Crispin Harrison CR looks at the significance of this well-known miracle

The feeding of the five thousand is a very familiar story and it is difficult to think of anything fresh to say about it. Yet it does pose some questions, especially when we think about the practical aspects of what took place.

For a start, the gospels say five thousand men were fed but surely women and children were there and also needed food. When we add them in, we estimate 15,000 mouths were fed, which makes the miracle all the more astounding.

A great miracle

Some think it was not a miracle. The five barley loaves and two small fishes were not multiplied. What actually happened, so some say, is that some of that great crowd had the forethought to bring food with them before they set off to follow Jesus into the uninhabited country across the other side of the lake of Galilee. They generously shared what they had brought with those who had none and so all had something to eat.

However, the Fourth Gospel does not think that was what took place. We read there that when everyone had finished eating, Jesus ordered the scraps to be collected and the disciples ‘filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves which were left over by those who had eaten’. The four gospels, all of whom record the story plainly, believe that it was a great miracle. Jesus prayed over the five loaves and two fish and then gave them to the crowd. They all ate and were filled and they took up twelve baskets of the fragments that remained.

Practical questions

The word for baskets means a large heavy basket for carrying things, not the little baskets we use to put bread out on the refectory tables. We may wonder how such baskets were available in the open countryside far from human habitation. There are other practical questions about the feeding. St Mark’s Gospel says the people sat on the grass in ranks of hundreds and fifties. Today’s Gospel from St Matthew misses out that detail, I suppose because the evangelist wanted to shorten the text to save space on his scroll and he could not see any significance in the arrangement.

Perhaps it indicates that this was no haphazard affair but carefully planned and executed. The disciples must have had some difficulty organizing the occasion. After all, no one expected food to be handed out and everyone would be moving off on the long trek home. Then also we may wonder how the distribution was handled.

These apparently are not questions which bothered the evangelists. They were interested mainly in the significance of what occurred – its meaning – and they record only those features which pointed to that so I will end by giving attention to that.

Mission and evangelization

First the miracle seems to me to point to the Church’s mission. Secondly it reveals the meaning of the Eucharist and thirdly it hints at evangelization of all peoples and nations.

Jesus, out of his great love and compassion for the people, who came to him, taught them, healed the sick and fed them in their need. The Church is called to do the same. We are to minister the Gospel and the Sacraments and minister to their bodily needs as well. Down the centuries the Church has faithfully done this after the example of the Lord Christ.

In all the four gospels the evangelists tell us that when Jesus took the five loaves and two fishes, he blessed, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples who gave it to the people. St Mark and St Matthew tell us that Jesus did the same at the Last Supper. St Luke says he did this at Emmaus on the evening of the day he rose from the dead and the two disciples recognized him when he did this. Clearly we are to connect the miracle of the feeding of the multitude with the Holy Sacrament we are now celebrating. The fourth gospel does this in an extended meditation. It sees Jesus as the new Moses, feeding his people with the true manna which is himself, his flesh and blood.

Setting the pattern

The action of Jesus in taking the gifts, in blessing, breaking and giving them, set the pattern for the shape of the Eucharist. The miracle invites us to look back to God’s saving work in the past, celebrates God’s loving care for his people in the present and anticipates the future when God gathers all his redeemed into one body.

Finally we consider the gathering of the fragments to feed the needy who had not been fed. The twelve big baskets remind us of the twelve apostles whom Jesus will commission after his resurrection to go out and teach and baptize the nations. Christ is the Saviour and Healer not just of five thousand but of all. ND