In the New Testament there are six accounts of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. Matthew and Mark each recount two separate miracles; Luke and John each report one. The account we’re reading today is from chapter 14 of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus feeds 5,000 men. In chapter 15 Matthew recounts another incident where Jesus feeds 4,000 men. It’s interesting to compare the six accounts. They’re similar, but none are exactly the same. Though it’s tempting to study the differences, I’m going to focus solely on the account we read today from the 14th chapter. Let’s put this account into the context of events that had been unfolding around Jesus.
Chapter 13 ends by recounting a visit Jesus made to his hometown. Because of his powerful preaching and ability to heal, he was well known and had some celebrity status. He came to Nazareth and went immediately to the community center, the local synagogue, where he began to preach. The people reacted strangely to him. “They were astonished and said, ‘Where did this man get such wisdom and mighty deeds? Is he not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother named Mary and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Are not ll his sisters with us. Where did this man get all this?’” (Matthew 13:54-56) The commentary follows, “And they took offense at him.” (Matthew 13:57) I often wonder what the people of the town were feeling? If he had remarkable wisdom, and was able to perform mighty deeds why did they reject him? I would think that Jesus “came home” to share God’s Good News with the people he grew up with and knew so well. It must have been heartbreaking for him to have been rejected by them.
This event was followed by another emotional blow, the beheading of John the Baptist. To give an account of this event immediately before Matthew’s first account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish was no accident. Matthew was setting the stage for two contrasting meals.
John was beheaded during a birthday banquet for Herod at which the daughter of his wife, Herodias, performed a dance that delighted Herod and all his guests. So much did he enjoy it that he promised to “give her whatever she might ask for.” (Matthew 14:7) Herodias hated John because he had declared her marriage to Herod unlawful because she had been married previously to Philip, Herod’s brother. So she instructed her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Though distressed by the request, Herod commanded him to be beheaded. “His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who took it to her mother. His disciples came and took the corpse and buried him; and they went and told Jesus.” (Matthew 14:11)
As soon as Jesus heard the news he “withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” (Matthew 14:12) This set the stage for the event, the multiplication of the loaves and fish. Jesus crossed the lake to a deserted place. He needed to be alone. He had just experienced rejection by the community he had known since his birth. The corrupt and hostile power of the state has just executed John, God’s messenger. He needed to think about his mission and to pray. But it wasn’t meant to be. The crowd followed him and met him on the opposite shore. “His heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.” (Matthew 14:14)
Darkness began to fall, so the disciples encouraged Jesus to dismiss the crowd so that they could go to the surrounding villages to buy food for themselves. Jesus looked at them, and presented them with a challenge “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” (Matthew 14:16) The disciples told him that they only had five loaves and two fish. He took the food from them, and then ordered the crowd to sit down on the grass.
Let’s focus on this event. Many people followed Jesus to listen to his message and to be cured, but at the same time, the powers of darkness had begun to mobilize around him. The hearts of the people of Nazareth had turned against him. John the Baptist, the voice announcing the coming of the kingdom of heaven, had been silenced by the treachery of Herod’s “royal family.”
By pairing the story of Herod’s banquet with the account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, Matthew was teaching by way of contrast. The powers of darkness revealed themselves in the glistening splendor of a banquet in the royal palace with the head of the Baptist grotesquely displayed on a serving platter. By contrast, Matthew told us that the event took place in a deserted place as the darkness was falling. The crowd sat on the grass. This detail subtly invoked Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd there is nothing I lack. In green pastures you let me graze…You set a table before me as my enemies watch.”
Jesus was ready to celebrate the banquet of the kingdom of heaven. But first, he wanted to establish a spiritual foundation for the event. His challenge to the disciples “to give them some food yourselves,” was to be that spiritual foundation. They were asked to give away all the food they had brought for themselves – five loaves and two fish. Once they had freely given away what they had, they were free to assist Jesus in addressing the hunger of the crowd.
“Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied.” (Matthew 14:19)
In describing how Jesus distributed the bread and fish, Matthew was presenting a short description of the early Eucharistic celebration. A prayer was lifted up. The bread was broken, and then shared among the group. No one was excluded. Everyone was satisfied. At each Eucharistic celebration Jesus is always the Lord of the banquet. He continues to bless the bread and give it to his disciples who in turn distribute it to those hungering for a deeper life.
At the same time, Matthew was contrasting the perverted banquet at Herod’s palace with the heavenly banquet of the Eucharist. Herod’s banquet was polluted with court intrigue, revenge and murder. Jesus’ banquet was celebrated in a most simple way in a deserted place, but it was a miracle of selfgiving, compassion, and healing. Where Herod’s banquet brought death, the banquet of the kingdom of heaven brought life, healing and community.
In our celebrations of the Eucharist Jesus, continues to look with compassion on all who gather to hear his word and seek his healing. He still instructs us, his disciples, to look beyond our needs so that we can give ourselves totally in service to one another. Even in the most dark and deserted place, Jesus will feed the multitude with the bread of life. There is always enough for everyone. No one will be sent away unsatisfied.