Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand (Matt 14:13-21): “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (verses 13-14).
Stories of Jesus feeding huge crowds with only a little were an important part of the earliest traditions of Jesus’ followers. Matthew’s Gospel includes two near-duplicate stories (see also Matthew 15:32-39), which are close parallels of two in Mark (6:32-44 and 8:1-10). Luke (9:10-17) and John (6:1-13) also include the “feeding of the five thousand” or a parallel.
Feeding a Crowd: The narrative of the feeding of the crowds in the wilderness is notably straightforward. Jesus was moved by compassion for the crowds and healed them. Late in the day, the disciples assessed the situation (in the wilderness there is nothing for the hungry crowds to eat) and perhaps they, too, were moved by compassion when they suggested the crowds be sent to nearby towns where they could buy food. Jesus had another idea: feed them right here with what we have. Taking the five loaves and two fish the disciples had on hand, Jesus blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples. The disciples fed the crowds, numbering five thousand men, plus women and children. Everyone had enough to eat, and they gathered up the leftovers. The story does not tell us how the hungry crowd is fed in the wilderness; only that no one leaves hungry. And so the story invites us to use our imaginations.
Bread: Blessed, Broken & Given: Multiple feeding stories in the gospels should not surprise us. They echo a common theme in Israel’s scriptures. As bread and fish feed the hungry crowd in the wilderness (translated “a deserted place” in Matthew), manna in the wilderness provided daily sustenance for the Israelites.
Jesus Walks on the Water (Matt 14:22-36)
From this setting, we already see Jesus as a man of prayer (v. 23). Rather than sticking around to reap the political benefits of his miracle, Jesus retires to prayer. (Mt 14:23).
If the disciples were still struggling against the winds at the fourth watch of the night—the Romans divided the night into four instead of the Jewish three watches—the disciples must have been exhausted. Probably accustomed to awakening around 6:00 a.m., they instead found themselves still trying to cross the lake between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m. We may criticize the disciples for accepting the popular notion of ghosts, but the biggest offense here is that they still underestimate Jesus’ power. It has not occurred to them that he could know their plight, walk on water to come to them or catch up to them in a storm! To their credit, however, the fear issue seems to be solved once they recognize that their teacher is with them. They knew him well enough to know that if he was there, he would bring them through their storm.
Although the proposal that Peter walk on water is first Peter’s idea (v. 28), Jesus’ response indicates that he approves of it (v. 29). Peter is gently reproved not for presumptuously stepping from the boat but for presumptuously doubting in the very presence of Jesus (v. 31; compare 6:30; 8:26; 16:8; 17:20. Disciples were expected to imitate their masters, and Jesus is training disciples who will not simply regurgitate his teachings but will have the faith to demonstrate his authority in practice as well.