The story of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is well-known. It appears in all four of the Gospels and is told with an understated simplicity that speaks to the historical veracity of the event and to the supernatural power at the heart of it. There are many levels to the narrative, beginning with the literal one: Jesus, moved with great pity, miraculously fed the hungry crowds that followed him into the wilderness.
But to better appreciate this story, proclaimed into today’s Gospel, we should be mindful of what St. Matthew wrote about immediately prior: the violent and heinous murder of John the Baptist by Herod the tetrarch (Mt 14:1-12). John had been imprisoned because he publicly rebuked Herod — who considered himself a Jew — for marrying his sister-in-law Herodias (whose previous husband was still alive), a violation of the law’s teaching against incest (see Lv 18:16; 20:21). Herod, bound by a rash promise made at his birthday celebration, ordered the execution of John, who was beheaded in prison.
A number of contrasts emerge. The violent and egomaniac Herod is contrasted with Jesus, who is moved by pity, mercy and love. Herod grasped after earthy power and pleasures; Jesus, on the other hand, reached out in humility to the townspeople who hungered for his words. They are the ones who, as best they could, followed the exhortation of the Lord spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “Heed me, and you shall eat well. … Come to me heedfully, listen, that you might have life.” While Herod feasted in a palace and shed innocent blood, Jesus and his followers ate simple food miraculously multiplied. And in doing so, as the Gospel of John emphasizes, Jesus taught how his innocent body and blood would be given up as true food and true drink (see Jn 6:48-59).
Herod was a self-serving man driven by strong and sinful passions: lust, violence, anger. Jesus was perfectly oriented to the will of his Father, continually spending time in prayer so he could bring light and life to those dwelling in darkness.
The multiplication of the loaves and fishes is a microcosm of salvation history, a concrete demonstration of how the Incarnation reaches man where he lives so men can live where he cannot reach on his own.
The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand was a reminder and a promise. It surely brought to mind how the prophet Elisha fed a hundred men with 20 loaves of barley and “had some left” (2 Kgs 4:42-44). And Jesus directly connected his ability to feed thousands with very little to the miracle of the manna (Jn 6:30-40). But the feeding was also a miraculous foreshadowing of the great gift of the Eucharist. In the Blessed Sacrament, the everlasting covenant anticipated by Isaiah and others comes to full fruition. In it, divine gift and abundance are perfectly realized and offered. “The miracles of the multiplication of the loaves,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “when the Lord says the blessing, breaks and distributes the loaves through his disciples to feed the multitude, prefigure the superabundance of this unique bread of his Eucharist” (No. 1335).
Finally, notice that Jesus first told the disciples to feed the people on their own. He wanted them to recognize their limits — to teach them true humility. With this humility we can say, in the words of the Psalmist: “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.