My Dear People,
What was intended as a retreat in private soon became known, and the crowds followed Jesus and his apostles. He received or welcomed them, as they had welcomed him, and proceeded to minister to them in word and deed. A complication arises when the day is far spent. They are in a deserted place, so the twelve want Jesus to let the people go to the surrounding villages for provisions. The mention of a deserted place and nearby villages indicates that they have not yet arrived at Bethsaida. Some scholars say the feeding miracle took place in its vicinity, but a better explanation is that they have just begun withdrawing towards Bethsaida. Indeed, Mark mentions Bethsaida as the destination to which the disciples are headed by boat after the miracle. The miracle could then have occurred where early Christian tradition situates it, Tabgha, a little southwest of Capernaum.
Rather than dismiss the crowd, however, Jesus tells the twelve to return the favor of hospitality that they received during their mission: give them some food yourselves. They take stock of the little they have—five loaves and two fish—and so wonder if they need to buy food for all these people. Jesus instead has them make the people sit down in groups of about fifty. The men are about five thousand in number. These details allude to several biblical passages, thus presenting Jesus as the one prefigured by various Old Testament people and events.
In the time of Moses, when the people needed food in the “wilderness”, God gives them manna—namely, “bread”. When the people were also clamoring for the fish they ate in Egypt, God gave them quail. Moreover, Moses like the apostles was concerned about the burden of feeding “all these people” (Num 11:12-13). The arrangement in groups of “fifty” may also recall Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 18:21, 25; Deut. 1:14; see Mark 6:10). The similarities suggest that Jesus is the prophet like Moses (Luke 7:16;9,8; Deut. 18:15) who is bringing about a new exodus. Shortly, Moses will appear with Jesus at the transfiguration, where indeed they will converse about Jesus’ “exodus” (Luke 9:30-31). In the intervening passage, Jesus will be identified as the Messiah (9:20). In Jewish literature of the time, there was the expectation that the manna would return in the days of the Messiah: “and shall come to pass at that self-same time that the treasury of manna shall again descend from on high, and they will eat of it in those years.”
As Jesus told the apostles to “give” the people to eat, so did the prophet Elisha in a similar case where there were twenty loaves to feed a hundred men, yet they ate and had some left over (2 Kings 4:42-44). Jesus has already compared himself to Elisha by his words and deeds (Luke 4:27; 7:1-17). He now works a greater miracle than Elisha, with fewer loaves for more men. Elisha was himself recognized as a great miracle worker, performing “twice as many marvels” as Elijah (Sir 48:12), one way of interpreting his receiving a double portion of his spirit (2 Kings 2:9). Jesus is compared with both Elijah (Luke 9:8, 19,30) and Elisha, but is greater than both.
The phrase “five loaves” (1 Sam 2:1:4) is the passage to which Jesus referred in the incident of picking grain on the Sabbath (Luke 6:3-4). Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke links the feeding miracle to this Sabbath controversy by referring to bread that is taken and given. David, who was running from Saul, took five loaves and gave them to his men, much as now Jesus, who is avoiding Herod, takes five loaves and gives them to his apostles. In this way, Jesus nourished his flock as Ezekiel foretold: “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, he shall feed them” (Ezek. 34:23 RSV). Jesus will presently be identified as the “Messiah” (Luke 9:20), as Davidic title (2:11).
The miracle itself occurs through a simple series of actions. Taking the loaves and fish and while looking up to heaven, Jesus said the blessing and broke them. He then gave them to his disciples, who thus play an intermediary role in distributing the food to the people. Jesus’ actions of “looking to heaven” is typical for a person praying (18:13; mark 7;34; John 17:1; Acts 7:55). His other four actions—taking, blessing, breaking and giving bread—are all found in accounts of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (Matt 26:26); Mark 14:22). For “bless” Luke’s account substitutes the equivalent “give thanks” (eucharisteò in Luke 22:19; see Matt 15:36; Mark 8:5), as is also found in Paul’s account (1 Cor 11:24). The feeding miracle thus points forward to the greater miracle of the Eucharist. The meal scene at Emmaus likewise has the same four actions— “He took bread, said blessing, broke it and gave it to them”—by which Jesus is “recognized” (Luke 24:30-31). Here too, following “the breaking for the bread” Jesus is “made known” (24:35) as Messiah (9:20).
Like the people in the days of Moses who ate their “fill of bread” (Exodus 16:8,12), here too all ate and were satisfied. In this sign of the messianic banquet the promise of the beatitude is thus fulfilled: “Blessed are you who are now hungry, / for you will be satisfied” (Luke 6:21). Moreover, like the miracle of Elisha where there was “some left over” (2 Kings4:43-44), here too there are plenty of leftover fragments. The twelve wicker baskets that they fill—one for each of the “Twelve” (Luke 9:12)—is another sign that Jesus is bringing about the restoration of Israel by regathering the twelve tribes.
Looking up to heaven An echo of Jesus’ action in the feeding miracle is found in the First Eucharistic Prayer (Roman Cannon), highlighting the connection between the miracle, the Last Supper, and the Eucharist: “He took bread in his holy and venerable hands, and with eyes raised to heaven to you, O God, his almighty Father, giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body, which will be given up for you.”
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Vincent Clemente
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