five loaves and the two fish

Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples. But there is more to this meal than physical sustenance; eating together is a symbol of unity. Instead of being dismissed and dispersed (v. 15), the crowds are welcomed into a new community. Once gathered Jesus takes on the role of the head of the family seen the actions of blessing and giving. Blessed is the normal giving of thanks before a meal, the responsibility of the head of the Jewish family. The actions and words are the same as those in the meal at Emmaus (Luke 24:30), and no doubt in other meals where Jesus presided over the disciple ‘family’. It is striking that the four verbs ‘take’, ‘bless’, ‘break’ and ‘give’ occur with minor variations not only in all six accounts of the two miraculous feedings and in that of the Emmaus meal, but also in all four accounts of the Last Supper (including 1 Cor. 11:23–24). It was a daily Jewish ritual, but in Christian memory it became filled with fuller meaning, as both these experiences in the ‘lonely place’ and the last meal in the upper room pointed forward to that great feast at which Jesus would be host to all his people of every race.

Bread and fish were basic Galilean rations; it was a very ordinary meal. But the command to sit down (anaklinomai, literally ‘recline’), while it may only reflect the effect of being on the ground rather than at table, may also be a hint of the more formal banquet at which guests reclined on couches. This is not a casual snack, but a formal occasion; see above for the possible connotation of the ‘Messianic banquet’. While a meal of bread and fish with no wine is hardly a ‘banquet’, it symbolizes the gathering of the people of God which will be consummated then. John clearly saw in this event a eucharistic element, and while this specific connotation belongs to the period after the Last Supper, it is not surprising that the incident came to be seen in the light of the Last Supper, itself a symbol of communion, and a foretaste of the Messianic banquet (26:29).

And now what…

Many times I have heard (or read) a reflection, sermon, or commentary that dismisses miracles and then turns to other explanations. Most often heard is that Jesus got the people present to share what they already had – “that is the real miracle” – or so goes the commentary. Recently while reading a site I routinely peruse, I was surprised to see, “I wonder if the “miracle” of the feeding is not so much what Jesus does as what happens among the crowds in the presence of Jesus.” My thoughts were instantly, “Seriously…..are we gonna’ do the ‘sharing is the real miracle’ thing?” The author continued:

“Maybe the crowds experienced the transformative power of Christ’s presence when he ordered them to make themselves comfortable on the grass, as if they were honored guests at a meal. And when he blessed the loaves, the crowd sensed this meal was special. Perhaps as the disciples moved through the crowds distributing the food, no one feared there wouldn’t be enough, and so they didn’t think of themselves and their own needs. The men shared with their wives and sisters and mothers, and the children were fed first. Maybe Jesus’ compassion was contagious in the way they cared for each other. And Jesus’ healing touch inspired them to gratitude for a simple meal abundant by wilderness standards.”

While in no way dismissing the miracle, there are some important questions raised along the lines, “and now what….” In the Christian endeavor the answer is inevitably “on-going conversion” or “transformation” or some expression that says the special wilderness meal is not the end-point, but only the beginning. So too with the Eucharist, the encounter with Christ in the breaking of the bread, is only the beginning.

The beginning of what? Compassion for others because of the compassion Christ has for us? Taking on the seemingly non-sensible, wilderness-impossible project because we are told “give them some food yourselves?” Becoming active in the distribution of God’s graces and gifts?

It is one of the questions we all face: “… and now what?”

Notes

Matthew 14:19 Taking…said the blessing…broke the loaves, and gave…: correspond to the actions of Jesus over the bread at the Last Supper (Mt 26:26). Since they were usual at any Jewish meal, that correspondence does not necessarily indicate a eucharistic reference here. Matthew’s silence about Jesus’ dividing the fish among the people (Mk 6:41) is perhaps more significant in that regard.

Matthew 14:20 the fragments left over: as in Elisha’s miracle, food was left over after all had been fed. The word fragments (Greek klasmata) is used, in the singular, of the broken bread of the Eucharist in Didache 9:3–4.

Matthew 14:21 five thousand men, not counting women and children: Interestingly, the Greek phrase can also mean “without women and children” and could point to this was a male only gathering. But what would it mean for 5,000 men to gather with Jesus in an isolated place? Hard to say, but some commentators speculate, based on the wording of Mark 6:39-40, that this is a military like gathering [“So he gave orders to have them sit down in groups on the green grass. The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties.”] On this understanding the feeding in the wilderness was the turning-point in Jesus’ Galilean ministry, when he decisively rejected a popular demand that he assume a role of political leadership.

Sources

  • K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007)
  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 322-326
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000)
  • T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007)
  • T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 239-240
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 218-223
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 883
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 402-405
  • John P. Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990)
  • Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005)

Dictionaries

  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

Scripture – The New American Bible © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C.

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