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Matthew 14:13-21 Biblical Commentary:
MATTHEW 14: THE CONTEXT
Chapter 13 ended with the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth, where he was unable to “do many mighty works because of their unbelief” (13:54-48). That unpleasantness was followed by the story of the beheading of Jesus’ kinsman and dear friend, John the Baptist (14:1-12). In 14:1-2, Herod heard reports of Jesus and concluded that he was John the Baptist raised from the dead. While Herod didn’t threaten to kill Jesus too, that possibility looms over these verses. 14:3-12 is a flashback, telling the story of Herod’s birthday party—and Herodias’ scheming—and the daughter’s dance—and Herod’s promise—and John’s head on a platter. That is followed by our text, the story of the feeding of the five thousand (14:13-21).
What a contrast between Herod’s gruesome dinner party and the meal that Jesus provides for the five thousand! Herod’s party is characterized by opulence—Jesus’ meal by bread, the most basic of foods. Herod’s party is characterized by hatred—Jesus’ meal by compassion. The host at Herod’s party is a petty tyrant whose concern is his own power and well-being. The host at Jesus’ meal is a compassionate savior whose concern is the well-being of those who have come to see him. Herod’s party ends in death—Jesus’ meal sustains life. The contrast could not be more deliberate or complete.
MATTHEW 14:13-21: THE FEEDING OF THE FIVE THOUSAND
This is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels (see Mark 6:35-44, Luke 9:12-17, and John 6:1-14), a fact that speaks well of its importance to the early church. The Feeding of the Four Thousand is also recorded in Matthew 15:32-39 and Mark 8:1-10.
These feedings are reminiscent of Elisha’s feeding miracle in 2 Kings 4:42-44. In that story, Elisha had only twenty barley loaves to feed a hundred people. When he ordered his servant to distribute the bread, the servant protested, “What, should I set this before a hundred men?” Elisha reaffirmed the order, promising, “They will eat, and will have some left over.” The servant distributed the bread; the people ate—and there was bread left over in accord with the promise. The linkage between the stories is made even tighter by the reference to barley loaves in John 6:9. It is worth noting that both Elisha and Jesus involved others (Elisha’s servant and Jesus’ disciples) to implement their miracles.
These feedings are also reminiscent of the manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16; Numbers 11). Like Moses, Jesus has crossed over the water to the wilderness (v. 13). Like Moses, he is surrounded by hungry people. In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes this connection even more explicit by referring to manna in his Bread from Heaven discourse following the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:31, 49).
• The Feeding of the Five Thousand is a compassion story. Jesus saw the crowd, had compassion on them, and healed those who were sick (v. 4).
• It is an abundance story in which God’s providence solves a problem that seemed impossibly large.
• It is also a Eucharistic story with its overtones of the Lord’s Supper.
MATTHEW 14:13-14. JESUS HAD COMPASSION ON THEM
13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat, to a deserted place apart. When the multitudes heard it, they followed him on foot from the cities.
14Jesus went out, and he saw a great multitude. He had compassion on them, and healed their sick.
“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat, to a deserted place apart” (v. 13a). What Jesus heard was the news of John the Baptist’s death. Matthew doesn’t tell us where Jesus goes. It would require only a short trip by boat to reach the other side of the Jordan, which was controlled by Philip—not Herod. Nor does Matthew spell out the reason for Jesus’ withdrawal.
• It could be fear. Herod thought that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead and said, “for this reason these powers are at work in him” (14:1-2). Herod might well conclude that it is necessary to kill Jesus too. The word “withdrawal” (Greek: anechoresen) occurs five times in previous chapters, each time in response to danger (2:12, 14, 22; 4:12; 12:14). However, while Jesus has cause for fear, we don’t see him acting fearfully elsewhere and there is no reason to believe that fear motivates him here.
• It could be timing. On another occasion, Jesus chose not to go to Jerusalem because “My time has not yet come” (John 7:5). Jesus came to die, but there is a time to die and it is not yet Jesus’ time.
• It could be grief at John’s death. John was kin and more than kin. He had come to prepare the way for Jesus and, at Jesus’ request, had baptized Jesus. He was a close friend, a trusted colleague, and a member of the family. Even though Jesus can put John’s death in a larger context, hearing of John’s death surely must grieve him. If he can feel compassion for the crowds (v. 4), he can also grieve the death of his friend. Herod’s unfavorable mention of Jesus follows on the heels of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth (13:54-58)—one negative situation accentuating another. Jesus surely needs time alone—time to grieve—time to heal—time to prepare.
“When the multitudes heard it, they followed him on foot from the cities” (v. 13b). How frustrating to need time alone and to be denied it! Jesus has good reason to be angry with the crowd for interrupting his solitude. Instead, he has compassion on them and heals their sick (Greek: arrostous—wretched ones).
“Jesus went out, and he saw a great multitude. He had compassion on them, and healed their sick” (v. 14). Jesus’ compassion trumps his need for solitude.
MATTHEW 14:15-17: WE ONLY HAVE FIVE LOAVES AND TWO FISH
15When evening had come, his disciples came to him, saying, “This place is deserted, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves food.”
16But Jesus said to them, “They don’t need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
17They told him, “We only have here five loaves and two fish.”
Just as Jesus felt compassion for the crowds in verse 4, the disciples also feel compassion in verse 5. They are surely hungry themselves, and can imagine the misery that awaits the crowd unless someone takes action.
Their approach to Jesus is unusual. They do not address Jesus as Lord, but explain the obvious, “This place is deserted, and the hour is already late” (v. 15b). They then issue an order, “Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves food” (v. 15c). They assume that Jesus is so caught up in ministry that he has failed to notice the fading sunlight. They feel a responsibility to bring him back to reality—to prompt him to act sensibly.
The disciples are concerned for the crowds, but they are also concerned for Jesus. A crowd can quickly become a mob if not managed properly. Even if things don’t go that far, the good will that Jesus has generated will dissipate if the crowd goes away hungry. The disciples are also concerned for themselves. In a crisis, Jesus will want them to do something—and they can’t imagine what they can do.
“They don’t need to go away. You give them something to eat” (v. 16). The word, “you,” is emphatic in the Greek—“YOU give them something to eat.” The obedience of the disciples was important to this miracle just as our obedience is important to the kingdom today.
Christ takes our contribution, however modest, and makes it enough.
Christ takes that which we have to give, however modest, and makes it sufficient. When a widow pleaded with Elisha for help, Elisha asked, “What do you have in the house?” She replied that she had nothing except a pot of oil. Elisha told her to borrow pots from her neighbors, and to pour oil from her pot into the other pots. When she obeyed, her little bit of oil became sufficient to fill all the pots. Elisha then said, “Go, sell the oil, and pay your debt; and you and your sons live on the rest” (2 Kings 4:7). In conferring blessings, God often uses what we have at hand.
“YOU give them something to eat” continues to challenge Christians today. We live in a world full of hungry people and pray that Jesus might do something. He responds, “YOU give them something to eat.” The church has often risen to the challenge, providing food, clothing, shelter, and medical care to people in the far corners of the world.
The disciples respond, “We only have here five loaves and two fish” (v. 17). The disciples emphasize not what they have, but what they haven’t. They see not possibilities, but problems. Their assessment is right on the mark. The disciples have five loaves and two fish—seven items—enough for a small family—but the crowd spreads to the horizon. Not only have they assessed the food supply rightly, but they also have a point in their assessment of Jesus. He obviously needs someone to confront him—to bring him to his senses—to make him face reality. “Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves food.” Act now, before this situation turns ugly. Send them away. End the day on a positive note, Jesus! End it now!
Just as an earlier generation doubted God, saying, “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?” (Psalm 78:19), now Jesus’ disciples doubt his ability to feed the hungry crowd.
We are always tempted to believe, as the disciples did, that we have nothing to offer in the face of overwhelming need. Millions of people are hungry, and we have nothing to offer except a small box of canned goods. Millions of people are infected with the AIDS virus, and we have nothing to offer except a few dollars. Millions of people lose their homes and livelihood to war or natural disaster, and we have nothing to offer except prayers and a few blankets.
In such situations, we are prone either to despair or to defer to Big Government—the true Higher Power in the minds of many people today. The church is poor, but Congress has plenty. Perhaps we can fulfill our obligation by persuading politicians to do something.
• One problem with that approach is practical. Governments are inherently inefficient, taking a dollar from our pockets and absorbing half or more for their own purposes. Their top-down programs seldom work as promised. In many cases, little aid reaches the little people.
• The other problem is theological. In whom do we really trust? Where do we believe power really lies?
MATTHEW 14:18-21: THEY ALL ATE, AND WERE FILLED
18He said, “Bring them here to me.”19He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass; and he took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave to the multitudes. 20They all ate, and were filled. They took up twelve baskets full of that which remained left over from the broken pieces. 21Those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
“Bring them here to me” (v. 18). In the disciples’ hands, five loaves and two fish are not much, but there are other hands here—Jesus’ hands. If Jesus can touch a leper and make him whole, perhaps he can make something of this meager food supply. The disciples have added five and two and gotten seven. They need to learn to count to eight. They need to include Jesus in their equation (Bruner, 528).
This is an important word for the church today. Most churches struggle just to keep the doors open and the bills paid. How can we expect to do anything meaningful to relieve world hunger—or AIDS—or any number of horrendous problems? We say, “We have only seven dollars.” Jesus says, “Bring them here to me.” We, too, need to learn to count to eight.
“He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass” (v. 19a). This is a bold move, because it raises expectations. Now the whole crowd will focus its attention on Jesus to see what he will do next.
“and he took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave to the multitudes” (v. 19b). Jesus takes action once the disciples bring him the five loaves and two fish. He does more than to share the crowd’s pain—he feeds them. First, he orders them to sit on the grass. Then he looks to heaven and blesses and breaks the loaves. Then he gives the bread (but not the fish) to the disciples. To this point, there is no indication that any miracle has taken place.
When Jesus gives thanks for the bread and breaks it for distribution, he is doing what a Jewish man would typically do for the family at the beginning of a meal.
The disciples distribute the bread, and “They all ate, and were filled” (Greek: chortazo) (v. 20a). This is the first indication that anything special has happened. The verb chortazo suggests filling completely—to full satisfaction. Jesus used this word earlier to promise that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled (chortazo)—meaning fully satisfied.
This suggests a Godly blessing rather than some sort of natural process. It is a divine rather than a human enterprise.
“They took up twelve baskets full of that which remained left over from the broken pieces” (v. 20b). Twelve is an important Biblical number. There were twelve tribes of Israel and twelve apostles. The number twelve seems to indicate a kind of spiritual completeness.
In the manna miracle, people were not permitted to keep leftovers, but Jesus, greater than Moses, has the disciples gather twelve baskets of food after they have eaten their fill.
The abundance of the leftovers, especially as contrasted with the small quantity of food with which Jesus started, emphasizes the grand scope of the miracle.
There is no mention of wonderment on the part of the crowd. Perhaps they are unaware that a miracle has taken place. Nor is there any mention of wonderment on the part of the disciples—and they do know that Jesus has somehow multiplied the little bit of food that they brought him.
The Eucharistic character of the feast is evident in the verbs. Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave.He also gave only the loaves (not the fish) to his disciples for distribution.
Also note the parallels between Matthew’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and his account of the Lord’s Supper in chapter 26. They are compelling (Boring, 324) :
14:15 “when evening had come”
26:20 “when evening had come”
14:19 “sit down” (Greek: anaklithenai)
26:20 “he was reclining” (Greek: anekeito from the same root as anaklithenai)
14:19 “he took the five loaves”
26:26 “took bread”
14:19 “he blessed”
26:26 “gave thanks”
14:19 “broke and gave the loaves to the disciples”
26:26 “broke it. He gave it to the disciples”
The Eucharistic motif continues even after the meal has been served. The disciples not only distribute the bread, but also collect the broken pieces following the meal. Some scholars treat this as stewardship of precious food, but it makes more sense as a respectful (if anticipatory) gesture of concern for the broken body of Jesus.
This story leaves us asking what really happened. Several interpretations have been proposed:
• This is a miracle of abundance. Jesus took a small amount of food and multiplied it many times over by Godly power.
• The parallels with the feeding of Israel with manna in the wilderness are important. Jews had come to believe that the messiah repeat the manna miracle, so this miraculous feeding is a strong sign affirming Jesus’ messiahship.
• Some scholars believe that the Eucharistic tone of the story suggests that this is a Eucharistic meal, involving only token portions of food. However, it is difficult to reconcile this with the comment that “all ate and were filled,” which emphasizes the abundance of food.
• Some scholars note the involvement of the boy in John 6:9, and propose that his generous gesture inspired other members of the crowd to share food which they had brought—with the result that there was plenty for all. Those scholars think that the food was there all the time, and all that was required was a spark to ignite the needed generosity. That is an attractive idea in the sense that it affirms the power of sharing. However, there are several problems with that interpretation. First, the boy is mentioned in only one of the four Gospels. If his gesture were key to understanding this story, surely the Synoptics would include him in their accounts. Second, this interpretation seems motivated by discomfort the supernatural. If we explain away the supernatural in the Bible, we aren’t left with much. Third, Matthew’s account clearly emphasizes the great size of the crowd, the need for great quantities of food, and the great miracle that fills the need.
But attempts to explain this miracle as something less than a supernatural event diminish the story. The real questions are: What do we think of miracles? What do we think of God? Do we believe that God intervenes in our world? If God does intervene, is there any reason to believe that Jesus did not provide massive quantities of food to feed this crowd?
If God does not intervene, isn’t the resurrection invalidated along with the miracles? If so, what is left as the core of our faith? Not much! Jesus has little patience with lukewarm faith (Revelation 3:16), so we should be careful not to emasculate his miracle stories.
“Those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children” (v. 21). Whatever happened, it was truly amazing! Early on, the story establishes that there is an impending crisis for which the disciples have no answer.
As the story unfolds, wonderment grows. There are only five loaves and two fish, but “all ate and were filled.” Amazing! We cannot imagine how they were filled—except by the grace of God.
And then we learn that the disciples gathered twelve baskets of leftovers—more than they had when they started. Amazing!
And then we learn that there were five thousand men, a truly great crowd. Amazing!
And then we learn that there were women and children too. Amazing!
Perhaps the title of this story should be the Feeding of the Ten Thousand—or even the Feeding of the Twenty Thousand. Amazing!
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Blomberg , Craig L., New American Commentary: Matthew, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Boring, M. Eugene, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Bruner, Frederick Dale, Matthew: Volume 2, The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28 (Dallas: Word, 1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
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Hagner, Donald A., Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 14-28, Vol. 33b (Dallas: Word, 1995)
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Johnson, Sherman E. and Buttrick, George A., The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1951)
Keener, Craig S., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Matthew, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997)
Long, Thomas G., Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
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Soards, Marion; Dozeman, Thomas; McCabe, Kendall, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993)
Van Harn, Roger in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
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