“Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.”
– Feeding of the Five Thousand (Matthew 14:19, NRSV)
More than 800 million people are hungry! (United Nations estimates, 2016) – meaning, about 11 percent of the 7.5 billion of the world’s population are either without food or have a great shortage of it. And we scratch our heads and sigh, “Has not God blessed the earth with resources that should be more than sufficient for everyone to equitably share? Then why does it seem that we have a food shortage?”
My goal in writing is not to provide a solution to world hunger (I am no expert on this). I think that it is worthwhile instead, and now timely, to look up at the Provider, the Source of all that we see, taste and have. In particular, I would like us to turn our attention to the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand found on Matthew 14:13-21. Perhaps, here, we could pick up a nugget or two of truth that might inspire us as we read along and commit to a self-reflection on the hope that is available to us. Perhaps, as we meditate on the story and pray, dormant spirits and dry bones might awaken. Perhaps, taciturn hearts and idle hands might move from despair and non-action, respectively, towards a moral and virtuous direction where we would see men and women of the Word rising up as agents of the Food of the World, Christ our Lord.
For what end? — that food might multiply.
Commentators of Matthew’s feeding narrative usually begin with the passage’s connection with Herod’s banquet, where Salome has asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, to give reason to Jesus going away in a boat to a deserted place. Jesus may have wanted to grieve and pray. Interestingly, it is His having withdrawn to escape the traumatic event, that is, the death of His beloved friend, that triggered His performing one of the greatest miracles that He has done – a miracle that contradicted natural laws — the multiplication of the five loaves and two fish.
The sad and grievous tone somehow disappears as Jesus was met with the multitude. Jesus who is supposed to be hiding had to come out of His hiding place to do what He is inclined to do – to minister to people. It is ironic as He who needed to be unseen had to be seen to do God’s work. The situation is akin to a birthday celebrant who does not want his birthday known but soonest he gets home to rest finds a large group of people shouting “Surprise!”
The story is indeed not bereft of humor. When evening came and while Jesus was still healing people he told his disciples who wanted to send the people home, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat”. Really, how will the people eat? Was Jesus pulling their leg? It seemed so to them. It was getting late and they were in a deserted place. Perhaps, the disciples were hungry and tired already, and wanted to eat and rest as well. No wonder they wanted to be rid of the people. While I have not found a commentary explicitly stating the disciple’s bodily condition, I could but surmise that this is how the disciples felt, picturing them as scratching their heads because of the seemingly unreasonableness of what Jesus has ordered them to do. From here, there is evidence to show that somehow they were compelled to declare what they have, five loaves and two fish, a peasant’s meal, which obviously is not enough to feed thousands of people!
The amount of questioning and bewilderment in the minds of the disciples could just be imagined when Jesus ordered them to “Bring them here to me.” “What was He about to ask us next, things that we don’t have, things illogical and impossible?”
Contrast now the disciples against the crowd whom after Jesus having ordered them to recline have done so without hesitation. They had to sit down as Jesus was preparing them for a meal. Taking the stance as host of the meal, He took the five loaves and two fish and then prayed to bless God who provided it.
Then, the great miracle happened. “With a command that suggests Jesus’ sovereignty, the narrator introduces the actual miracle.” What was brought to Jesus suddenly increased unendingly until 5,000 men were fed, excluding women and children, after which 12 basketfuls of leftovers were gathered. Here, Jesus is likened to the God of the Hebrew Bible who does wondrous deeds with what His servants already have that are brought to God, i.e., Moses’ shepherd rod that God used to part the Red Sea (Ex. 4:1-3) and Elisha’s God using a widow’s jar to be filled with oil (2 Ki. 4:1-7). God provides through these means – the materials given or offered, and those involved – even when those involved think it impossible to be done.
Yet, the thousands who were fed are clueless of what happened. The food just kept on coming. But other than the author, no one, including the disciples, ever commented about, or better yet, appreciated, the miracle. More so then, they are clueless as to how it happened. How did the bread and fish multiply?
According to bible commentators, it is sufficient to say that thousands were fed with just five loaves and two fish to prove that the miraculous multiplication happened – the proof is in the observable results, that it was experienced. I would argue however that a clue as to how the bread and fish multiplied could be discovered. What happened next gives us a hint to the how (of the miracle).
If we see through the lens of a parallel miracle that happened in the life of the prophet Elijah when he encountered the Woman of Zarephath, and which Matthew’s story of the miraculous multiplication of the five loaves and two fish resonates, then we may stumble upon it.
There is no evidence to show that Matthew copied, borrowed or has drawn information from the author of Kings, and that is not what I aim to prove or disprove. What is curious and striking however are the mirror images found between the two stories in terms of the setting, the protagonists, and the acts that culminated in the sudden increase in food supply. Through comparison, it can be proven that Matthew’s multiplication story resonates with that of Elijah’s. In substantiating the reverberation, we can obtain truths about God and as to how divine hands work miracles. There is sufficient information to show that what happened before in the Old Testament did happen again in the New Testament. If God has done it before, God can do it again.
In 1 Kings 17:8-16, we encounter the prophet Elijah being ordered by the Lord to go to Zarephath where he met a widow gathering sticks. Prior to this, he had rubbed shoulders with King Ahab whom in boldness he had prophesied to that there will be a great famine for many years in his kingdom. I doubt this was no hard labor emotionally and psychologically for Elijah. No wonder the Lord have asked him to retreat so he could rest, and obviously too to escape the wrath of a king who is a staunch Baal follower and worshiper and who then may not have taken the bad news lightly — the dismal prophecy against his rule. This would have been traumatic for the prophet. So he went and withdrew eastward, by the Wadi Cherith, a little brook east of the river Jordan, which is east of Jerusalem. The place is outside Samaria, King Ahab’s jurisdiction.
Such is the state of Jesus’ mind when he led Himself to retreat and to find a place to rest and recoup. His ministry has but started and so it was wise for Him to go away and escape the evil mind of King Herod who would be after Him next. Jesus went to a solitary harbor apart from the city of Bethsaida. The place is outside Galilee, which is King Herod’s jurisdiction.
The situation of Jesus resonates with the situation of Elijah prior to encountering the widow of Zarephath. Elijah was safe and basking in the gift of solitude that God gave him. Jesus at that point was in a state of not only being secure (from the reaches of Herod), but also was enjoying the privacy that He sought. Having avoided Bethsaida, He was in an uninhabited place in the northeast corner of Galilee.
Enter the crowd who were following Jesus. Having seen the sorry situation of the people, He broke His peaceful retreat and started to minister to them. He “immediately shelved His own plans in favor of the needs of the crowd”. For “His heart went out” (Mk. 9:36). Similarly, while Elijah was in the middle of his peace and quiet, he was asked by God to “Go now to Zarephath”, and there helped a woman and her son who were in need. There seems to be a contrast here rather than a similarity. Jesus acted out of compassion while Elijah acted out of obedience even as it was God who asked him to proceed to Zarephath and there be fed by the widow whom God has commanded to do so. In acting out of compassion, Jesus is acting in obedience to His self-will and to the command to love your neighbor as yourself (Dt. 6:5). In essence, as He acts out a Law of Moses, He is then acting in obedience to God. In this view, the contrast dissipates and is replaced by a likeness in the motive of Jesus and Elijah. To add, Elijah in feeding the woman (and later on in raising her dead son to life, he exercised compassion. In the end, it is God who has shown compassion as God’s heart is for the needy, particularly widows (Lk. 7:13), the poorest of all citizens.
Matthew, in this manner, resonates Elijah’s story where we see God’s compassion not only at work but as a key ingredient in the miracle that shall follow. Obedience to love is obedience to God. The reverse is true as God is love (1 Jn 4:8).
Enter the disciples who were bent on shooing away the crowd. “Send the crowds away”, they said. Contrast here the disciples’ wish to be rid of the needy, against the compassion of Jesus. This gives us a peek into the mind of the disciples. They have surrendered to the fact that they do not have the capability to provide food for the large crowd claiming what they have is inadequate. “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish.” The disciples were right to be concerned about the people’s hunger but intended to solve the problem in a natural way. Matthew calls for a greater faith when a miracle is needed. “Providing food in the wilderness was technically impossible apart from a miracle, but God had used Moses, Elijah and Elisha through feeding miracles.” Why then did it not occur to the disciples that Jesus could do the same even as earlier prophets could perform such miracles?
The Widow of Zarephath it seems was in the same boat as the disciples. She has been told by God to expect the coming of Elijah. And this God who provides for her and her son is the same God who told her to supply Elijah’s dietary needs. Yet when she met Elijah all she can say, like the disciples, is about the shortage. “I don’t have any bread — only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug.” These words seem absent of faith. Soon the deficiency talkers, the widow and the disciples, will get to regain faith as they obey anyway what was asked of them and realize the role they play in the nature-defying deed that was to happen.
Then comes the miracle. It started with a command that was obeyed by human hands. “Bring them here to me,” Jesus said, echoing what Elijah said, “Bring me, please, a piece of bread.” The disciples and the widow, respectively, while reluctantly at first, eventually complied. The obedience is implied in Matthew as there is no explicit mention in the passage of the bread and fish being brought to Jesus. Suffice to say that what they did was similar to what the widow did which was as Elijah had instructed her to do.
Suddenly, the unexpected, the impossible, happened. The bread and the fish multiplied! How could they have not else there was nothing for the disciples to distribute. This echoes strongly what happened in the widow’s story, the flour and oil overflowed! How can she, her son and Elijah, her entire household, could have fed for days if not for the multiplication? “The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail.”
The food multiplied! Such is the striking resemblance of the two stories. Notwithstanding this obvious similarity, however, nothing in Matthew would tell as to how the sudden increase happened. Commentators are content to say that all ate, and were satisfied – five thousand of them and more! But perhaps a hint of what occurred can be found in Elijah’s story specifically at that point when the widow brought to Elijah what was asked of her, and when this is compared with the identical gesture in Matthew’s story where the food is brought to Jesus. Did the five loaves of bread and the two fish in the hands of Jesus keep on multiplying like the bowl of flour and the jar of oil? Indications are strong that this is what happened as the semblances of Matthew’s story with that of Elijah’s are aggregately taken into account.
Evidences are sufficient to prove that Matthew’s story on Jesus feeding the multitude is echoing Elijah’s feeding story. The setting, the emotional condition of the protagonists, the love and obedience on their part, bread-food being the object of the need, addressing the predicament of the hungry, disciples-widow obeying what was asked, and the reality of the multiplication as shown by palpable results are remarkable similarities that are found in both stories.
Elijah’s story verifies that such a law-of-nature-defying miracle can happen and conveniently supports that of Matthew’s. The feeding that happened next is undoubtedly a sufficient proof. It must be true. If Elijah, a prophet, is able to multiply food, then more so can Jesus, who is the very Son of God.
By this line of reasoning, we are able to lay claim that Matthew 14:19 echoes I Kings 17:16. The resonance moreover provides a clue, or at best, an insight, as to what could have transpired that led to the bread and fish multiplication. The food was brought to Jesus/Elijah, and they multiplied. An awesome wonder came about on the account of the bringing, particularly when what is brought is placed in Jesus’ hands, where, to be exact, the miracle occurred.
From here, Matthew’s view of God is to be discerned. God appreciates obedience. God’s compassion overflows when we do what we are asked to even when at first we are skeptical. Clearly, God provides and God does not let the needy stay needy. God’s people are at God’s heart at all times. And so the hungry are fed notwithstanding God’s desire to rest. We see here God is concerned with our physical needs, and that God provides at the point of need. But God does not simply provide. The Father’s love bursts into a miracle when we, disciples of His Son Jesus, obey, when we bring to Him that which we are asked to give. God uses what we give; and people are fed.
Evidently, it is hard to give the little that we have. It is all we got, how can we give it? But when we do, the little that we have becomes much. What we have multiplies when offered to God in obedience, and the need is lavishly met. In the end, the disciples-widow obeyed; and so must we. It does can be observed, as from the stories, that God desires our participation in the miracle. God elects a champion to further God’s cause to make evident God’s compassion as God did in the persons of Jesus and Elijah.
Such is the gracious style of God. He calls in willing partners in performing wonders. In dispensing God’s love, God prefers interacting with humanity. If we, the church, will respond in obedience, then God through us, can and shall be able to satisfy the hungry. We are to be agents of the Food of the World, Jesus Christ, His obedient champions, in multiplying food, which a big part of the world now desperately needs.
Lord of the harvest, use us – that food might multiply! Amen.
The writer is the lead pastor at Pasco United Methodist Church. He is a doctor of ministry student at United Theological Seminary.