This event is a symbol — that of the ‘messianic banquet’, where God feeds all those who come to him, no matter how diverse the background.
No miracle Jesus worked was more ‘public’ than this (except perhaps the raising of Lazarus towards the end of his life), and no event had greater repercussions on his ministry. Its importance was such that the ‘multiplication of the loaves’ is narrated six times in the Gospels, twice as a duplicate narrative. Each Gospel writer brings his own view of the story, adding or subtracting details according to his theological perspective.
Matthew’s own description appears within the section which concludes with the profession of faith by Peter. As Matthew sees it, Jesus performs a ‘messianic act’ (God caring for his people), which is later confirmed by Peter’s inspired confession that Jesus is indeed the Messiah.
Matthew highlights the person of Jesus as the Messiah in the midst of the messianic people (the twelve baskets symbolizing the twelve Tribes of Israel). Jesus is full of compassion for his people who assemble around him expectantly. The receptivity of the ordinary folk contrasts sharply with Jesus’s earlier rejection in Nazareth, and the opposition of the Jewish establishment and Herod.
Another symbol used by Matthew is that of the ‘messianic banquet’, where God feeds all those who come to him, no matter how diverse the background.
Matthew’s pictures Jesus as one who is in command: he knows what he will do with the crowds (despite the suggestions of the disciples to send them away). He commands that the loaves and fishes be brought to him. And as the host at a meal, he blesses the bread (“looking up to heaven”), and gives them to his disciples to distribute. This account is also reminiscent of the Last Supper, where he will “take bread, bless, break and give…”. Our word eucharist comes from ‘to give thanks’; and though the fish do not figure any further in the narrative, the very first Christian symbol from the Roman catacombs is the ‘sign of the fish’ ichthys, the Greek acronym for ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’.
In this incident, Jesus continues to say to the Church, her ministers and the people, “They need not go away”, “You give them something to eat.” The ministers of Christ, conscious of their own weakness turn to Christ as the source of nourishment. But they must first know him as “the compassionate one”, and experience the power of his word, before they give him to his people in the celebration of the Eucharist.