Matthew 14: 13-21
Parallels: Mark 6: 32-44; Luke 9: 10b-17; John 6: 1-15
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 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. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
The rejection in Nazareth and the death of John the Baptist puts both Jesus and the crowds in motion and they both arrive in the wilderness. Jesus and his disciples get into a boat and come to an uninhabited place along the sea, and the crowds abandon the towns to follow him on foot. Matthew shortened version of this story (if Mark’s narration is the original) continues to invite the followers of Jesus to reflect upon his identity by echoing other portions of both Matthew’s narration of Jesus’ life and scriptures. The feeding of the five thousand men, plus women and children, is unique among the miracle stories of Jesus because it is the only one included in all four gospel accounts.
The wilderness was where John the Baptist began his story, where Jesus was baptized and where Jesus was tempted. People once came into the wilderness to see John the Baptist instead of Herod (see comments on 11: 7-15), but now the come seeking Jesus. Jesus has compassion on this large crowd and begins to heal those who are sick. Matthew drops Mark’s allusion to Ezekiel 34 where the crowd is like sheep without a shepherd, but the contrast with the compassion Jesus shows towards the crowd and the fear Herod Antipas shows highlights the contrast in relations between these ‘kings of Israel.’ Matthew also drops the teaching of the crowds, but since Jesus teaching the crowds in parables comprises the previous chapter this is not necessary to Matthew’s narration. Now in the absence of John the Baptist and instead of Herod Antipas, the large crowd journeys over land to meet Jesus in this wilderness place.
The defining story of the Hebrew people is the Exodus and central to the people’s journey through the wilderness is the provision of bread by God on that journey. In this wilderness the people are now fed by Jesus, he becomes the one who makes an excessive amount of bread in the wilderness. Like the woman who folded the yeast into three measures of flour (13: 33) he prepares a feast to this great crowd. This story also resonates with the final meal that Jesus will share with his disciples where again he will bless and break bread to be distributed (26:26-30). Matthew, following Mark’s structure, will have Jesus do two feedings of large crowds in the wilderness. (15: 32-39) In both feeding stories the disciples of Jesus in addition to distributing the bread are also invited to wonder about the one who can provide an abundant feast where all are satisfied in a wilderness place. Like God providing for the people in the Exodus or promising a great feast on the mountain of the Lord (Isaiah 25: 6-9) we are invited to consider who Jesus is in relation to God. He is more than a prophet like John the Baptist and more than a king like Herod even if those in his homeland cannot recognize it.