Feeding of the 5000 (Luke 9.10-17)

Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral, 6 October 2019

The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the one miracle that is recorded in all four Gospels. Of all the miracles which the evangelists record, this for them was the most important.

But did Jesus really feed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish (vv13, 14)?

Bear in mind that the loaves more like buns, rather than the large loaves we buy at the supermarket. Furthermore, the fish weren’t gigantic in size. More the size of sardines, and almost certainly pickled at that.

Some have suggested that the boy who gave his lunch to Jesus simply set an example to others. E.g. William Barclay:

It is not really to be thought that the crowd left on a 9 mile expedition without making any preparations at all… It may be that this is a miracle in which the presence of Jesus and His loveliness turned a crowd of selfish men and women into a fellowship of sharers.  It may be that in the presence of Jesus those whose one thought was to keep were miraculously turned into people whose one thought was to give.

Barclay argued that here we have a miracle which changed human nature, rather than somehow multiplied the bread and the fish.

The rational part of me would love to accept such a solution. But look carefully at the Gospel story.  It is clear that neither Luke nor indeed any of the other evangelists saw this as anything but a supernatural event, in which five loaves and two fish proved to be enough for over five thousand people. For Luke in 9.14 states, 5000 “men” (andres): with women and children present, the actual number must have been considerably more than five thousand!

Notice too that that Luke tells us that “all ate and were filled” (NRSV). The word translated as “filled” can also be translated as “satisfied” – or rather “all ate and were ‘satisfied’ (chortazo). It is the same word that is found in Luke’s send beatitude: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled [‘satisfied’]”.

What’s more, all four gospels tell us that “what was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces” (Lk 9.17). According to the standard Gk Lexicon (BDAG) the underlying Greek word for basket (kophinos) denotes a “large, heavy basket”. The mystery of the miracle deepens even more.

I believe that we need to resist the temptation to cut Jesus down to size, but rather accept the Gospel story as it stands.  In the words of William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury: “If the Lord was indeed God incarnate, the story presents no insuperable difficulties“. Yes, if we can accept the miracle of incarnation, then anything becomes possible. In a way that defies our imagination Jesus fed 5000 people.

Incidentally, is it significant, I wonder, that when Jesus took the loaves and fish, instead of bowing his head to say ‘grace’ “he looked up to heaven” (Lk 9.16). This seems to me to be no mere prayer of thanksgiving – he was calling on his Father to work a miracle – and work a miracle his Father did!

As far as the evangelists are concerned, this miracle points to Jesus as God’s Messiah.

Significantly in Luke’s account the miracle of the feeding of five thousand is sandwiched between two passages in which the identity of Jesus is at issue:

  • So in Lk 9.9 immediately before the feeding of the five thousand, Herod says: “John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” (Luke 9.9)
  • Then in Lk 9.18-20, immediately after the miracle, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” – and “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God”.

In John’s Gospel Jesus is not just depicted as the Messiah – but also as a Second Moses: as Moses fed the crowds in the wilderness with heavenly food, so Jesus fed the crowds with the bread of heaven which will satisfy their hunger forever.

However, here in Luke Jesus the Messiah may perhaps be viewed as a Second Elijah.

In this regard James Edwards (The Gospel According to Luke, 266) draws attention to the command of Jesus to his disciples, “Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each” (Luke 9.14). Edwards writes: “The number ‘fifty’ occurs 160 times in the Greek Bible, but ‘fifty each’ (ana pentekonta) occurs only once again in the Greek Bible. In 1 Kings 18.13 Obadiah tells Elijah that he has supplied food and water to ‘fifty each’ of the prophets of the Lord during the famine in the land and the pogrom of Ahab and Jezebel to exterminate them”. Edwards see this as a Lukan allusion to Elijah as a prefigurement of Jesus:

the salvific care that God showed to the faithful remnant of Yahweh prophets will be shown to the disciples ad crowd through Jesus’ ministry in the wilderness.

But there is another aspect to the feeding of the 5000 which is significant. For all four evangelists the story is a pointer to the Lord’s Supper. Look at Luke 9.16:

And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people”

The same words are found almost verbatim in all four gospels.

So James Edwards (266) comments: “The exactitude with which this verse was preserved in church tradition almost certainly resulted from the fact that the early church perceived a parallel between the accounts of the feeding of the 5000 and the Last Supper, both of which contained the fourfold sequence: “too (bread)/blessed/broke/gave”

In that regard, is it significant that Luke goes on to say “and all ate and were filled”.  So Edwards comments: “At the wilderness banquet the ritual of kosher is abandoned in favour of an open invitation and inclusion of all people” (267).

There is so much else we can highlight in this story.

I find the introduction to the story interesting.  For according to Luke 9.10 Jesus and his disciples are on retreat – “he took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida” (or as Edwards suggests, to a remote region whose nearest city was Bethsaida). But then the crowds tracked Jesus down: according to Luke 9.11: “They followed him; and he welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God and healed those who needed to be cured”. What fascinates me is that Jesus nonetheless “welcomed” them.

Fred Craddock (Interpretation Commentary: Luke 125) wrote:

What are the Twelve to learn from the interruption? That those who comes with pressing needs do not interrupt.

I find that significant. Tired as he was, Jesus gave of himself to the crowd.

Questions for reflection

  1. “If the precise details cannot be proved historically, it is equally impossible to deny on historical grounds that what the Gospels narrate took place in some sort of way” (Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke, 358)). To what extent are you content that the miraculous provision remained private to Jesus and his disciples?
  2. Who is this Jesus who feeds the multitude? If you were to preach on this story, would you focus more on the identity of Jesus? Or the compassion of Jesus? Or the satisfaction Jesus gives?
  3. What parallels would you draw between the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the Lord’s Supper? To what extent do you agree with John Nolland’s ‘faith perspective’: “We recognize Jesus through what he makes possible in our midst; he is the ultimate host at our eucharistic meals; at the breaking of the bread we recognize him for who he is; there is a wonderful way we are nourished in our inner needs; there as well we are challenged about the meeting of the needs of others and made to recognize the resources that through Jesus we actually have” (Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1-9.20, 444).
  4. How do you cope with people interrupting your ‘time off’?
  5. What else made you think?

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