“We are responsible before God for these good things and for their just distribution among humanity; wastefulness of blessings is a sin, but conviction and good stewardship and thanksgiving to God for His bounties and grace is a Christian virtue.“
The Eigth Sunday of the Evangelist Matthew
On the 8th Sunday of St. Matthew, the gospel reading (Matthew 14:14-22) speaks of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand.
Let us first be reminded that the number five, in the Bible, is a symbolic one, connoting God’s grace, goodness and favour towards humans. We also see the significance of this number through the books of Moses in the Old Testament of which were five. Because of the importance of this particular miracle, we see it mentioned in the other three Gospels as well; Mark (6:30-44), Luke (9:10-17) and the Evangelist John (6:1-14).
After Jesus was informed of the martyrdom of St John the Baptist, He departed by boat to a “deserted place” by Himself, on the shore of Lake Tiberias. This was a common occurrence as He would often travel to secluded places to pray. In the Gospel of Matthew, this happened before He performed the miracle of feeding the crowd. This act is a reflection of the lesson Christ taught His disciples; to pray before and after any work that has to be completed.
When the crowd learnt of His whereabouts “they followed Him on foot from the cities” seeking His teachings and wisdom. And when they found Him, they gathered around Him like the flock gathers around the Good Shepherd for him to lead them to fertile ground. The gathered peoples spent most of their day listening to Jesus’ sweet words and His salvific enlightenment, enjoying being in His presence. The day passed, and the evening arrived and “everyone was amazed by the words of grace coming out of His mouth”. (Luke 4:22).
The Gospel passage begins when Jesus went out and “saw a great multitude and He was moved with compassion for them and healed their sick”. He is their merciful and compassionate father: “the father of mercy and the God of all comfort” (2 Cor 1:3). This is a messianic image of the Lord Jesus, since, according to Isaiah, it is the Messiah who heals and comforts the people of God, “He has borne our grief and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4).
The disciples then asked Jesus, saying, “This is a deserted place and the hour is already late. Send the crowd to the villages to buy food.” Perhaps it never occurred to them that Jesus would take care of their physical needs, even after He showed them compassion and cured their sick. Christ then shows His tenderness again and attends to their physical needs to satisfy their hunger, telling the disciples: “Give them something to eat.” The disciples’ answered with: “We only have five loaves and two fish here.” Knowing full well the amount of food that was available, Jesus wanted to prepare them for the miracle He is about to perform. He first sympathised with the multitude, healed their sick, then fed them; He who takes care of the whole creation and man’s spiritual and material needs.
Through this request, Christ also wanted to show His disciples the futility of achieving such an undertaking through human will and effort alone, and therefore showing them that He is the Son of God. The lesson also extended to the importance of sharing and helping those who are in a state of need and want; as St. John Chrysostom says, ” in this miracle, Jesus was teaching them humility, temperance and charity to be of like mind toward one another and to share all things in common”. And then extended even further to show them that the reason for performing this miracle was because of need and necessity, not vainglory.
When the disciples realised the difficulty and impossibility of satisfying the multitudes with these five loaves and two fish, Jesus intervened and said, “Bring these to me here.” Then He “took the five loaves and two fishes and looking up to Heaven, He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to His disciples, and disciples to the multitudes”. The Holy Church saw in these acts made by the Lord Jesus: “He took, looked, blessed, broke and gave” a prefigured image of the Mystery of the Divine Liturgy or Eucharist (Thanksgiving).
Jesus looked to heaven as St. John Chrysostom says, “to show us that He is sent by God the Father and that He is also equal to Him”. In His act He was “instructing us not to touch a meal until we have given thanks to Him who gives us this food.”
St. Cyril of Alexandria says:
“So that by every means the lord might be known to be God by nature, he multiplies what is little and he looks up to heaven as though asking for the blessing from above. Now he does this out of the divine economy, for our sakes. For he Himself is the one who fills all things, the true blessing from above and from the Father. but so that we might learn that when we are in charge of the table and are preparing to break the loaves we ought to bring them to God with hands up, raised and bring down upon them the blessing from above, he became for us the beginning and pattern and way”.
It was clear that in this miracle the multitudes saw a Messianic image of Christ, as written in the Gospel of John, “This is in fact the Prophet coming into the world” (John 6:14). The Hebrew people remembered their forefathers who ate the bread, “Manna”, in the wilderness (Exodus 16:4-16) and saw in Christ the image of the Messiah feeding His people. These Eucharistic actions “take – blessed – broke and gave” were repeated by Jesus Himself at the Last Supper before His crucifixion and Passions. The Evangelist Matthew says: “As they ate, Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke, and gave the disciples, and he said, ‘Take this is my body, and he took the cup and thanked and gave them, drink from this all of you...'” (Matthew 26:26).
The Lord Jesus gave “loaves to His disciples and the disciples gave to the multitudes”. He gives the loaves to the disciples so that they might always retain the miracle in their memory and not have it fade from their minds, although they did in fact immediately forget. The Holy Fathers see in this act the granting of grace and authority to the disciples to serve the people of God “as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1). The holy apostles are the first bishops and the Lord Jesus gave them this authority that passed on to their disciples after them through the Holy Ordination and the Apostolic Succession.
The Lord Jesus ordered His disciples to gather what had remained from the “twelve full-baskets”, and the Evangelist John added “So that nothing is lost” (John 6:12). According to St. John Chrysostom, Jesus wanted His disciples to retain self-control, with conviction and to be good stewards and trustworthy with all that the Lord has given us. We live in a consumerist society where there is a great deal of waste of human resources and goods. God has set us to be in charge of His creation (Luke 12: 41-48), to preserve it and improve its management. We are responsible before God for these good things and for their just distribution among humanity; wastefulness of blessings is a sin, but conviction and good stewardship and thanksgiving to God for His bounties and grace is a Christian virtue.
The Holy Church has laid down prayers for the blessings of food and a prayer of thanksgiving after meals. Teaching us that thanksgiving to God for His grace and bounty, especially after receiving Holy communion, is a sign of humility and acknowledgement of Christ’s grace. The Orthodox Church has the ‘Service of the blessing of the five loaves’ during the Vespers service of the major feasts, and some Saints’ feasts, which is in memory of the miracle of feeding the multitudes. At the end of the prayer, we chant: “Rich men have turned poor and gone hungry; but they that seek the Lord shall not be deprived of any good thing”.
Yours in Christ,
+ Metropolitan Basilios