2- Reading and understanding the Gospel: The Miracle of the First Multiplication of the Bread and Fish (Mt 14:13-21)
13When Jesus received this news (the beheading of John the Baptist), he withdrew by boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves. But the people heard of this and, leaving the towns, went after him on foot. 14So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them and healed their sick.
15When evening came, the disciples went to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the time has slipped by; so send the people away, and they can go to the villages to buy themselves some food.” 16Jesus replied, “There is no need for them to go: give them something to eat yourselves.” 17But they answered, “All we have with us is five loaves and two fish.” 18“Bring them here to me,” he said. 19He gave orders that the people were to sit down on the grass; then he took the five loaves and the two fish, raised his eyes to heaven and said the blessing. And breaking the loaves he handed them to his disciples who gave them to the crowds. 20They all ate as much as they wanted, and they collected the scraps remaining, twelve baskets full. 21Those who ate numbered about five thousand men, to say nothing of women and children.
2. 1- Explanation
The evangelist mentions two miracles of multiplication of bread and fish. The first (Mt 14:13-21) occurs in a Jewish context that appears through the figures used: five loaves, five thousand men who have eaten, and twelve baskets of leftovers; the number five indicates the five books of the Law, and the number twelve is that of the tribes of Israel and of the Apostles. The second miracle (Mt 15:32-39) occurs in a pagan context that appears to be also through the figures: seven loaves of bread and seven baskets, the number seven symbolizing perfection; and those who ate were four thousand, this number indicating the four cardinal points of the earth: north, south, east and west.
This miracle shows the abundance of God’s gifts to humanity. Indeed, it is the God of fullness who fills everything that is lacking in our lives. The importance of this event is also indicated through its symbolic meanings and messianic, ecclesial and sacramental consequences.
At the messianic level, Jesus appears as the shepherd who leads his flock to fresh pastures (notice the word ‘grass’ at v.19). It was he who proclaimed: “Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28), and here we see him now, feeding those who are hungry, watering them with his blessings. The background of this miracle is the feeding of the starving people by God with manna and quail, in the desert in the time of Moses. The aim of the miracle is not so much to show God’s power as the manifestation of His mercy for all those who experience trouble, hunger or lack of any kind. Indeed, Jesus “took pity” on the crowds and healed their infirmities (v. 14). It was irrefutable proof that he is the expected Messiah.
On the ecclesial level, the disciples are involved by Jesus in the distribution of bread; first, he hands it to them, and they then distribute it to the crowds (v. 19). Indeed, the role of the Church lies the continuity of the multiplication of God’s blessings, the explanation of the Gospel and the distribution of the sacraments to the people of God. It is a stimulus to move them from their situation of “little” faith, to a deeper and more confident faith in Emmanuel – God-with-us – present amongst them. The passage speaks of women and children as well as the men, hinting at the family and secular dimension of the Church alongside its clerical dimension, the clergy represented by the disciples.
The ecclesiastical dimension is linked to the Eucharistic dimension through the liturgical acts of Jesus: “he took the five loaves and the two fish, raised his eyes to heaven and said the blessing. And breaking the loaves he handed them to his disciples who gave them to the crowds” (verse 19). The prayer of blessing is typical of that proclaimed by Jews before a meal, but the Eucharistic pattern is clear, “When evening came, the disciples went to him.” (verse 15), hinting at that last supper between Jesus and his disciples, which happened in the evening.
2. 2- Summary and Practice
Jesus asked his disciples for the few loaves and fish they had, multiplied them and fed thousands with them, with the leftovers filling several baskets. Presenting what we have to the Lord is a source of gifts and blessings on his part. Maybe we think that material and spiritual gifts are minimal compared to the needs of the world, but the experience of the disciples encourages us not to keep them for ourselves, but, on the contrary, to present them to the Lord; he’ll give them back to us, multiplied and over-flowing. The Byzantine prayer says it: “What is yours is from what you own; we offer it to you, as a token of everything and for the sake of everything.”
The baskets filled with leftovers were twelve in number, like the number of disciples, indicating to the disciples that their duty was to continue what Jesus had started. Indeed, every disciple has a duty to perpetuate the preaching of the Word of God, to visit those in need, to found churches, to administer the sacraments and celebrate the Eucharist. This is how Christian life will continue, and it will have no end.