June 24, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: He fed the multitudes

See Matthew 14:13-21, 15:32-39, 16:9-10, Mark 6:34-44, 8:1-9, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-15

Even those who aren’t familiar with the Bible know the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes with only a few loaves of bread and a few fish. This incident is the only miracle of Jesus recounted in all four Gospels, indicating its importance to the early Christians.

Some people try to explain away this miracle by saying that perhaps the people had actually brought food along with them and Jesus just encouraged them to share it. In the first place, if they believe that Jesus was God, why try to explain away a miracle? Don’t they believe that Jesus could perform miracles? Secondly, do they also not believe in the Eucharist, which this miracle anticipated?

The Gospels used eucharistic language—Jesus “said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them.” John’s word for what he did was “eucharisted”—“gave thanks.”

The story in the Gospels also looks backward to the feeding of the Israelites in the desert with manna and Elisha’s feeding a hundred men with small provisions, as narrated in the Second Book of Kings (4:42-44).

Although most people know this story, many don’t realize that Jesus did this twice. According to Matthew and Mark, the first time he fed 5,000 Jews (plus, as Matthew chauvinistically says, women and children) at present-day Tabgha, about two miles from Capernaum. The second time he fed 4,000 Gentiles on the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

He performed the first miracle out of kindness and compassion. The people were close enough to villages that they could have gotten food. The second miracle was a real emergency, performed after the people had been with Jesus for three days, were out of food, and they were far from inhabited places.

Jesus alluded to both feedings later in Matthew’s Gospel: “Do you not remember the five loaves for the 5,000, and how many wicker baskets you took up? Or the seven loaves for the 4,000, and how many wicker baskets you took up?”

Well, how many were there? The first time, when Jesus fed Jews, the fragments were collected in 12 wicker baskets, one for each of the 12 tribes of Israel. The second time, when Jesus fed Gentiles, the fragments were collected in seven baskets, one for each of the Gentile nations that occupied Palestine when Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan River—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (see Deut 7:1).

But back to that first miracle, at Tabgha: John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus knew that the people were so impressed by it that they were going to carry him off and make him king. So, as Mark’s Gospel says, he made his disciples get into their boat and head for Bethsaida while he withdrew to the mountain alone. The last thing he wanted at this point was to attract too much attention from Herod, who undoubtedly had spies in the crowd. Tiberius, where Herod lived, was within sight of Tabgha. †


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