(Other Lectionary readings for the day: Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 17:1-7, 15, or Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21; Romans 9:1-5)
This is a remarkable passage, and you might want to start out by saying that to your parishioners. It’s found in all four of the Gospels, and twice in Matthew and Mark. No other story is like it in that regard. (Two have birth stories, only one has the story of Lazarus being raised from the grave, only one has the story of the Prodigal Son, etc., but this is in all four and repeated in two.)
Begin with some background that leads up to the story: John was just executed as a terrorist by the authorities because they thought that he was inciting people to riot against the empire. After Jesus hears of this, he goes off on a boat trying to get to a “lonely place by himself,” probably to pray. The hills, though, were filled with people who had heard stories about him, and they all came out after him. A testament to his charisma? Reputation? Who knows. The numbers could be as high as fifteen to twenty thousand. (Note that they wouldn’t have counted the women or children in those days, which could possibly have doubled or tripled the numbers.)
At the end of the day, everyone is hungry. The disciples had only packed a basic peasant’s lunch of a few loaves and fishes, so what to do with about the others? The disciples gave a plain market-based answer. They said, send the people into the towns, and let them buy their own food. That, of course, was impossible. For one thing, most were poor and sick or else they wouldn’t have been following Jesus in the first place. Homelessness and extreme poverty were at crisis levels in Jesus’ day. The transfers of wealth out of the poor regions and into the wealthy ones had decimated the rural areas where Jesus did most of his ministry. For them, this wandering prophet was a rare possible hope. As weak and diminished as our structures of aid for those in need are today, they had nothing anywhere near them. For another thing, even if they all immediately left and rushed to the surrounding towns to buy something (assuming they had money to buy with) the towns would be overwhelmed and flooded, and incapable of servicing them.
The market simply was not (and is not) a mechanism to handle poverty and hunger. One of the now-well-documented findings of Thomas Pickety’s new book, Capital, is that left to its own devices, market based economies always gravitate towards greater and greater inequality and create more and more poor people. The only countries that have contradicted this trend are countries that have instituted policies to circumvent it, that is, countries that put higher taxes on the wealthy and higher supports for the poor. One country that illustrates this is Brazil that has recently been increasing taxes on its wealthy an increasing benefits for its poor. And for them, inequality has gone down and the incomes of the poor have been going up. Conversely, in the US, for the last thirty years, we have been cutting taxes for the wealthy and cutting benefits for the poor, and the result has been an increase in poverty and an increase in wealth inequality. The two are related.
Jesus responded to their market answer to his question by saying that the hungry people around them don’t have to go away. You (the disciples) just feed them. They complained (slightly) about that. They said, but, all we got is these three loaves and two fishes.
You might stop here and say that it’s interesting to preach about these stories in the Bible of feeding the hungry because here in the US we have an epidemic of obesity. A couple of years ago when Michelle Obama began her “healthy Eating” program, and several school systems started instituting healthier foods, some parents in Republican states exploded in anger. They were quoted as saying that this is a free country and if our kids want to gorge themselves on sugar and fat they should have the right to do so. Meanwhile, we watch TV every night with videos of Darfur, Sudan, Niger, and others in Africa starve.
You might also want to note here that the logo for the Christian World hunger organization, Bread for the World, is the loaves and fishes, and that this story is where it came from.
The disciples’ first response was to worry about how little they had to offer. There are so many of those people down there, and our resources are so tiny. Jesus responded simply: share what little you have and let’s see what happens.
One way to put this brief exchange is to say that they were thinking out of a theology of scarcity: we don’t have enough to go around. We can’t feed all of those people with our meager provisions. Somewhat similar to the comments we hear so frequently today, that America can no longer afford to care for its poor people. Even though we are the richest country in the world, we simply can’t afford to give hungry people Food Stamps (SNAP) or WIC, or School Lunch programs, or the Earned Income Tax Credit (though that last one was instituted by a Republican President and seems to maintain modest but fairly non-partisan support). Jesus on the other hand, had a theology of abundance: share what you have because God provides everything.
It’s true that you can’t feed everyone. It’s true that there will always be suffering. You can’t make it go away. You can’t end it for everyone, everywhere, forever. Jesus certainly did not feed all of the people in the world, nor did he try. But that is no reason to do nothing and let those whom you can save die.
Possibly tell the old, old, story of the starfishes on the beach. The guy was on the beach after a storm rescuing them one by one. A friend came up to him and said “you can’t save them all. Why are you out here? You can’t make a big difference.” The man said back, “Yes, that’s true, but it makes a pretty big difference to this one,” and he threw another back out into the water.
Which is actually the greater miracle: for Jesus to change those few loaves into an abundance of loaves, or for Jesus to change the hearts of the people there to teach them how to share? What’s the greater miracle for us? For Jesus to do all of the work for us, or for Jesus to change our hearts to enable us to do it.
Do we have enough money to change the community? Do we have enough people to spread the word about the gospel? No. But we have a theology of abundance that says we do what we can and we will see a miracle.
Detailed Exegetical and Translation Notes
Feeding the Five Thousand
13Now 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. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When 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.”
18And he said, “Bring them here to me.”
19Then 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. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
 The event occurs when Jesus, having withdrawn to a deserted place, re-enacts the miracle of God’s supply of food for his people during the Exodus of Israel, when the people were fed in the desert through Moses. A second miraculous feeding is described in Mt 15:32-39; Mk 8:1-10. In both sets of stories, the action words -- took, blessed, broke, gave -- in the distribution of the bread mirror the language of the Christian Eucharist (Mt 26:26; Acts 2:46). Even women and children participate. Cf. Mk 6:30-44; Lk 9:10-17. (Keck, Cambridge Study Bible)
 “Heard this,” that is, John’s death, not Herod’s misunderstanding of whom Jesus is. See Mark’s parallel, which is more clear. “In both earlier places where ‘heard’ is followed by ‘withdrew’ (2:22; 4:12), a potential danger is met by withdrawal. This makes it likely that the same is true here.” John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: The New International Greek Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2005), p. 588.
 “In a boat” (en ploiōi). Contrast this with the crowds who follow him “on foot” (pezēi, some mss. have pezōi). The difficulty of him hiding out in a lonely place by boat, but thousands of people following him on foot may have led some copyists to omit “boat” allowing him to also walk.
 “A deserted place” (erēmon topon). The dominant thought is remoteness from supplies of food, not a desert. It is, after all, along the populated coast of the Sea of Galilee. More “deserted” than “desert.” Probably intended to evoke Exodus symbolism. Vincent says, “The first meaning of the word is solitary; from which develops the idea of void, bereft, barren” (Word Studies in the New Testament). Thayer’s adds: Used of places (a desert, wilderness; deserted places; lonely regions; an uncultivated region fit for pasturage) and persons (deserted by others; deprived of the aid and protection of others, especially of friends, acquaintances, kindred) (Thayer’s Greek Definitions).
 “By himself” (kat’ idian) “privately.” The Greek may mean that Jesus went alone into the wilderness, but then what about the disciples? He probably went with the disciples with the intention of getting some quiet-time; “to go to some place where he could be alone”, CEV, or “where they could be by themselves”, JB. Possibly further describing the “desolate place”, namely, “he went by boat to an uninhabited and secluded district,” Weymouth, but the meaning “privately [with the disciples]” is more likely. (Bryan Findlayson, www.lectionarystudies.com)
 “The Crowds.” “In line with a frequent preference, Matthew chooses ‘the crowds’ to introduce those who will intrude on Jesus’ solitude.” Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 589.
 “When he went ashore” (exerchomai, v. aor. part.). “To go forth” (so kjv), or “to come out.” Presumably out of the boat in which he was seeking retreat. The niv has, “as he got out” (of the boat). “But the general sense of the verb may well support ‘when Jesus emerged from his retreat,’ Phillips translation.” (Bryan Findlayson, www.lectionarystudies.com)
 “He had compassion for them” (esplanchnisthē ep’ autois, vb. aor. Pas). “Was filled with tenderness / pity toward...” “He felt sorry for them”, CEV, fails to bring out the strength of the word, so, “he was moved with compassion for them to the depths of his being,” Barclay (Findlayson, www.lectionarystudies.com). Note that Matt. is following Mark here, but abbreviating. He has already used Mark’s “he had compassion because they were like sheep who do not have a shepherd” (Mk 6:34; Mt 9:36) and can’t easily use it twice. Cf. Nolland, Gospel of Matthew, p. 589.
 “Their sick” (tous arrōstous autōn). “Without strength” (rhōnnumi and a privative). Esplagchnisthē is a deponent passive. The verb gives the oriental idea of the bowels (splagchna) as the seat of compassion. (Robertson, Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament) See Matt 9:36, “When he saw the crowds he had compassion for them” Note that in Mark’s version, Jesus’ compassion leads to teaching, not healing. Luke’s version has both.
 “Evening” (opsios, adj., gen., sing, fem.). From opsé, after the close of the day. Late in the day. Thayer’s places the time as, “a. either from three to six o’clock p.m.” or “b. from six o’clock p.m. to the beginning of night.”
 “The hour is now late” (hē hōra ēdē parēlthen). The meaning is not that it’s dark, but that it’s past meal time. Perhaps, “The hour has passed when they should have been eating.”
 “Send the Crowds away” (apolyson tous ochlous, vb., 2nd per., sing., aor., act., imp.). “Release,” “dismiss,” “depart,” “let go.” Although worded as a command, the sense was probably softer, even an enquiry, as in, “shouldn’t you send the people away?” (Findlayson, www.lectionarystudies.com)
 “They need not go away” (Ou chreian echousin apelthein). “Matthew adds this brief comment by Jesus as a way of shortening and clarifying the exchange in Mark 6:37-38. Jesus makes the disciples understand right from the start that he is not thinking about having the crowds go away and get food in the surrounding villages. Instead the disciples are to give them food” (Daniel Harrington, S.J., The Gospel of Matthew (The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN, 1991), p. 219.
 “They replied” (hoi de legousin autōi ) “but they said to him” Unfortunately, de (but) has not been translated. It would have given an adversative tone, to express the disciples’ reaction, “but, but, but.” It’s a word of contrast and contradiction.
 “We have nothing here but…” (Ouk echomen hōde ei) Literally, “not have except...” The negation is emphatic expressing the disciples’ negative reaction; “we have nothing here, but ..”, Weymouth. (Findlayson, www.lectionarystudies.com)
What the disciples have is a plowman’s lunch, a meal for a poor person, cf. Jn.6:9.
 “Bring them here to me.” Matthew adds this verse to Mark’s version, which he is following closely, for clarity. Jesus has to have the loaves in his hands before he can break and distribute them.
 “He ordered the crowds” (keleusas tous ochlous) aor. part. “He directed,” “commanded.” “His master ordered him to be sold as a slave” Mt 18:25.
 “Sit” (anaklino, vb., aor., pass., inf.). Translated here and in most other translations (but see the English Majority Text Version) as “sit.” However “since it literally means ‘lie,’ it is possible that the reclining position for celebrating meals is being invoked” Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 592.
 “Looked up to heaven” (anablepsas eis ton ouranon, aor. part.). “Looking up [to heaven]” Also could be translated “having received his sight,” as it has elsewhere in Matthew, but the word obviously has the sense here of looking upward to the sky above.
 “blessed ... broke ... gave.” See Mt. 26:20-27. “All the individual elements are of course also part of a normal Jewish meal pattern, but in any Jewish text reporting a meal they will be largely assumed and never formally reported as a set. They are reported here as a set because of the parallel with Eucharistic practice.” Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 592.
 “Were filled” (echortasthēsan). Effective aorist passive indicative of chortazō. “Were satisfied,” i.e., “filled up,” “to eat one’s fill.” The word is used of fattening animals, therefore of a satisfying meal. Here, completely satisfied, “they had eaten more than enough.” (Findlayson, www.lectionarystudies.com). “Cattle were filled with grass and people usually with other food. They all were satisfied” (Robertson’s Word Pictures of the Greek New Testament).
 “Broken pieces” (tōn klasmatōn). “Fragment,” “piece,” “crumb.” “Here, it may not mean crusts and half eaten food left over, but rather untouched bread and fish. ‘The broken portions that remained over,’ Weymouth translation” (Findlayson, www.lectionarystudies.com.).