When Jesus heard it, He departed from there by boat to a deserted place by Himself. But when the multitudes heard it, they followed Him on foot from the cities. And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick. When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food." But Jesus said to them, "They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat." And they said to Him, "We have here only five loaves and two fish." He said, "Bring them here to Me." Then He 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 and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes. So they all ate and were filled, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained. Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
- Matthew 14:13-21
Yesterday, we read that at this point in Jesus' ministry, Herod the tetrarch (Herod Antipas) heard the report about Jesus and said to his servants, "This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him." For Herod had laid hold of John and bound him, and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife. Because John had said to him, "It is not lawful for you to have her." And although he wanted to put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. But when Herod's birthday was celebrated, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod. Therefore he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. So she, having been prompted by her mother, said, "Give me John the Baptist's head here on a platter." And the king was sorry; nevertheless, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he commanded it to be given to her. So he sent and had John beheaded in prison. And his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. Then his disciples came and took away the body and buried it, and went and told Jesus.
When Jesus heard it, He departed from there by boat to a deserted place by Himself. But when the multitudes heard it, they followed Him on foot from the cities. And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick. Jesus departed to a deserted place by Himself not upon hearing of the death of John, but hearing that Herod now fears He is John raised from the dead. The first thing that motivates Jesus we note is that He was moved with compassion for this crowd who follows Him, and He heals their sick.
When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food." But Jesus said to them, "They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat." And they said to Him, "We have here only five loaves and two fish." He said, "Bring them here to Me." St. John Chrysostom, in his commentaries on Matthew's Gospel, notes that in preparation for this miracle of the feeding in the wilderness, the people themselves have given no thought for food; their motive was to simply follow Jesus. Even the disciples are the same -- they haven't prepared for this eventuality. Such a meager ration of five loaves and two fish to be found among them all shows their own concerns are primarily with ministry and following Christ. It is the disciples who raise the concern of food for the crowd, and not the people themselves. But Jesus teaches, "You give them something to eat." All of the components of the scene: the wilderness or "deserted place," the lack of preparation for food, and the great crowd in this place without resources all emphasize what is about to happen.
He said, "Bring them here to Me." Then He 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 and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes. So they all ate and were filled, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained. Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children. This feeding miracle appears in all four Gospels, and as such is central to the Gospel message. As He (the Lord) fed the Israelites in the desert (Exodus 16) with bread from heaven, so He looks to heaven and feeds His people in this deserted place. This is clearly an image of the Eucharist, and we note the procedure initiated: all the people are first made to sit, Christ blessed and broke and gave the loaves to His disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes. My study bible notes a traditional spiritual interpretation that the five loaves indicate the five books of the Law (Genesis through Deuteronomy), which are "broken open in Christ and thus feed the universe." The two fish represent the book of the Gospels and the book of Epistles, the teaching of the fishermen. The gathering of leftovers by the apostles shows that whatever teachings the faithful are unable to grasp are nevertheless held in the consciousness of the Church. Twelve baskets remain, one for each apostle, symbolic of their evangelizing work that will go out to the world, as the Old Testament went to the twelve tribes of Israel. We note that the crowd contained five thousand men (a common way of counting at the time), and yet more women and children: no one is excluded from the food of Christ for all.
In the Lord's Prayer, we pray, "Give us this day our daily bread." But the word translated as "daily" doesn't quite mean that literally. This word in the original Greek, coined for the Gospels, means something like "supersubstantial." That is, bread as we know it but with something more -- more substantial. Perhaps we could say "more dimensional." (That original word is epiousion in the Greek; epi is upon, or "super" from the Latin, ousia means essence or being.) As we use the word daily in English, it is in the sense that this is the bread for the eternal day of the Kingdom, and there's a clear tie to the Eucharist. In this understanding, our reading today compounds meanings to give us a sense of the food we need each day from Christ that feeds not just our bodies, but also soul and spirit. There isn't anything left out, no part of us not nurtured. Christ's mercy is for all of who we are as complete persons, and it is present for everyone. This is the core meaning of His ministry, of the Incarnation to all of us, for the life of the world. And that is why this feeding in the wilderness is a centerpiece for all of the Gospels. (There will be another, separate miracle of feeding in the wilderness, which we will read later as well.) But we have to consider what food is, its essential nature to our lives, and what it means to be truly fed. We have to think of Jesus' ministry as nurturing to all of who we are, and growing in us the conscious awareness of ourselves as more than just beings who demand physical sustenance and the needs of the body. Jesus looks to heaven and blesses these loaves, multiplying them for all: we all need something more. Without taking care of all that we are, we lose the fullness of what it is to be human, created in the image and likeness of our Creator. What Christ nurtures and is here to give to us is the fullness of growth we're capable of manifesting. This is what the Church must represent, and is its ongoing mission: to teach what that is, to sustain, and to nurture. It is contained in the work of the Spirit in the world, in the prayer of all the saints and angels present in every liturgy, each Eucharistic service. Everything is there present, including the promises of the age to come and of the knowledge and mysteries we hope to know. This is the food of body, soul, and spirit that adds to us life in abundance and gives richness and meaning to who we are. All of it contained here in the fulfillment of the bread from heaven given to the Israelites in the desert -- and the implicit promise that He is there with His food for us in all of our own "deserted" places. Jesus retreats in today's reading -- withdrawing perhaps for prayer and guidance for His ministry, at yet another turning point in which now the Roman powers not only are aware of His works, but have begun to fear Him in the person of Herod Antipas. But His work is always mercy and compassion. The crowds follow Him, and from there we have the answer of where this ministry will go: to all the world in fulfillment of God's promise to His people. Christ expands "God's people," as the true bread expands who we are as persons, giving us a true wholeness. So say the parables of the Kingdom given just previously in chapter 13. Let us always be nurtured by our daily bread, and know that He is the bread of heaven given for us. In Him is contained so much that we hunger for, even when we cannot name what it is we truly need.