Feeding the Five Thousand
Ordinary 17 Year B
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. John 6: 1 — 15
Had we continued from last week’s reading (Mark 6: 30 — 34) we would have progressed to St. Mark’s account of our Lord feeding the five thousand. In the international three year lectionary we now cross to reading about the same event, but as recorded by St. John. In fact, for five weeks we will cover most of John 6 which is a very long chapter that focuses on the Bread of Life. The theology of St John is complex and, if required, is best sought from a single volume commentary. Our purpose in the five meditations based on John 6 will be to bring together just a few threads from some valuable sources to help focus our attention on the self-manifestation of our Lord to those who were open to receiving what He wanted to share.
Some Reflections On the Text
Verses 1 — 4
After this, Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee
A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs he was
performing on the sick.
Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his
The Jewish feast of Passover was near.
“There is an indefinable solemnity in this simple session.” (W. Leonard).
Returning from Jerusalem our Lord met the Apostles somewhere on the West of the Sea of Galilee # — perhaps at Capernaum — and heard their report of their mission. He then spent about a fortnight preaching and healing the sick, and afterwards, seeking retirement, sailed with them to a desert place on the North East coast belonging to a city called Bethsaida. (Dummelow)
# Sea of Galilee — Renamed Lake Tiberius by the Romans in honour of their Emperor.
A great crowd of people followed him because they had observed the miraculous signs He had performed on the sick. But, as Reith explains, “Curiosity, and wonder, and carnal expectancy drew the crowds; not faith.” (Is there nothing new under the sun! But let us remember that the initial interest of the people for all the wrong reasons, is in fact, the very thing He seeks to cure in them. Yes, He seeks to cure the sick — but equally yearns to cure those endlessly going after signs and wonders for their own carnal curiosity. They were right to observe the “sign” but wrong in their application of what they observed. This will always be a potential source of danger to those who are led only by their personal whim and not by proper reference to the Sacred Scriptures and the Teaching Authority of the Church.
At this point Jesus turned into some hilly countryside and found a spot on a mountainside where, at least momentarily, He could give some attention to His close disciples. The mountain, in this scenario evoked the memory of Sinai, where Moses received and passed on the revelation pointing to the Messiah. These links were important to our Lord and we really do need to see His ministry as fulfilment of a vast and magnificent unfolding plan of God’s love for His Creation.
W. Leonard pegs this moment to return to in one year’s time:
“In twelve months hence the festival of the Jews # will give place
to ‘the new Pasch of the New Law’.”
# i.e. the new Pasch, or Passover. (W. Leonard)
We are explicitly told, “The Jewish Feast of Passover was near”. Ryle helps us see the importance of verse 4
John’s habit of explaining Jewish customs for the benefit of Gentile
readers should here be noticed.
The approach of the passover feast is no doubt specially mentioned
in order to show the suitableness of our Lord’s discourse in this chapter
to the season of the year. The minds of His hearers would doubtless be
thinking of the passover lamb, and its flesh about to be eaten and
blood about to be sprinkled. Our Lord takes occasion to speak of that
“flesh and blood” which must be eaten and drunk by all who would
not perish in sin. It is an instance of that divine wisdom with which
our Master spoke “words in season,” and turned everything to
## turned everything to account — A very dignified way of saying that this
is another example of our Lord’s speech echoing the profound depths of
God’s Plan of Salvation.
Let it be noted that our Lord did not keep this passover in Jerusalem
to all appearances, but remained in Galilee. Yet He generally
observed all the ordinances of the Law of Moses most strictly, and
“fulfilled all righteousness” ###. The reason evidently is, as Rollock
remarks, that the enmity and persecution of the leading Jews ####
at Jerusalem made it impossible for Him to go there. It would have
cut short His ministry and brought on His death before the time…
### fulfill all righteousness — To fulfill all righteousness is to carry out
in careful detail all that God has ordained in His divine plan for
the salvation of the human race. Our Lord’s actions and teachings
always reflect or display this divine plan, in one way or another.
Jesus submits in every detail to the Will of His Father and this
demonstrates self-sacrifice at every turn, leading eventually to
His ultimate sacrifice on the Cross. This is the Way in which
He calls us to follow Him.
#### leading Jews — clearly the power-mongers who had skillfully tied
up religious duties with very profitable sources of income on the side.
They were not the first to hijack religion for personal gain, and were
certainly not the last!
The near approach of the passover may possibly account in part for the
crowds who were assembled on this occasion. Not a few of the people
perhaps were on their way to Jerusalem, to keep the passover feast, and
were drawn out of their road by hearing of our Lord’s miracles.
Verses 5 — 9
When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming
to him, he said to Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them
He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going
Philip answered him, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would
not be enough for each of them to have a little (bit).”
One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him,
“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what
good are these for so many?”
At a certain point in talking to His disciples, Jesus looked up and saw the crowd making their way towards them. He was neither surprised nor openly stressed, even though He had planned a quiet break. Instead He turned the whole direction of His little group to the material needs of the approaching crowd. Quite reasonably Jesus turned to Philip who, in these parts at least, would be the one expected to answer His question, “Where shall be buy bread for these people to eat?” Ryle explains:
Our Lord’s reason for asking this question is given in the next verse.
But it is worth notice that there was a certain propriety in asking
Philip this question, because Philip “was of Bethsaida,” the very town
near which they were all assembled. (John 1: 44.) Our Lord therefore
might reasonably appeal to Philip, as one most likely and able to
answer His question, whether it were possible to buy bread for such
a multitude. He would of course know the capabilities of the
Philip was quick to reply saying that it would take more than eight month’s wages to give a crowd like this just a single bite, let alone supply a meal#! Actually this was not a bad calculation given the situation. But our Lord, who was perfectly aware of what he planned to do, was stretching Philip’s underdeveloped level of insight. Reith gives a helpful thought:
# (W. Newton comments, “This is a confession of powerlessness”.)
….. Jesus observes the special characteristic of each disciple, and lovingly subjects each to the discipline best suited to him, (John 10: 14 f., 15: 2.) Philip, looking more at the limited horizon of earth and its possibilities, and less at the limitless horizon of God’s power and grace, needed, and would be the better, for this trial.
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, then spoke up. He was also from the local area, but obviously had no idea what to do. Typically of someone feeling slightly awkward about being caught out, he made the remark: “There is a boy here who has five small barley loaves # and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
# barley loaves — the ordinary food of the poor. (Bruce Vawter, C.M.)
This expression of Andrew’s is purposely reported, no doubt, in order
to show how strong was the conviction of our Lord’s disciples that
they had not sufficient provision to feed the multitude, and then to
bring out into clear light the greatness of the miracle which our Lord
wrought. It also helps to prove that the wonderful feeding of the
multitude was not a preconcerted and prepared thing, arranged by
our Lord and His disciples. Even His own immediate followers were
taken by surprise.
Verses 10 — 13
Jesus said, “Have the people recline.” Now there was a great deal of
grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number.
Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to
those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted.
When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, “Gather the
fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.”
So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments
from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat.
Without further ado, Jesus told the disciples to have the crowd get ready to eat. Echoing the prophecy of Ezekiel 34, we are told, there was plenty of grass in that place. St. John’s account then records precisely what happened:
• Jesus took the boy’s five small loaves and gave thanks.
• He then distributed (via the disciples) to those who were seated as
much as they wanted.
• He did exactly the same with the fish.
• He then waited for everyone to finish eating at which point he
instructed his disciples to collect any leftovers, “so that nothing
would be wasted”.
• The disciples did just as they were told and filled twelve baskets
with pieces of the five barley loaves.
We draw on two scholars to comment on this great event. First, J.C. Ryle, picking up at verse 11 says:
I think there can be no doubt that this was the point at which the
mighty miracle here wrought by our Lord came in. As fast as He
broke the loaves and the disciples carried them away to
distribute them, so fast did the loaves multiply under His
hands. It was in the act of breaking and distributing to the
disciples that the miraculous multiplication took place.
In fact there was a continual act of creation going on. Bread
was continually called into existence which did not exist
before #. The greatness of this miracle is perhaps not sufficiently
realized. One loaf and less than half a fish to every thousand men!
It is evident there could not have been more than a small morsel
for each one without a miraculous increase of the food.
# The original fine bread rolls He had already created. In the miracle He
continues to multiply this bread, providing new substance for the hungry
Bishop Hall remarks, “He could as well have multiplied the loaves whole; why would He rather do it in the breaking? Was it not to teach us that in the distribution of our goods we should expect His blessing, not in their entireness and reservation?“
Then G. Reith taking an overview writes:
• Jesus works only on the material furnished to Him by the disciples,
• who must do their utmost;
• He gives God thanks for the slender repast, as if it had been sufficient
for the whole; and who knows how much lay in this act? (See verse 23.)
It deeply impressed the beholders;
• He gives out with no ostentation, as if always from the slender stock
before him, multiplying this by the secret of His power. A singular
mark of divineness; no marvel being displayed, as in a gigantic heap
of loaves, or the like;
• thus linking the supply closely to His own person,
• and impressing on the disciples the need of careful economy, even
in the presence of such a supply ##, wrought with no trouble,
apparently to be relied on to-morrow as to-day.
## Note the exactness, “fragments from the five barley loaves.” (Verse 13)
Verses 14 and 15
When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, “This is truly the
Prophet, 9 the one who is to come into the world.”
Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to
make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.
When the people realised what had taken place before their eyes, the common reaction was comments such as, “This is truly the prophet, the One who is to come into the world,”(“Come to found the New Israel” — Bruce Vawter, C.M.) Upon hearing this, Jesus realised they were about to take him by force and make him king, and he slipped away again and withdrew further into the hills to be alone. The people were right of course, and were motivated by the memory of Moses announcing a successor in his role of prophet. (Deuteronomy 18: 15).
“A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from
among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen.
The original Hebrew reference is actually to a collective noun (which supposes a
number of prophets) — but the institution is to be a permanent one. R. McKenzie, S. J.
goes on to tell us: “Nevertheless, it is also a prophecy of our Lord, the Prophet
par excellence, forshadowed in the Old Testament by kings, priests and prophets
alike.” (R. Mckenzie, S. J.)
But Jesus was aware that they had misunderstood the Scriptures, and thus it was not the right time to pursue the matter any further just then.
We offer J. C. Ryle’s closing comment on the incident:
The attempts of Neologians to explain away this miracle
are simply contemptible and ridiculous. It requires more
faith to believe their explanations than to believe the
miracle and take it as we find it. None but a person determined
to disbelieve all miracles, and cast them out of the sacred narrative,
would ever try to make out (as some actually have tried) that the
four times repeated story of the miraculous feeding which we have
considered, only meant that the multitude brought out the hidden
stores of provisions which they had carried with them, and shared
them with one another!
Yet again we cannot but notice how Jesus performed this very great miracle without all the pomp and hype of some modern “religious” self-proclaimed media evangelists who prance around on a stage and have all the attention-seeking devices focussed on them.
Jesus, our model, would have none of that. The event is all the more spectacular in that it was carried out because of the love and compassion Jesus had for the common people, in their need.
St. John emphasised the link between this event, the Jewish Passover, and the solemn occasion — another Passover — when He would give Himself that we might have life, and have it to the full. He gave thanks to His Father, and it would be fitting for us to do the same — often. We close with a very appropriate quotation:
Some men give help in the preparations for the meal. Andrew draws
attention to the presence of a small boy, who gives what little he has.
And so if what happens is far from ordinary, the natural order of
things is respected. The loaves are not multiplied out of thin air, but
thanks to the sharing, first, of what a child had in his bag, however
inadequate that was. Whoever among us desires to be a blessing
for others should bring to Jesus whatever he possesses. The
master does not ask us for what we have not got; but in the
hands of Jesus, what we are prepared to share works miracles;
it fills and satisfies. (From: Glenstall Bible Missal, Collins 1983)
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“Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature”
(Mark 16: 15)
Let us remember God’s Teaching, contained in His Word and in doing so,
Feeding The Five Thousand
Ordinary 17 Year B St. John 6: 1 — 15
1. “This is truly the Prophet.”
The people correctly identified Jesus as the One promised by God through the great Prophets. Our Lord, in turn, correctly identified their intention to proclaim Him their King — who would deliver them from the tyranny of the Roman conquerors.
Jesus would have none of that! What He came to restore and save required the long and committed determination of the people to prepare for with holy, consecrated lives. Proclaiming a Messiah or King was to take the easy path and load all the problems onto the leader.
We can be rather hasty in commenting on their behaviour, but if we listen to religious people in our own era, we often observe a similar situation. The world is in a mess: we throw our hands up in the air and shout “Come Lord Jesus”, thinking, He will put it all right for us.
We can be rather slow in looking back at our own performance, (not just individually, but also collectively as a Church or nation) and asking where we may have failed, or at least, where we can do better. We need to apply our Lord’s teaching and commandments humbly to help “make straight the way of the Lord” who will return at the appointed time and not before.
2. “Gather the fragments left over.”
The disciples were ordered by Jesus to collect the left overs — the remaining “fragments from the five barley loaves”. Twelve large cane baskets of food were collected because the crowd simply couldn’t eat anymore.
This is a rather strange miracle. Our Lord did not miraculously increase the number of barley loaves, which we might call scones or bread rolls. A ton of bread was given out but it all came from the five scones Jesus broke in His hands. It was not a multiplication of the number of loaves, as we might sometimes imagine, but a multiplication of bread at the very moment it was to be given out.
Reflection on this action taken by Jesus to meet the needs of the people (so hungry for the words He was giving them) will yield many different interpretations. One which must surely be a great help to us in our witnessing for the Lord is this: when we take up a task allotted to us by God, provided we hold nothing back, He will “stretch” our efforts — magnify them until they reach the boundaries He has already set. We must not set the boundaries as though we have the authority and the power. Our Lord asks us to be His voice, His hands, His feet. He also asks us not to fear our own limits. It is then that we will discover that He gives the increase, the wherewithal to meet a given situation.
This is very important for us to understand, when we think of spreading the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Every member of the Lord’s Household is called to bear witness to the joy of belonging to the family of God — and to take seriously the privilege of inviting others to join this Household, and to belong to this great family.
We may not all be in a position to do that by direct contact. In true evangelisation that is irrelevant. We are called to study the things of the Lord and pray earnestly for the spreading of His Word to all: near and far.
Our Lord takes our gifts of prayer, study, meditation and other good works and — as it were — plugs them into His spiritual power-grid. They will then be given to others somewhere, sometime to the greater glory of God.
Our Lord has shown in this miracle that He happily receives what we can give, and then multiplies it to meet the needs of people as He determines. This takes faith on our part, and He will increase our faith as long as we take courage and do our best to apply it.
3. “The people saw the sign.”
Our Lord reveals Himself as a provider in great abundance. This may appear to conflict with the shortage of the most essential needs of many people around the world who die during food shortages and droughts. We might even say, “What is the use of talking about abundance when miracles are performed, if people are suffering dreadful shortages of food and water?”
If we are not careful, we will end up asking the wrong questions and coming up with the wrong answers. Jesus calls for a radical interpretation of Torah — the Commandments — and in the Sermon on the Mount distils His teaching into the Beatitudes which are the real cure for our needs in this world, and those of our neighbor.
When we open our hearts to the needs of others, it is amazing just how far our efforts can extend, far beyond any horizon we could have imagined. It is then that we can pray the prayer of the first Christians, chosen to complete the text of the New Testament:
Come Lord Jesus
John 6: 1 ― 15
Ordinary 17 Year B
1 1 2 After this, Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee
2 A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs
3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down
4 The Jewish feast of Passover was near.
5 3 When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd
6 4 He said this to test him, because he himself knew what
7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred days’ wages 5 worth
8 One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter,
9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves 6 and two
10 Jesus said, “Have the people recline.” Now there was a
11 Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed
12 When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples,
13 So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets 8
14 When the people saw the sign he had done, they said,
15 Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry
1  [Of Tiberias]: the awkward apposition represents a later name of the Sea of Galilee. It was probably originally a marginal gloss.
2 [1-15] This story of the multiplication of the loaves is the fourth sign (cf the note on ⇒ John 5:1-47). It is the only miracle story found in all four gospels (occurring twice in Mark and Matthew). See the notes on ⇒ Matthew 14:13-21; ⇒ 15:32-39. John differs on the roles of Philip and Andrew, the proximity of Passover (⇒ John 6:4), and the allusion to Elisha (see ⇒ John 6:9). The story here symbolizes the food that is really available through Jesus. It connotes a new exodus and has eucharistic overtones.
3  Jesus takes the initiative (in the synoptics, the disciples do), possibly pictured as (cf ⇒ John 6:14) the new Moses (cf ⇒ Numbers 11:13).
4  Probably the evangelist’s comment; in this gospel Jesus is never portrayed as ignorant of anything.
5  Days’ wages: literally, “denarii”; a Roman denarius is a day’s wage in ⇒ Matthew 20:2.
6  Barley loaves: the food of the poor. There seems an allusion to the story of Elisha multiplying the barley bread in ⇒ 2 Kings 4:42-44.
7  Grass: implies springtime, and therefore Passover. Five thousand: so ⇒ Mark 6:39, ⇒ 44 and parallels.
8  Baskets: the word describes the typically Palestinian wicker basket, as in ⇒ Mark 6:43 and parallels.
9  The Prophet: probably the prophet like Moses (see the note on ⇒ John 1:21). The one who is to come into the world: probably Elijah; cf ⇒ Malachi 3:1, ⇒ 23.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised