Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
Translation: "Hearing, Jesus withdrew from that place in a boat into a deserted place by himself, and hearing, the crowd followed him on foot from the towns. And going out, he saw a large crowd and was moved with compassion for them and healed their illnesses."
Background and situation: The original source is Mark--see Mark 6: 30-42. The immediate context in Matthew is the beginning of a new section in 13:56. Book Three of Matthew's gospel had centered on teaching and parables (13: 1-53). Book Four, the major theme of which is Jesus' formal expression of his coming passion, opened with Jesus' difficulties at Nazareth (13:54-58), and the death of John the Baptist (14: 1-12).
Our text opens with "when Jesus heard this." What Jesus had just heard was of the death of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas, the ruler of the Galilee region, and the son of Herod the (so-called) Great. On hearing the news, Jesus withdrew to a "deserted place"--eiremos--somewhere on the lake. He needed to ponder his next moves in light of this new and disturbing information.
The crowd, also "hearing," made their decision immediately. In the wake of the death of the popular leader, John, the people rally to Jesus. Jesus was moved by their plight--"he had compassion for them." The word translated as "compassion" is esplagxnisthe, a word indicating great depth of feeling, an exceptionally strong form of compassion. Jesus' compassion issues in healings--he "cured their sick." In the new reign of God, healings break out.
Matthew's source is Mark, but Matthew makes a few changes. Mark, like Matthew, has two feeding stories. The first, Mark 6, is about the incorporation of Jews into the New Community. The second feeding story, Mark 8, is about the incorporation of gentiles.
Matthew's agenda is different. Matthew's first feeding story takes place on the shores of a lake. The second is on a mountain. Both groups fed were, apparently, predominantly Jewish. Galilee had a mix of Jews and gentiles, as well as a mix of different strains within Judaism. (Even so, there are several universalistic notes in both stories, and especially in the second feeding story.)
Matthew makes a few other changes. Mark has the disciples get in the boat with Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus goes off by himself. He is set apart. Matthew leaves out Mark's comment that the crowds were like "sheep without a shepherd." Matthew has already used that line (9: 36). Instead of teaching them, as in Mark, Jesus heals diseases.
Incidentally, there is a bit of a play on words here. "Hearing" about John, Jesus went off by himself in a boat--ploio--while the crowds, also "hearing," followed him on foot--paxe. Also, they followed him on foot from the towns. If you'll notice, Jesus spent very little time in cities. His connection was nearly entirely with people in towns and villages. Why? Were cities dangerous?
15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Translation: "When it became evening, the disciples came to him and said, 'This is a deserted place and the hour is now passing by. Release the crowds so that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food.' Jesus said to them, 'They do not need to go away. You give to them to eat.' But they said to him, 'We have nothing here except five loaves and two fish.' He said to them, 'Carry them here to me.' And he ordered the crowds to lay down upon the green grass. Taking the five loaves and two fish, he looked up into heaven, he blessed, he broke, he gave the loaves to the disciples, and these the disciples to the crowds. And all ate and were satisfied. And they took up what was left over, twelve baskets full. And the ones who ate were about five thousand men and women and children."
Get your food from the store: The disciples can't help themselves, and unwittingly reveal that they think in terms of the old paradigm. The crowds are here, it's late, we don't have food. Let the people go participate in the regular market system to get food for themselves. The word agorasosin means something like "hang out at the marketplace and do business there." The disciples encourage "business as usual." They want to participate in the system.
Jesus says explicitly, "They do not need--ou xreian exousin--to go away. In fact, you--you disciples--give them something to eat." The disciples have five loaves and two fish, which might have been just enough to feed about 13 people. It was customary for people to carry a ration of food with them, and this was probably about the daily ration for the disciples and Jesus.
Grains accounted for about half of the daily caloric intake of the average Galilean. On a good day, the rest would come through vegetables, oil, fruit, legumes, fish, and wine. On any average day, people made do with bread and a porridge made out of wheat or barley, and possibly some vegetables.
A "deserted place" with "green grass": Jesus wants the loaves and fish to be brought to him, then ordered the people to lie down on the green grass--xortou, a word associated with grazing and food. They were in a "deserted place"--eiremos, which is also translated as "wilderness," or even "desert." Where did the "green grass" come from? It's a sign of the new reign of God. In God's kingdom, the desert becomes a place that can sustain life.
The people sit down. Matthew changes Mark on this point. Where Mark has them sitting down in ranks of 50's and 100's, like the Hebrews of old in the wilderness, or perhaps like a military formation, Matthew says nothing like this.
One wonders, too, what happened to the fish? In Mark, the fish are also "divided among them all," but at the point of giving the food to the disciples, Matthew mentions only bread, perhaps an underlining of the eucharistic association of the meal.
The scene obviously recalls the eucharist. Jesus "looked up to heaven," a move which is still done by some priests, even though the actual language of the eucharist (1 Cor 11) does not include it. Then, "he blessed, he broke, he gave the loaves to the disciples." Again, this is eucharistic language.
One feast compared with another: This "good eucharist" follows what what you might call a "negative eucharist"--Herod's "black mass." Herod Antipas threw a great party--a sumptuous feast, no doubt, although Matthew does not mention the meal itself. The only thing mentioned as being on a platter was the head of John the Baptist. Herod's feast is for the few, the big shots and the rich, and is accompanied by violence.
Jesus' feast is egalitarian, for "the crowds." It is preceded by compassion, not followed by violence. It is not a sumptuous feast, but "all ate and were filled." Moreover, the feast is faciliated by the active role of the disciples. They are the ones who actually give the bread to the crowds.
The other issue relates to the food itself. A good chunk of the law of Moses had to do with food. You had to know where the food came from and what was in it. You can do that by actually being in the kitchen preparing, or watching it being prepared, or you can trust the host to make sure that the food is appropriate.
The people receiving food from Jesus, by way of the disciples, had no way of knowing if they should really eat it. Yet, Matthew gives no hint that the crowd had any reservations. Though not stated directly, their trust in Jesus is implicit.
Secondly, there's no way that 5000 men--and another few thousand women and children (not mentioned in Mark)--would sit down and eat dinner with just anybody. Total strangers provided this food, which was handed to the disciples, who handed it off to yet others. Who knows how many other hands touched it before it came to you? Who knows what those hands had touched before they touched the bread? Eat impure food, and you would be impure too.
Yet, at Jesus' meal, all these considerations are apparently tossed overboard. They ate the bread, with each other, in the company of each other, without regard to status, wealth, or the alleged "purity" of their compatriots. There was enough left over to fill 12 fairly large baskets--one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel.