He Fed Them Hungry: The Wealth and Welcome of the Kingdom of God

When Jesus heard about it, He withdrew from there by boat to a remote place to be alone. When the crowds heard this, they followed Him on foot from the towns. As He stepped ashore, He saw a huge crowd, felt compassion for them, and healed their sick.

When evening came, the disciples approached Him and said, “This place is a wilderness, and it is already late. Send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

“They don’t need to go away,” Jesus told them. “You give them something to eat.”

“But we only have five loaves and two fish here,” they said to Him.

“Bring them here to Me,” He said. Then He commanded the crowds to sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed them. He broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. Everyone ate and was filled. Then they picked up 12 baskets full of leftover pieces! Now those who ate were about 5,000 men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:13-21)

The feeding of the five thousand is one of the best-known stories about Jesus anywhere in the New Testament — chances are we have all heard it or seen it depicted at some point in our lives.

But I don’t think we can appreciate this story without seeing its immediate context: that this enormous crowd followed Jesus when he had deliberately withdrawn to be alone, to mourn the horrific death of someone close to him.

The stark language of Matthew 14:13 makes it clear that Jesus was deeply impacted by the news of John’s murder and that he wanted to be alone with it. Rather than respect his need for privacy, a crowd of perhaps 10,000 people followed him out of the towns and into the desert.

If there was ever a moment when Jesus could be expected to feel empty, or to resent the intrusion of the masses, this was that moment.

We should keep in mind too that these same crowds were so ambivalent about Jesus’s claims that he had recently stopped teaching them forthrightly about the kingdom. Many among these thousands were rejecting Jesus’s message, actively or passively, even as they still wanted his help.

While some truly intended to seek God by seeking Jesus, others, at this point, were really just using him.

That context makes Jesus’s response astounding in its beauty and simplicity. He did not express anger or rebuke the undeniable selfishness inherent in their actions.

For Jesus, these people were hungry and in need, and he responded with compassion for their hunger and healing for their pain.

In the narrative of this passage, several points stand out to me.

This Place Is a Wilderness

I am, first, moved by the statement of the disciples when they came to Jesus late in the day: “This place is a wilderness.”

Objectively, this was true. Following Jesus had brought all of these people into a desert in the most literal way. There was absolutely nothing in their environment to feed them, nothing to care for them. It was an empty place, a “waste howling wilderness,” as the KJV calls it (Deuteronomy 32:10).

Yet in Jesus’s response, we can see a marvelous truth — that there is nowhere so empty, so hostile, or so barren that God cannot feed us there.

We all know the experience of wandering into wildernesses. Sometimes it happens because we have ceased to follow Jesus, but just as often, I think, it happens when we’re walking right in his footsteps. Darkness and anguish find us when we least expect them to. It can feel like we are suddenly abandoned, beyond the reach or care of God.

But that feeling is never true. The wilderness is real; its pain and its barrenness are not illusions, and the presence of God is often difficult or even impossible to feel in such places.

Faced with hungry crowds in a desert, the disciples urged Jesus to send them away to find food somewhere else. The best thing to do would be quit the wilderness, go back into the towns, go take part in normal trade and commerce and community, where food could be found.

And it’s true, food can be found in those places, and Jesus may sometimes lead us back to them. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t there in the wilderness, or that he’s unable to care for us there.

As I think many of us can testify, the healing and nourishing we find in the wilderness may even be deeper and more lasting than any we have ever found in the towns.

They Don’t Need to Go Away

Then there is Jesus’s simple reply to the disciples: “They don’t need to go away.”

Not only is it impossible to wander so far into the wilderness that God cannot help us there, it is also impossible for God not to have what we need. What we need is found in him — always.

This truth is seen so vividly in this story because Jesus, the Son of God, was at a low and powerless place in his own life. Feeling the sting of loss and injustice, he was hungry in some of the deepest ways we can feel hunger — yet he fed the people hungry; he gave out of a reservoir of love and goodness that is almost unfathomable to me.

I cannot imagine having the capacity to give at such a time, especially not to pour out so much life to so many needy people. Yet Jesus could do it. He did do it.

The moment in which he lifted the bread and thanked the Father for it rooted this moment in trinitarian abundance: Jesus had access to the Father’s eternal life and energy in such a way that even when he was suffering, the crowds did not need to go away and look elsewhere for food. Jesus had what they needed, and he had the capacity to give it.

This is incredible to me.

YOU Give Them Something to Eat

Jesus, of course, fed the crowds. But he didn’t do it alone. When his disciples pointed out to him that the crowds were hungry, he said, “You give them something to eat.”

This is laugh-out-loud funny, but it also points to a truth in our Christian lives: in some way or other, we are always called to join Jesus in his works of compassion.

One part of this story that is often pointed out is that Jesus used the very scant resources his disciples had — five loaves and two fish, which John tells us belonged to a young boy in the crowd. In no possible way was this enough to meet the need, yet in the hands of Christ, it became more than was needed. Everyone ate to the fill.

In our own lives, we can see this play out in several ways. First, we will often be called to participate with Jesus on the giving end. We probably won’t have resources that are up to the task. We won’t know the right words to say or have the sufficient funds to give or feel the faith to move a sandhill, much less a mountain. It will be utterly necessary that GOD move, that GOD speak, that GOD do the miracle.

But we will be asked to participate according to our means.

He likes to involve us. As a friend of mine used to say, “Never pray a prayer that you aren’t willing to be the answer to.”

Second, we will also be called to participate with the disciples on the receiving end. Jesus didn’t personally hand bread and fish to anyone in that crowd. He asked his disciples to do it. For us, too, the help of the Lord will often come through other people.

This is the necessary balance to what I said above about the wilderness, and about the fact that we will always find what we need in God himself. We don’t need to be in “a good place” for God to work, and we don’t need to “go away” from God to find the answers we seek. Yet it is no sleight of hand to say that we also need community.

More often than not, the Lord works in and through his people. He does it because he wants to. He likes to involve us. He wants us to love each other.

That we feed one another, and allow ourselves to be fed by others, is part of God’s perfect will for our lives.

Twelve Baskets Left Over

So this is how the story plays out: A great crowd follows Jesus into the desert in his time of grief and lingers long into the evening as he, filled with compassion, heals their sick. Seeing a crisis looming as the crowds grow hungrier and food for them is nonexistent, the disciples urge Jesus to end the meeting and send the people away to feed themselves.

Instead, he tells the disciples to feed them — then miraculously breaks five loaves of barley bread and two small fish into so many pieces that it feeds five thousand men plus women and children.

In the end, we’re told, there were twelve baskets of food left over.

A story that begins with the yawning emptiness of grief, loss, and starving bellies ends with twelve baskets full of bread.

It’s a living fulfillment of the promise, quoted by Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, to

provide for those who mourn in Zion;
to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
festive oil instead of mourning,
and splendid clothes instead of despair. (Isaiah 61:3)

And it’s a living parable of the kingdom’s wealth and the kingdom’s welcome: that even in desolate, empty places, even when our resources are gone and our spirits are aching, in our Father we can find something to eat. We can find hope. We can find a spark of new life and the warmth of renewed promise.

We can live to see another day, and we may even have something left over.

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This is Part 231 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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3 responses to “He Fed Them Hungry: The Wealth and Welcome of the Kingdom of God”

  1. Susan Sikes Avatar

    That is exactly right! I love the encouragement I find in these writings. This is my latest post that mentions part of the same topic. It was part of my Bible reading last week. It was great to read your post this week!


  2. Susan Sikes Avatar

    This is beautiful! I just recently used some of these thoughts in a post as well. We can learn so much from His example!

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Thanks, Susan! I’m glad you’re writing and sharing as well! This is one way we feed each other :). Please feel free to drop a link to your post in the comments here.

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