Of all the miracles Jesus performed, the one that seems to stand above the rest- at least by the metric of mention- is that of the feeding of the 5000. No other miracle is present in all four Gospels, and the sheer prominence of this event in each Gospel indicates that it had a profound impact on not only the disciples (such as Matthew and John) but also on those who heard about it second hand (Mark and Luke).
By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”
They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
“How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.”
When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”
Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand. (Mark 6:35-44 NIV)
Throughout the interpretive history of Christianity this miracle has been afforded a fairly straightforward interpretation, at least as far as the miracle itself is concerned: Jesus took the five loaves of bread and the two fish and somehow multiplied them supernaturally into enough to feed the entire multitude. The term ‘supernaturally’ is important, since it underscores that Jesus did something here which transcends the natural nutritional potential of the loaves and fish.
However, one of the more common interpretations in the modern world is notably lacking the supernatural element. While not necessarily disputing the fact that everyone was ultimately fed, the question revolves around exactly how they all received their meal. A broad stroke outline of the argument goes like this:
People of Jesus’ day were used to walking to and fro from town to town, and due to this fact they were accustomed to bringing provisions. Further, given that many Jewish people were sticklers for purity in their meals, taking a chance on having to eat something defiled or unclean was too great of risk, further adding to the propensity to carry their own food. When Jesus sat them down, many actually had plenty of food to eat, while others most likely didn’t. Jesus uses the example of the young person’s generosity to demonstrate to the crowd how they should behave in the kingdom of God, and his example became the real miracle as it effected a transformation in their hearts. Inspired by his example, those who had food were able to overcome their ritualistic quibbles or even base greed and share with those who lacked, so that everyone had enough to eat and so there was even more left over.
As previously mentioned, this is a broad stroke view of some ways in which this is parsed out. To be sure, it can even be couched in far more compelling theological garb. For example:
Jesus opened their hearts, and they, in turn, opened their satchels, and the greatest miracle of all occurred. Following a pattern that is still today embedded in the Catholic Mass, Jesus preached of a God of love and forgiveness and then invited those who heard his message to sit down together and live for a moment in the “kingdom” about which he was preaching. Changing the human heart and liberating those trapped in religious superstition is simply a greater miracle than pulling loaves and dried fish out of a basket. The feeding of the multitude was a real miracle. The miracle was a new kind of community, one generated by prayer and inclusion, a “new generation.” (Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads, p. 212-215)
This is admittedly a profound observation, and the theological insight has a certain consonance with the types of things that Jesus did and taught. However, this does not mean that it actually captures the essence of the story or the miracle, no matter what theological garb it may wear. Indeed, there is nothing about such an interpretation of the effects (changed hearts, broken down prejudices, etc.) that would necessarily be opposed to the more traditional interpretation. Even so, Mark seems to be the greatest enemy of the purely moral interpretation, as we will see.
It is worth noting that Mark begins his narrative by relating how recent events have proceeded at a frantic pace, so much so that no one even has time to stop and eat:
The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. (Mark 6:30-34 NIV)
What began as a bit of a vacation turns into an amphitheater, for Jesus and the disciples find themselves surrounded by a throng of people. Not only have Jesus and his disciples not had a chance to eat, but there is every indication that the same is true for the crowd. Mark tells us that when the crowds saw Jesus leaving they “ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.” It seems that wherever Jesus and company were going was either somewhere they usually went or was some sort of retreat location known to everyone. Whatever the case, it was supposed to be a solitary place, and in Mark’s juxtaposition of the towns he indicates that this is a place devoid of gas stations, like being on the highway in the middle of Texas.
Not only that, but the crowd seems to be even more frantic than Jesus and his disciples. If the latter have not had a chance to eat, then those who ran ahead and beat them there certainly have not had a chance to catch a bite to eat. The fact that they are running ahead also indicates that any provisions they might have had were probably already used up, or perhaps they didn’t have any at all. Notice the frantic pace- Jesus is in town preaching, and people are thronging around him all day. They seem to have expected him to stay the night, but once they see him going they decide to run ahead.
It is now that we finally arrive back at the narrative. It is late in the day, and there are people who may not have eaten all day suddenly in a remote place with no grocery stores. The disciples- who themselves were accustomed to traveling and knew how to prepare for a journey, somehow know that these people don’t have anything to eat, and either in exasperation from their own hunger or from compassion (or a mix of the two) tell Jesus to dismiss everyone to go get something to eat.
Here is where the more modern interpretation begins to break down. We know that some people had provisions- after all, the five loaves and two fish came from someone in the crowd. But as we learn from John’s Gospel, feeding all the people was Jesus’ idea, and as John relates, was meant as a test (more on this later.) The disciples are taken aback, and in the zero-sum mindset that most of us have cannot fathom how such an action would be possible. As Philip exclaims:
“It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” (John 6:7 NIV)
Given the disciples’ familiarity with following teachers into the wilderness (some, after all, had been followers of John the Baptizer), they understood that there was no natural solution to this problem. Given the amount of money required to accomplish what Jesus was asking, they seem to realize that even sharing what food was among the crowd would not give everyone something to eat; after all, Andrew brings what food he could scrounge from the crowd and says
Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many? (John 6:9 NIV)
So as we finally come down to the pivotal moment, the crowd has already been asked to share what food it has, and as we see, sharing what food is available has already taken place in that the boy shares what little he has. But on the natural level even our best and greatest efforts are not enough- what is needed is a supernatural infusion. All the disciples could see was a logistical problem that they could not solve- there were too many people, they had too few resources, they needed more money. But Jesus seems to have intentionally brought this situation about for the purpose of testing them, to see if they could see beyond the natural order and realize who he really was. In this moment Jesus was trying to see if their hearts were open to him, open enough to accept the hand of God in any situation, no matter how bleak.
Mark tells us that Jesus had the crowds sit down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Here we can perhaps find some consonance with more modern interpretations. After all, it is true that to eat with those one deemed sinners was to make oneself unclean- Jesus himself was accused of this. There were no doubt many in the crowd who were normally unwilling to associate- much less eat- with those whom they deemed beneath them, impure, unclean or any other prejudice. Somehow Jesus is able to break down these walls and get this diverse group of people to sit down together, to share a meal together. In that respect there is certainly another miracle at play here, and we might remember how Jesus responded to those who chastised him for eating with sinners:
It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Mark 2:17 NIV)
Origen relates how the fifties and the hundreds indicate different types of people in need of the gospel:
Since there are different classes of those who need the food which jesus supplies, for all are not equally nourished by the same words, on this account I think that Mark has written, “And he commanded that they should all sit down by companies upon the green grass, and they sat down in ranks by hundreds and by fifties.”
For it was necessary that those who were to find comfort in the food of Jesus should either be in the order of the hundred- the sacred number which is consecrated to God because of its completeness; or in the order of the fifty- the number which symbolizes the remission of sins in accordance with the mystery of the Jubilee which took place every fifty years, and of the feats of Pentecost. (Origen, Commentary on Matthew, 11.3)
Indeed, Mark has already informed us that these are the types of people who are here listening to Jesus teach:
When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. (Mark 6:34 NIV)
Understood in this light, it is little wonder that almost all of the people in the crowd had nothing to eat. They were like sheep without a shepherd, looking for someone to lead them, someone whose words they could believe in and follow wholeheartedly. When they come face to face with Jesus and his preaching in town, they throw off all foresight for the future and run to beat him to where he is going so they can hear his words again. Many of the disciples know this feeling very well, as they have left their nets or their tax booths or any other former life; simply dropped it in order to follow Jesus. The crowds in Mark’s narrative are so compelled by Jesus’ message that food is the last thing on their minds- they have finally found someone who, as the Gospels relate elsewhere, teaches with authority. In that state of mind, in the ecstasy of potentially discovering the Messiah, the future becomes hazy and the present is what matters. To be in the presence of Jesus is worth skipping a meal.
Nor is this something that Jesus reprimands the crowd for. He doesn’t chastise their lack of planning or foresight. In fact, in other places these kinds of excuses become exposed as obfuscations. When Jesus tells one man to follow him, the man agrees but first wants to bury his father. Jesus tells him to “let the dead bury their dead.” Jesus solidifies the cost of following him:
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62 NIV)
As we come to the miracle itself, we find an interesting detail. The crowds are told to sit down on the green grass, which seems a curious detail to add since they are supposedly in a desolate place. Mark uses some interesting word play here, for in the text about them sitting down in groups he writes it in almost a sing-song fashion. It doesn’t come across in English, but the term used for groups is sumposia, from which we get symposium. Originally it was used in reference to drinking parties, but came to be used for reclining to eat. At any rate, Mark doubles the word up, essentially saying groups upon groups. What is fascinating is that in the next statement he employs the same kind of word play, but this time using prasiai prasiai, which comes out to ranks by ranks.
Digging down into the word a bit more, prasiai is etymologically derived from prason, which is a leek. Prasiai thus came to describe the way a garden full of leeks might look in its rows and divisions.
What Mark seem to be getting at is that crowds are in effect being planted, like seeds in ground. Jesus is thus positioned as the gardener, who not only plants the seed (a parable of which comes to mind) but also is the one who effects the growth (as St. Paul will late describe). In the past God’s people have been compared to gardens and vineyards, tended by God but ultimately unfruitful. Here in this desolate place is fertile soil, for green grass is growing. It is in this soil that Jesus is planting his word, and it is here where he who is the bread of life will not only give physical bread, but will also teach them the words of God- that which Jesus calls his bread and that without which man cannot live.
There are also Eucharistic undertones to Mark’s account, foreshadowing the language used in the Last Supper, for as the crowd reclines to eat so will the disciples. Jesus will break the bread that is his body, and here he breaks the bread as well.
And finally we see that Jesus is showing himself to be a new Moses, the prophet of whom the latter foretold. In the wilderness the Hebrews complained of nothing to eat, and longed for the leeks of Egypt. But here in the wilderness there is fertile ground. Moses gave the children of Israel manna to eat, but here Jesus himself both gives them bread in abundance but even more so foreshadows his gift of himself as the Bread of Life.
The focus of the miracle is therefore not that the crowd was fed nor that they learned to overcome whatever prejudices they had or that they were able to share in fellowship with each other. Those may be important themes, but they are ancillary to what Mark is highlighting- Jesus has the power over all creation, he is greater than Moses for he can not only give the people bread, but he can make that which is not to be.
As we arrive at the end of the narrative, John includes one tantalizing detail which should put to rest a purely moral miracle. We read that
When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. (John 6:13-13 NIV)
Had this been a case of people sharing their food and overcoming the divisions that existed between them, one might expect to find all kinds of food, or at least all kinds of bread. But John seems to put a nail in that coffin, for he relates that the remaining pieces were all from the five barley loaves. Jesus overturns their zero-sum game thinking and shows them the truth of the kingdom of heaven: God’s supply is infinite, and Jesus’ oneness with the Father means the same is true for him. His statements elsewhere that he does what he sees the Father doing is perhaps nowhere better expressed than here, for to God the supernatural is actually the natural- it is we who have the order of things inverted.
There is a final Eucharistic character to John’s account, for in the celebration of the Eucharist we share in the body and blood of Jesus daily. Yet St. Paul indicates that we share one bread and thus are one body. In the human order of things this would be impossible, but for God this is simply the fact of the matter.
On The Lake
The climax of this miracle in Mark’s narrative actually comes after the baskets are filled and the crowds have started going home. Jesus is said to have made the disciples get into the boat to meet up with him later. Interestingly, he gives no indication as to how he plans to get there, but leaves his travel plans ambiguous, noting only that they will rendezvous at Bethsaida.
Mark tells us that Jesus was eventually able to get the crowds to return home, leaving himself alone there on the land while the disciples where somewhere in the middle of the lake, caught in one of the flash storms that tend to arise. They are straining at the roars, trying to keep the boat from capsizing, when all of a sudden they see the most peculiar sight:
Jesus is walking across the lake.
Mark leaves it tantalizingly ambiguous as to what Jesus’ intentions are here. Jesus begins from the shore, walks towards them, but then inexplicably begins to pass by them. We can imagine the disciples’ fear and shock here- they see someone walking on the water, and since this doesn’t normally happen, they immediately think it is a ghost. It doesn’t seem to cross their minds that this could be Jesus, flesh and blood, and that this is simply something that he does.
Mark may also be hinting at something here- Jesus sees them straining, and while he walks towards them he also walks past them. This seems to be Mark telling us that Jesus wanted them to imitate him- he wanted them to walk on water too. Forget the boat- Bethsaida can be reached by foot, the lake be damned.
Matthew picks up in this theme, for in his account Peter, upon realizing that it is Jesus, summons up the nerve to walk on water. In this brief moment we see Peter at his best, unmindful of what his eyes and experience tell him and ready to jump onto the water as if it is land. But as Jesus told those who wanted to follow him, once you put your hand to the plow, it must be all or nothing. Peter was ready to give his all, but once his toes got wet the winds seemed all too real and the sheer absurdity of his situation started to pull him under, back to reality. After all, how can anyone walk on water? It simply doesn’t happen. The sinking feeling in his heart is matched by his orientation, and Jesus has to reach down and save him from drowning.
This, of course, has more than one meaning, for one can drown in fear as much as water.
Mark finally comes to the point of the whole thing, which is that even miracles do not necessarily create faith. When Jesus calms the storm and comes into the boat, the disciples finally seem to realize who he is, and that creation itself bows to his will, for he is the Creator. Yet Mark chides them for their amazement, not because they realized the truth but rather because it took this much to open up their minds and their hearts. His rounds out the story like this:
They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:51-52 NIV)
The miracle of the feeding should have convinced them of who Jesus was. His control over nature and the ability to bring abundance from scarcity should have opened their eyes to see that he was the sovereign of all creation. Instead their minds were still stuck in the boat, trying to stay afloat on their doubts. When given the chance to join him in transcending mere human ability, most were content to cower from a potential ghost. Peter made a step, but turned back from the plow. The loaves and the fish to them were still understood on a natural level- they had not yet grasped the supernatural event that had occurred, how heaven and earth collided and for a moment they glimpsed God’s creative power that issued forth from the dawn of time.
The modern interpretation ultimately rings hollow here, for Mark explicitly links the supernatural event of the storm subsiding and Jesus walking on water with the miracle of the fishes and the loaves. In other words, one supernatural event over creation should have allowed them the capacity to understand that these sorts of things are possible for God, that the order of nature and super-nature are upside down from our perspective.
For God the limitations of nature are only so because they participate to a limited degree in his being. The created order does not stand outside of God but rather within, not to be confused with him but separate because it depends upon God’s sustaining power for its very existence. To multiply bread from five loaves is nothing for the one who can create out of nothing, and a storm is mere child’s play.
Jesus is Passing By
This is the kind of God whom Moses and the prophets proclaimed, but the disciples could still only see bread and water. Jesus’ supremacy over nature as indicated in these miracles is an arrow to the truth, that he is God himself, that God has become man and is dwelling among them. Jesus’ call to follow him is as much about taking up a cross as it is about stepping onto the water when he passes by.
We have to be willing and able to expect the supernatural, rather than be content to cower in the boat because we don’t understand the loaves.