The Gospel for today from the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew is well known, but puzzling—how did Jesus Christ take five loaves of bread and two fish and feed 5,000 people? What is going on here? It may well be that the number of loaves and fish is symbolic in some way, but no symbol is linked with the number 5,000, which simply emphasises how large the crowd was. The population of the near-by towns of Capernaum and Bethsaida was probably only 2,000 to 3,000 people in each town. This was quite a large gathering, in the desert, outside of any town.
Children, do you like to eat bread and fish together? Would you like to eat a fish sandwich, perhaps a tuna fish sandwich? . . . Today in England, fish and chips is a good meal, but in first century Palestine, fish and bread was a good meal.
The most convincing interpretation I can find of this gospel passage is from the fourth century Orthodox theologian and church leader, St. Hilary of Poitiers. In his major work, On the Trinity, he proposed that the large crowd of Jews, and I quote, “followed the Lord out of the city into the desert—that is, they withdrew from the synagogue to the Church. And [Christ] seeing the multitude, had compassion on them and healed all their sick and infirm; that is, He cleansed the bodies and souls beset with the lassitude of unbelief, that they might understand the new Gospel.” [end of quote] That is a powerful phrase, “the lassitude of unbelief”—“the feeling of physical and mental tiredness; a lack of energy and enthusiasm.” Life in first century Palestine, for both Jews and non-Jews was rough, no doubt often leading to physical and mental tiredness, lack of energy and enthusiasm. At times, some of us—certainly, me included—can feel that way today.
Now, St. Hilary offers a fascinating interpretation of how to move from the synagogue to the Church. Children, the most important place in a Jewish synagogue is the tabernacle which holds the first five books of the Bible. Do you remember the names of those books? . . . Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In an Orthodox Church, we might say that the most important place is the tabernacle on the altar where the Body and Blood of Christ is consecrated and sometimes kept for special occasions.
St. Hilary writes: “When the disciples urged [Jesus Christ] to send away the people, to buy food in the neighbouring villages, He replied to them that [the people had] no need to go away, showing that those [Christ had] healed were not in want of the food of the doctrine of the law, and that they had no need to return to [the villages of] Judea to buy it. So [Christ] bids the apostles that they feed them.”
Remember that, according to the opening verse of this passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 14, Verse 14 when the Lord saw this large crowd gathered in the desert “He felt compassion for them and healed the sick.” The word “compassion” means “to be moved to one’s inwards, to experience great tenderness towards someone.” This is the same feeling that the father experiences toward the prodigal son in the Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter 15, Verse 20. There the loving father saw his younger son “a long way off” and “felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Here Christ feels compassion toward those Jews who have left the synagogue and come to hear the fullness of the Gospel that Christ Himself is preaching. Christ welcomes them, just as He welcomes each of us, whatever our previous failures or confusions.
The compassion of Jesus Christ leads to immediate healing of those who are sick, just as the compassion of the father led to his acceptance of the prodigal son. Christ accepts all of us in this church today; and He heals us from whatever illnesses or problems we might have. The nature of the healing experience may not be what we expected: the illness or the problem may not immediately leave us. However, the lassitude—the feeling of physical and mental tiredness, the lack of energy and enthusiasm—will be banished—will leave us—because we are learning to trust God’s will for each of our lives.
St. Hillary of Poitiers continues his interpretation of this gospel passage with these words: “All this had a symbolic purpose, now to be unfolded, for it had not yet been given to the apostles to prepare, and to minister, the heavenly bread, the food of eternal life. Their reply opened the way to an ordered exposition of spiritual teaching. For [the apostles] answered that they had only five loaves and two fish: for till now they had been nourished from the five loaves, that is, from the five books of the law [Genesis through Deuteronomy], and by the two fish, that is, by the preaching of the prophets and of [St.] John [the Baptist]. For in the works of the law, as from bread, there was life. And the preaching of John and the prophets refreshed with waster [is] the true hope of [all] human life. It was these [five loaves and two fish] that the apostles first carried with them, [so] the preaching of the Gospel is shown to have been foretold, and rising from these sources, its own perfection grows in increasing richness.”
Note that Christ is firmly rejecting the manner in which the first century Jews are worshiping, yet He is showing how the Old Testament is fulfilled by the New Testament, how the Mosaic Law is completed by the teaching of Jesus Christ. The Feeding of the Five Thousand is given in all four gospels. For example, the Gospel of St. Mark, Chapter 6, Verse 34, reads: “When Jesus went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.” St. Mark knows that his Jewish listeners will be familiar with the words of the prophet Ezekiel in Chapter 34, Verses 23 and 24: “Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd.” Today we are more familiar with Psalm 22 (23) than with the vision of Ezekiel: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” It is the same shepherd, Jesus Christ, whom Ezekiel and the Psalms foretold that fed the 5,000 Jews and feeds us today.
St. Hillary points out that: “The number of those who ate is, we find, the same as that of those who were to believe. For, as we learn from the Books of Acts, Chapter 4, Verse 4, out of the numbers of the people of Israel five thousand believed.” St. Hillary reflects, in conclusion: “Then the people ate of the five loaves and the two fish and were filled.” So may it be for all of us every day of our lives that we live out under the sovereignty—under the guidance—of Christ.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Father Emmanuel Kahn