The’ feeding of the 5000’ phrase is often used to describe either a criticism of the amount of food produced for an occasion – possibly wastefully – or a comment on the generosity of the host. Or, as my mother frequently said, ‘if you can see the table, there isn’t enough food on it’ !
5000 people is really a big crowd. When we realise that the Royal Albert Hall holds just over 5000, you can get an idea of how many people that is. And that was just the men! With women and children it was more likely to be 10,000 or even more. If, of course, the story is being taken literally. But the pairing of the enormous size of any problem with the ridiculously small amount of any available solution is a favourite biblical technique to attract attention, regardless of whether nor not the real facts are accurate. Nobody there was taking a headcount, because the size of the crowd wasn’t the point. Jut that it was impossibly big.
There are several ways to approach this well known bit of Matthew. And Mark, Luke and John, unusually, it’s in all 4 Gospels. One of them is to believe that the words written in the Bible, the printed words on the page, contain the full and actual account of what happened and there is no other meaning to the story. It was an unexplainable miracle performed by Jesus, the Son of God; where a tiny amount of food was transformed by Jesus into an overflowing banquet and there were even masses of leftovers. If we want to believe only that, then this is a personal decision, but it leaves out a great deal of what Matthew is trying to get across to his hearers and readers.
A second approach is to explain it all away rationally by treating ‘feeding the 5000’ as something like a parish bring-and-share lunch. The crowds see that Jesus only has a small amount of food in front of him – 5 loaves and 2 fish – and after he blesses and breaks the bread to share, everyone in the crowd then gets a bit embarrassed because they’ve brought their own picnics, having collected food from their homes before racing off to follow Jesus. Who only wanted to be left in peace, I expect, after the news of his cousin John’s brutal death. Jesus was willing to share the meagre amount of food he had with everyone else, and this in turn inspires the all the others to produce what they’ve brought and pass it round, so that everyone has something to eat. And, naturally, all the nice stuff like smoked salmon, handmade sourdough bread and strawberry tarts gets eaten, but the boring cheese sandwiches go into the baskets of leftovers.
But there’s a third way to think about this particularly complicated story. And it travels deeply into the symbolism Matthew uses. Even though Jesus wants to be left alone, going away to a deserted place, he’s pursued by a large number of people. And when Jesus sees them there, he forgets his own need for solitude, has compassion on them and cures the sick. The disciples only see the practical logistics of a big crowd and no supplies: they all want Jesus to send the people away to find food and shelter. They don’t really want to be involved.
What’s interesting is that Jesus puts the responsibility for the crowd back onto the disciples. You’re not getting away with getting out of doing something, he says. You give them something to eat, he says. And the disciples only see the meagre amount of food which won’t even feed them, let alone 5000 people. Plus women and children. Jesus knows that the disciples don’t yet have the tools to provide what the people and the world needs, so he helps them out. But what exactly does Jesus give them?
One interpretation of the taking, blessing and breaking the loaves can be seen in the actions at the Eucharist; where the food which is Jesus himself is given away. And the spiritual food which is the Eucharist is filling, nourishing and satisfying to those who receive it. This is one facet of Matthew’s meaning, but there’s more to be found by digging just a bit deeper.
The symbolism in Matthew isn’t as all-pervasive as in John’s Gospel, but there is a lot of it, particularly relevant to the culturally Jewish origin of Matthew’s audience. There’s five loaves and two fish. What comes in five in the Bible? Think Jewish. The first five books of Moses, the Torah, the Law. What did Moses ask God to give to the people? Bread – the miraculous manna from heaven. Rabbinic symbolism often represents Torah with bread. Who is a greater lawgiver than Moses? Jesus, of course.
And two fish. Now, the presence of fish is difficult to link up with the Eucharist, which is bread and wine, not bread and fish. Just as well….. So fish, and particularly two fish, must mean something on its own. Remember that the original symbol of the Christian movement was a fish – not the cross. But more importantly, there are the 2 great commandments which come before all others: love the Lord your God, and love your neighbour as yourself. Five loaves and two fish.
Just to complete the symbolism, how many baskets of leftovers are there? Twelve, the twelve tribes of God’s people Israel, and now twelve apostles, gathering up the remnants of a feast that will be the start of feeding God’s new people, the new food which will be shared in the Kingdom of Heaven.
I like to think of the feeding of the 5000 as the ultimate parish bring and share lunch. But what we bring and share aren’t the contents of each others’ picnic baskets or fancy expensive party food. It’s ourselves, each other in community as potential enrichment to help grow the Kingdom. And then the 5 loaves and 2 fish we share come to mean what Jesus, the lawgiver, teacher and leader greater than Moses, gives to us. Jesus is offering everyone the Law and the commandments, but transformed and fulfilled into something much bigger, greater, and more nourishing. Jesus invites us to share in the banquet of the Kingdom of Heaven which never runs short of food and always produces leftovers to be given away to anyone who needs them. And all can eat and be filled with the bread of life, which is Jesus himself. Much more eternal than a basket of loaves and fishes.
Leslie Spatt ©2020