Fr. Scott A. Haynes
In the Gospels there are two accounts of Christ multiplying loaves and fishes: the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000. Why two accounts? What is the difference between them? The obvious answer: 1,000. All joking aside, there is a salient difference—location. As they say in real estate, what matters is, location, location, location.
The feeding of the 5,000 took place near Bethsaida, close to the Sea of Galilee. In contrast, the feeding of the 4,000 took place in the region of the Gerasenes, in the region around the Decapolis. These are two very different regions. What is the significance? The miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 was in a Jewish territory, while the miraculous feeding of the 4,000 took place in Gentile territory.
In the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus takes five loves and feeds five thousand, which recalls the five books of the Jewish Law (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Not only that, but when everyone had finished eating, twelve baskets of left-overs were collected, which signifies the twelve tribes of Israel.
In the feeding of the 4,000, seven loaves were miraculously multiplied. After everyone has had his fill, seven basketfuls of leftovers are collected. The number seven is symbolic of completeness and the number seven is evocative of the seven days of creation when God created all humanity. Both miracles show the provision of the Lord, His love for all His people, Jew and Gentile alike. In these miracles Jesus feeds them with miraculous bread, in preparation for the day when He would feed them sacramentally with own Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist.
Our Lord Jesus Christ stamped peculiar force upon the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish, as he worked this same miracle twice, firstly for a Jewish audience and then for a multitude of Gentiles. In this, God gives a hint about His cosmic plan to redeem all mankind and restore creation to Himself, which makes this miracle all the more wonderful, and could explain why our Lord takes time to work it twice.
Jesus normally uses a miracle to underline His teaching and to give proof that He truly is who He says He is, the Son of God. Think of the fifth chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, when the Lord tells a paralytic that his sins are forgiven. Christ then turns to the Pharisees and says:
“Which is easier: to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Rise up and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power upon earth to forgive sins, (he said unto the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy couch, and go into thine house.”
As magnificent as is this miracle, of course His greatest miracle, the Resurrection, is Christ’s ultimate vindication, because when Christ trampled down the gates of death and rose triumphant from the grave, He gave us proof positive that He is the Son of God and the Savior of the World. But in the miraculous multiplying of the loaves and fishes, what Our Lord shows us is the power of His compassion.
St. Mark’s account tells us that Jesus was moved with compassion for the hungry crowd that had been with Him for three days. Yes, the Divine Physician of our Souls is also concerned with our bodies! The picture in the miracle reflects the greater miracle that Christ worked in winning our salvation. He saw us in desperate need running towards our own destruction due to sin, and he pitied us. The Epistle of St. John proclaims that “we love because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).
For if Our Blessed Lord was so moved to compassion for the body, which is perishing, how much more is our Lord moved with compassion for the soul, which is eternal? It is on this basis of true charity that God hears and answers our prayers. Christ’s compassion in this miracle becomes the root of our faith
Notice in the Gospel the incapability of the multitudes to provide for themselves. Jesus says that they had been with Him for three days and that if they left without provision, they would faint, because they had come from afar. The people had followed Jesus into the wilderness, the desert, where there is no food. Christ teaches them that,
“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
The crowd followed Jesus into the wilderness because they hungered to hear the truth. They craved His teaching and lived upon His very word. In turn, the people became dependent upon Him to deliver them home without fainting from hunger. Then the disciples ask the million-dollar question,
“How will anyone be able to satisfy these with bread, here in a desert?”
The rhetorical question of the disciples is meant to have one answer, and the disciples are not wrong.
“From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread?”
Well, a mere man could not do it, but, “with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
The feeding of the 4,000 is yet another proof that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world. There are echoes of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness within the miracle. The story tells of miraculous bread, a deserted wilderness, and a big crowd of people. It should remind us how the people of Israel followed God in the wilderness who manifested Himself as a cloud by day or a pillar of fire by night. The Israelites only moved when the cloud moved. More so is that God fed them manna in the wilderness as they wandered for those forty years. God satisfied them with miraculous bread.
“From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread?”