the course of action. From this point onward, the revealing of Jesus’ as the “Son of God” becomes more apparent. Secondly, a strong connection of the people to Jesus is outlined in chapters 13-17, and these chapters outline the general institution of what would be known as the Church.
The very first line of the miracle story poses a large literary question, “why did Jesus want to go to a solitary place?”. In a larger scope, what was Jesus’ motivation to leave where he was. The answer lies within context, the fear of Herod in the death of John the Baptist as well as growing hostility with the Pharisees (Daniel J. Harrington 221). While outlining the book of Matthew, the first feeding follows the flashback of the death of John the Baptist; furthermore, his death also took place within the setting of a banquet.
The two banquet settings, Herod’s and Jesus’, can be placed side by side to reveal an answer as to why Jesus left for a solitary place. Herod’s banquet contains characteristics of pride, arrogance, and murder; likewise, the setting is at a royal court. On the contrary, Jesus’ banquet presents virtues of trust and sharing; however, it takes place in a “deserted” place. A key point to understanding where Jesus’ banquet occurred lies within the word “deserted”. “Deserted” is translated in Greek to erēmos, or wilderness in English; henceforth, a connection lies between this feeding story and the feeding of Israel in the wilderness (Daniel J. Harrington 219).
Immediately following the leaving of Jesus to a deserted place, crowds begin to follow him and commentaries agree that the crowds beat Jesus to the scene. The reason for the left-out explanation lies within one the characteristics of Mark leaving out extraneous details; however, commentaries agree that he wanted a private place to pray (Daniel J. Harrington 219).
Readers are quickly presented with the first and very short healing miracle told in this passage. The healing miracle is concise and consists of only one verse, “On coming forth he saw a great crowd and took pity on them and healed their sick”. A plausible question for analysis can be generated from this verse. Why did Jesus take pity on them and heal them? The question is not answered in Matthew; however, can be answered with information provided in Markan account. The answer lies within Mark 6:34, Jesus takes pity on and heals the people because, “they were like sheep not having a shepherd” (Daniel J. Harrington 219).
The first literary tension also arises within this verse. Flashback to the reason why Jesus left. He wanted “privacy to pray”; however, the people followed him and awaited his arrival. While Jesus may not have been in the best state of mind, he took “compassion” and resolved the tension by healing the sick.
The feeding miracle foundation begins shortly after the healing miracle. The disciples face afflictions with the quick approaching evening and the lack of food to feed the crowd. The people must leave and go to the villages to purchase their own food. Jesus then says to the disciples, “they have no need to go away”. Again, a characteristic of Matthew shortening the account given in Markan tradition. Common sense can explain that Jesus didn’t want the people to leave the deserted place to find food, but rather the disciples are to give them food.
This segment of the miracle story presents the second and third literary tensions. A tension between Jesus, the disciples, and who is responsible to feed the people is the main focus of this segment. Oddly enough, the disciples pass the responsibility onto Jesus; however, he is quick to say, “they need not leave where they are”. As disciples of Jesus, certain characteristics are expected of disciples. In this instance, the disciples service vision is minuscule compared to the vision of Jesus.
Following Jesus reprimanding the disciples, they took inventory of the food they had. The inventory proved to be insufficient to feed the crowd. Immediately following the inventory procedure, Jesus makes an apparent call for discipleship and calls for what food the disciples have collected, “bring them here to me”. Here is the resolution to the second tension, a simple call of discipleship both literally and figuratively. By bringing the food to Jesus the call of discipleship is solved literally; however, when the food is brought to Jesus he also brings the crowd closer to his heart.
The third tension lies within the supply and demand for food. As stated before, the inventory collected was very inadequate for the very large crowd. This miracle story takes readers through a suspenseful few verses, but the multiplicity of goods is where the passage unites. Here, is where the form of a feeding miracle can be hypothesized: the lack of resources then multiplied to feed an entire assembly. Henceforth, the third and final visible tension is resolved in the hands of Jesus who multiplies the goods.
Immediately following the multiplicity of goods refers to the language found in the last supper narrative found in Matthew 26:26. Jesus, “looked up to heaven and blessed, and broke, and gave to his disciples the loaves”. An apparent connection to the last supper lies within this verse. Interestingly enough, these actions also have roots within the Jewish tradition. Jesus, represents and performs the role of the father at a Jewish meal (Daniel J. Harrington 220).
While the bread loaves are mentioned and distributed to the people, no attention is paid to the distribution of the fish. This can be concluded with the statement, “gave to his disciples the loaves; and the disciples (gave) to the crowds” (Matthew 19). This situation brings light to Jesus encouraging Eucharistic anticipation. There appears to be no symbolism in the amount of inventory collected before the miracle occurs; however, a biblical symbolism is present with the twelve baskets and the tribes of the old testament. The twelve baskets in the feeding miracle are likely related to the twelve tribes of Israel.
The last bit of superficial analysis can be found in verse 21. Here, Matthew forms the verse to create a larger margin of people affected by the multiplication of goods, “about five thousand men apart from women and children were eating”. This sentence serves to enhance to overall multiplication and feeding process.
The life setting of the people in the story is very interesting. While not all commentaries agree, the probable date and place of composition of Matthew is late 70 or 80 A.D. in Palestine. Around this same time frame the Jewish Christians were coping with the aftermath of the temple destruction; the only part of their “life style” that remained was the Mosaic Law (Thomas Tobin). Returning to the main characteristics of Matthew, he writes his gospel for the main purpose of the transitioning Christians with a focus on entering the Kingdom of God. Essentially, Matthew’s main focus was more concerned with keeping Christ as the main focal point, but deemed the proper observance of the mosaic law as necessary (Thomas Tobin).
There are endless discussion points that could be formulated for this miracle story; however, the social justice realm of this particular passage is at the forefront. Yes, Jesus did cure the sick and multiply the food, but a social justice interpretation lies within “left over fragments”. It is apparent that God cares about the welfare of all the people in the book of Matthew. He doesn’t seem to discriminate any particular religious community, nor does he exclude anyone from the feeding. Again, a characteristic of Matthew and the entrance into the kingdom of God is exemplified with these actions. Matthew takes the readers beyond the past and present issues of the community to celebrate a banquet with the fullness of God’s kingdom.
The starting position of the insufficient supply of food, and the ending position of an excess supply of goods suggests that God creates a place for everyone at his table. The theme of a banquet provides a link of humans sharing a meal with the future aspirations of God’s people. With a strong connection to the Last Supper this story contains a quite insightful aspect of the mystery of the Eucharist.
Looking deeper into the text and carefully reading other traditions one can observe that loaves were transformed, but more importantly the selfish hearts of the crowd were also transformed. While the text of Matthew doesn’t offer the most well-rounded representation of this the gospel of John does, again another example of the tradition of Matthew excluding extraneous information. The boy in John offers Jesus his five loaves and two fish; furthermore, the crowd is asked to share their “leftover” food from their lunch. Henceforth, the real transition is that of the selfish hearts of the people and not the materialistic food substance.
Mohanda Gandhi, a famous leader of the Indian nationalist movement, once stated, “Anyone of us can be a thief because we have too much “leftover” while there are many poor people around us who are even lack of the basic needs such as food and cloth. If we have something “leftover”, it is what we have stolen from the poor who are in need of that.” The “left over” food creates the last tension that isn’t resolved; however, a short application of social justice and Gaunhdi’s saying can offer a plausible explanation to what happened to the “leftovers”.
The conflict tension could never be completely resolved unless the selfish hearts of the people are transformed; when the hearts of the people are transformed the search for bare necessities of life would cease. In other words, if one’s selfish heart is moved the search for food, cloth, love, and peace among nations would fade. This example also resonates highly with the call of the disciples throughout the gospel and into the formation of the Church. When Jesus tests the disciples, he proves that discipleship is not about conserving what is limited, but rather exemplifies the meaning
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