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“All we give is given to us to give.” -Dorothy Day

The miracle of feeding five thousand is the only miracle Jesus performed that is included in all four gospels. During Thanksgiving, I wondered why this particular miracle was important enough that all four gospel narrators felt it essential to their account of the life of Jesus. I decided to read the synoptic accounts to see what they reveal. A second miraculous feeding, this time of four thousand, is recorded in only Matthew and Mark. Some of the details of this second miracle will be noted later.

The contours of the narrative are rather simple and essentially the same in all four gospels. Matthew tells us that it took place right after Jesus had heard the grisly news of Herod’s beheading of Jesus’ cousin and friend, John, the Baptist. It is interesting to note that Jesus’ immediate impulse was to withdraw “by boat privately to a solitary place” (Mt. 14:13[i]). Although he must have known of John’s fate, hearing it caused him deep sorrow, not only because of his closeness to John, but because he knew it must have prefigured his own impending death.

The crowds, eager for miracles, did not allow Jesus to have this repose but followed him on land so that when he arrived at the place of solitude he was seeking, they were waiting for him and his disciples. What is most interesting is that he didn’t immediately set out to sea to escape them, but, as Mark records, “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began “teaching them many things” (Mark 6:34) and “healed their sick” Matthew (14:14).

The Twelve, apparently bothered by the pressing of the crowd, which numbered about twelve thousand people,[ii] urged Jesus to “send the crowds away, so they can go to the village and buy themselves some food.” Jesus responds, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” This is an unexpected request since Jesus undoubtedly knows that the apostles have only two loaves and five fish among them, an amount sufficient to provide a meal for only one or two people.[iii]

What does Jesus intend for his Chosen Twelve to understand by his instruction? Apparently, according to both Mark and Luke, some of the disciples think Jesus is asking them to go and buy food for the crowd, which they resist doing: “That would take eight months of a man’s wages.,[iv] they tell him. The context suggests that it isn’t that they don’t have that amount to spend, but question spending such a large amount to feed those who have come to see Jesus—“Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?” (Mk 6:37) When we feel overwhelmed by the needs of the poor and hungry, we might remember this. The disciples weren’t expecting Jesus to feed the multitude, but neither had it occurred to them to do so, even if they had the means.

Jesus then does something the disciples don’t expect—he asks them to bring him the five loaves and two fishes. That is, since they don’t respond to his invitation to feed the crowd, he does so. What is interesting is that he expresses gratitude for the food, then asks the disciples to distribute it to the people sitting in groups of fifties and hundreds. Undoubtedly Jesus does this in order to make the disciples think about what is happening—Jesus is making it possible for them to serve and be generous but does so to teach the people that these his chosen disciples are those who will act in his stead when he is gone.

Characteristically, he turns the attention from himself to others. The miracle is that the loaves and fish have been multiplied to feed everyone. And not only were they fed, but the scriptures say they “were satisfied” (Mk 8:8). In fact, John says, “Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish” (John 6:10-11, emphasis added). In other words, as always, Jesus is ever generous. As Robert Herrick writes,

God’s hands are round and smooth that gifts may fall
Freely from them and hold back none at all.[v]

What follows the actual feeding of the multitude may be the most important detail in the story: The disciples, each of whom apparently carried a sort of lunch box–“small wicker baskets that were . . . a part of daily attire”[vi]–returned from feeding the hungry with their baskets full of leftover bread and fish.[vii] In other words, Jesus not only fed the five thousand, he fed the Twelve as well, and did so abundantly, providing them with more than enough for themselves.

This episode may be a prefiguring of Jesus’ last great teaching to the apostles, especially Peter, as recorded in the twenty-first chapter of Matthew. There, Christ, now the resurrected Lord, has both provided a rich abundance of fish for his disciples and prepared a breakfast of fish and bread for them. As I suggest in “’Feed My Lambs’: Jesus’ Last Great Teaching,” Jesus’ three challenging questions Peter as to whether he loves Jesus are intended to make Peter think deeply about what it means to be a disciple: Ultimately, the three interrogatives can be summarized as follows:

“Do you really understand what loving me means? You will soon be responsible for leading the Church, will represent me on earth and will be charged with teaching others my gospel, including feeding the hungry and caring for the poor. Eventually, you will be put to death for my cause. Therefore, my question to you is, ‘Do you really love me?’”

If Peter’s answer is “Yes,” and if ours is as well, then Jesus’ final command while on earth–“Follow me”–is intended for the saints in both the ancient and the modern church to do as Jesus commands Peter. What is Jesus really saying to Peter and to us? Essentially, I think it is what Peter has missed and what most of us miss: “Peter, I have just fed you and I have provided enough fish for you to feed many others. What are you going to do with all this fish?” Peter, having had his own hunger satisfied, seems to have forgotten the bounty with which he and his fellow disciples have been blessed. He doesn’t ask, as we might expect he would after watching Jesus ministering to the poor for three years, ‘Lord, to whom shall we give these extra fish?’ Apparently, he is no longer even aware of this bounty.”[viii]

As I ponder Jesus’ intention through this miraculous feeding of the multitude, I conclude it is meant to teach them and us how to serve others as Jesus has served them, for at the end, not only are all of the people fed, but each apostle is given something he hadn’t had before—a basket full of bread and fish. Those baskets symbolizes both the gifts we are given of God as well as the obligation that we have to give to others. This seems especially so for those who have been given so much, as is the case with nearly every Latter-day Saint in the developed world.

In other words, Jesus is saying, “I have the power to feed a large number of people with only a few loaves and fishes, but when each of you who receives a loaf of bread and a fish [i.e., any gift from God] from me simply multiplies it to feed one person, together you can do what I have done.” This seems to be the minimum we are expected to do if we apply the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30). We all have the power to give some of what we have, especially beyond our own and our family’s needs. Jesus doesn’t ask us to feed everyone, but I think he does expect us to feed someone.

Over the course of their lives, my friends Truman and Ann Madsen often had people, including “strangers and foreigners,” either drop by or be invited unexpectedly to dinner. On occasions when there might not be enough food, the Madsens simply said to their children, “loaves and fishes,” and everyone knew it was an occasion to share what they had with others. That tradition is now carried on by their children and grandchildren. “Loaves and Fishes” is also the name of a California organization that feeds the homeless, the transient and the hungry. Made up of churches, community groups and individuals, Loaves and Fishes is a modern manifestation of Christ’s miracle in feeding the multitudes.

The Liahona Children’s Foundation, a non-profit humanitarian organization run by Latter-day Saints, says that a contribution of just $70 is sufficient to provide the nutritional supplements for one malnourished child for an entire year. (Many of us probably waste that much food or more over the course of a year and should remember that Christ asked his disciples not to waste any of the loaves and fishes–John 6:12). Currently, the Liahona Children’s Foundation is operating in 180 stakes in 17 countries worldwide to address the needs of the Church’s malnourished children and seeks contributions to expand the program. Those interested in helping to feed these children can visit the Foundation’s website: https://www.liahonachildren.org/#/home.

Not long after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the crowd was again looking for Jesus, hoping for additional food. When they found him, Jesus says to them, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me not because you saw the miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” He then teaches them the essential lesson: “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (6:26-27).

In other words, Jesus uses the miracle of feeding the people in order to teach them about eternal things, giving them actual bread as a prelude to spiritual bread. He says to those whose stomachs he has filled, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. . . . I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6:35, 51).

The message to Jesus’ ecclesiastical leaders and to all of us who have taken on us his name is that it is important to provide both actual and spiritual bread for those who are hungry. We multiply the miracle of the loaves and fishes by each of us giving to those who are physically hungry and then we multiply the spiritual loaves and fishes by teaching and testifying of Christ. Jesus shows that both are essential—both for us as givers and for those to whom these gifts provide physical and spiritual nurturance. He is indeed the Bread of Life and we, like the apostles near the Sea of Galilee, are called to share it plentifully to those waiting to be fed.

 

[i] All quotations are from the New International Version, NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).

[ii] As was the custom of the time, only men were included in the estimate of the crowd’s size. Biblical commentators estimate that with women and children there would have been approximately twelve thousand present. Only Matthew accommodates for this by adding,” besides women and children,’ following “about five thousand men” (Matthew 14:21). According to the NIV commentary, “Matthew . . . was writing to the Jews, who did not permit women and children to eat with men in public. So they were in a place by themselves” (NIV Study Bible, 1983).

[iii] According to NIV, these were likely barley loaves. “Unlike our modern loaves, these were small and flat. One could easily eat several at a single meal.” NIV Study Bible, 2043.

[iv] John alone records that it is Jesus who asks of Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” (6:5) but indicates that “He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do” (6:5).

[v] https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/gods-hands.

[vi] NIV Study Bible, 2043, Note to Mark 6:43.

[vii] According to the NIV, “Bread was regarded by Jews as a gift of God, and it was required that scraps that fell on the ground during a meal be picked up” Ibid.

[viii] Meridian Magazine, 12 December 2014; https://meridianmag.wpengine.com/feed-my-lambs-jesus-last-great-teaching/.