Multiplying loaves and fish and counting people in Matthew 14:14-22
At that time when Jesus went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass; and taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. Then he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.
Scholar David Instone-Brewer comments that the attention to detail of numbers in this version of this Gospel lesson found in Mark 6:39-40 and Luke 9:14, where the people are to sit in groups of 50 or 100, may have to do with the fact that Jewish practice provided different blessings before and after eating depending on the number of people sharing the meal. Thus counting the number of people was important for knowing which prayer was required for the situation.
“The different blessings for different sizes of gatherings may explain the reason why the Gospels are particularly interested in the number of people who sat down to eat the miraculous loaves and fishes with Jesus (Mt. 14.13-21; 15.32-38 and parallels). […]Matthew specifically says on both occasions that the women and children were not counted (14.21; 15.38), which suggests that they were counting the number of eligible people for the saying of Grace, in order to decide on the form of the blessing.[…]It is likely that people at a public meal were already in the habit of sitting in groups of ten men or in larger numbered groups. Not only would this facilitate counting for the Grace, but it would mean that each group could decide for itself when it had finished the meal and say Grace together, if someone in that group had to leave before the whole gathering had finished. It may be significant that they Synoptics say that ‘they all ate and were satisfied’ (Mk. 6.42/Mt. 14.20/Lk.9.17), alluding to Deut. 8.10, ‘you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God.’ ” (Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament, pg. 81)
The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes finds its significance in the fulfilling of Torah: they ate and were satisfied. The importance of this is that the people were supposed to recognize this as a sign of God’s presence, prophecy, promise and Kingdom! Instead the people don’t recognize the sign and as Christ laments only look for more food rather than to look for the Giver of Life and His Kingdom.
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.” (John 6:26-27)
The fulfilling of Torah was to remind the people that they are blessed by God: God provided for them in the wilderness and they should never forget the Lord. In the Gospel, the problem becomes the people are quite willing to have the Lord feed them, but then they don’t recognize the Lord feeding them. They will soon forget and turn against the Lord. It is worth reading Deuteronomy 8 and thinking about the Gospel lesson of the loaves and fishes in the light of Deuteronomy. God did His part, but the people forgot their role and so failed to recognize God in their midst even in the wilderness where they were both hungry and thirsty.
“All the commandment which I command you this day you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the LORD swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD. . . . “
While we all need bread (food, nutrients, sustenance) to survive on earth, Christ reminds the people that they are not merely biological creatures. To be human is to have the image of god imprinted on our very being, to beathe the Spirt of God and to have His Word abiding in us. We need God’s Word, Jesus Christ, as much as we need bread to live in this world.
So you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him. For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, . . . a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing. . . And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. ”Take heed lest you forget the LORD your God, by not keeping his commandments and his ordinances and his statutes, which I command you this day: lest, when you have eaten and are full. . . then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’
Part of the Gospel lessons regarding the feeding of the thousands by Christ, is the disciples’ fear that they don’t have enough wealth to feed the people themselves (Matthew 14:15, Mark 6:37, John 6:7).
You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth; that he may confirm his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you this day that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 8)
After reading promise and prophecy of Deuteronomy 8 in which God’s people are instructed to remember the Lord when they see the signs of the Kingdom of Heaven, we come back to the Gospel Lesson of the feeding of the 5000 (the only miracle reported in all four Gospels). It was immediately after feeding the 5000 that Jesus has the following dialogue in John 6 with the people who had seen the miraculous sign of the multiplication of loaves and fishes in the wilderness (keep in mind that the wilderness is not a place you would normally find fish or wheat!).
On the next day the people who remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. However, boats from Tiberias came near the place where they ate the bread after the Lord had given thanks.
The emphasis is mine and not in the original text. The people remembered the thanksgiving which was offered by Christ and yet still do not see this as a sign – a fulfilling of the promises and prophecies of the Torah.
So when the people saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.
Jesus even calls attention to the fact that they have witnessed a sign of the kingdom of God but they are disinterested in that sign, rather He notes sadly that they are only interested in satiating themselves on earth. Having enough to eat is a good thing, but they fail to see that having an over abundance of food in a wilderness place is a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven, of God’s hand on earth. That Christ claims to be feeding them the bread of heaven is of no interest to them as they cannot see beyond their own gluttony (“their god is their belly” – Phillipians 3:19).
Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.” . . .
Jesus promises to give them something more than food in this world which satisfies for the moment; He promises to give them a food which gives eternal life. But, the people don’t take the bait, so to speak. They fail to see the miracle as a sign of God’s Kingdom and are blind to what is before them.
So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Lord, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. . . . For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:22-40)
We too see the signs of the Kingdom. The bread of heaven,who is Christ the Lord, continues to be given to us in the Eucharist – it continues to be multiplied throughout the ages and throughout the world, feeding all of those who are spiritually hungry for the food which gives eternal life rather than for the bread which satisfies for the moment. Yet, even today, some are not much interested in this sign of the coming Kingdom and rather only want miracles and magic which amaze for the moment and cause them to only want more amazement and amusement in a world which is passing away.