Summary: This miracle shows Jesus to be the same God who fed his people in the wilderness, and foreshadows the blessings and productivity that flow from communion with Christ.
Feeding More than the 5,000
Ps. 78:1-7, 12-25, Neh. 9:16-20; Rom. 8:35-39, Matt. 14:13-21
The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle of Christ that appears in all four gospels. It gets its name from the fact that Jesus fed people and from the mention of the number 5,000. However, this is somewhat unfortunate, since in the gospel lesson for today, Matthew says that there were about 5,000 besides women and children. But, everyone ate, not just the men. And, so the number of people who were fed was minimally 10,000, and perhaps as high as 20,000.
Was this a miracle? Popular liberal scholarship has always treated this account as an object lesson in the power of a virtuous example. By their reading, when the crowd saw Jesus and his disciples sharing all that they had with others, they were moved (or, perhaps in some instances, shamed) into following their example. And, certainly, a virtuous example can have that kind of effect.
But, that’s not how the gospel writers portray this event. For one thing, the disciples come to Jesus with the news that it is late in the day, that the people have no food, and that they are in a deserted place – there are no fast food vendors conveniently placed within easy walking distance. No, the villages are far off, and so the disciples want Jesus to dismiss the people while there is still time for them to get into the villages – which are some distance away – and to purchase something for themselves to eat.
After the feeding is completed, you cannot tell me that the DISCIPLES missed the point that a miracle had occurred. Nor did the PEOPLE who had eaten miss the point. In John’s account, we read this: “Then those men, when they had seen the sign that Jesus did, said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” And John further records that when “Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone.” (John 6:15). Do you suppose that the crowds wanted to make Jesus a king because he had inspired them to share their sack lunches?
If you believe that, you should also believe that there should be crowds of people trying to make a King out of Mr. Rogers, or Captain Kangaroo. No, no. Rome was big, and nasty, and powerful. The Jews of Jesus’ day were eager for a Messiah who would knock the snot out of the Roman oppressors. Yes, they were filled; but what enthralled them was the display of miraculous power.
And, you know, the people did see what happened. Jesus first told his disciples to make the people sit down. Mark and Luke record that they were seated in groups of fifty, in ranks. None of the gospel writes make the connection, but as I was reading these accounts in the gospels, the first thing that came to my mind was the arrangement of the tribes around the tabernacle in the wilderness. They, too, were arranged in ranks around the presence of the Lord.
And, once the people were all seated, Jesus and his disciples would be visible to all of them, particularly if they were standing on a place either higher or lower than the surrounding people. The point of this is simple: from that place – where Jesus stood, the place from which the disciples came and went – from that place came food enough for everyone to eat their fill and to be satisfied.
No, everyone knew they had witnessed a bona fide miracle.
Now, Jesus didn’t do miracles just to enthrall the crowds. Miracles were one of the ways Jesus used to make a point with those who saw the miracle – a point about himself, his mission, his identity. The people who were there got a full belly from this miracle. What are we supposed to get? What do we conclude from it?
I think there are two very large points which Jesus makes by this miracle, one point for the crowds, and another point for his own disciples.
First, the crowds. I think the Psalm appointed for today – the portions of Psalm 78 which we chanted a while ago, along with the Old Testament lesson from Book of Nehemiah – both of these show us God’s attitude toward those whom he had saved out of Egypt, particularly when they were being stiff-necked, rebellious, and unbelieving. The lesson from Nehemiah is part of a longer prayer of confession which the entire nation prayed in those days; and Psalm 78, by a choirmaster named Asaph, recounts much of the same history which the confessors in Nehemiah remember. What emerges from both the Psalm and the prayer of confession is the patience and compassion of the Lord, who continues to show faithfulness to his people, even when they are disbelieving and rebellious.