Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 14.13-21
Proper 13 - Year A

Other texts: 


Matthew has this miracle immediately following the death of John the Baptist. That is not the case in the parallel accounts. The feedings in Mk 6:32-44 and Lu 9:10b-17 follow the return of the apostles from their "missionary" journey. In Jn 6:1-15 it follows the healing at the pool and a long discourse by Jesus. In addition, in v. 13a, Matthew strengthens the connection between what had just gone on before with "Jesus having heard...". It was the news about John's death that led Jesus to withdraw into the wilderness to be by himself. (Jesus also withdrew when he heard John was arrested, Mt 4:12.) There is a similar construction in 13b, "the crowds having heard...". Was it news of John's death they had heard? Was it a report about Jesus going off in a boat by himself to the wilderness? Whatever they heard, it motivated them to follow him by land.

The close proximity in Matthew of the feeding story to John's "departure," may strengthen the connection between Jesus and John and the prophets of old. After Elijah departs, his successor, Elisha, over the protests of his servant, miraculously feeds a crowd of people with plenty left over (2 Kings 4:42-44).


There are two contrasting feasts in chapter 14: Herod's birthday banquet and Jesus' miraculous feeding. Herod fears the crowd (v. 5) and what his guests might think of him if he goes back on his word (v. 9). Jesus has compassion and cares for the crowd (v. 14), even though they had interrupted his desire to be alone, probably to grieve the death of John (13a). Herod is tricked into putting John to death (v. 10). Jesus provides life by curing the sick (v. 14) and feeding the hungry (v. 19). Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Bible) states that these two stories are a "contrast between the two kingdoms" [p. 323]. Carter (Matthew and the Margins) goes further and states:

Jesus' act attacks the injustice of the sinful imperial system which ensures that the urban elite are well fed at the expense of the poor (Aristides, Roman Oration 11; Tacitus, Ann 2.33; 3.53-54). Jesus enacts an alternative system marked by compassion, sufficiency and shared resources. [p. 305]


Boring (Matthew, The New Interpreters' Bible) lists four positions of scholars concerning this "miracle". [I divided (3) into two sections, so making five positions.]

(1) A miraculous event of feeding hungry people actually happened in the life of Jesus (and, according to Matthew's account, sick people were healed).

(2) A sacramental explanation from Albert Schweitzer where Jesus distributed bits of bread in the wilderness as a symbolic meal for a multitude of his followers. In time, this proleptic, "hungry feast" of the eschatological banquet, was elaborated into the miraculous banquet of more than enough food for all.

(3a) A lesson in unselfishness from H. E. G. Paulus, as Jesus and his disciples shared the little food they had, which shamed others into sharing their food, so that there was enough for all.

(3b) Similar to Schweitzer's interpretation above, Ernst Renan suggests that Jesus led his followers into the desert for a time during which they lived frugally on skimpy rations. This event later developed into a miracle story.

(4) A symbolic representation of the meaning of the Christ-event as a whole, with overtones of the eucharist and the eschatological pictures of fellowship and plenty for all. The story has no basis in any particular event in the life of Jesus. [pp. 325-326, my summaries]

Boring also suggests:

In its journey through the pre-Gospel tradition and in its Markan form, this potent story has been reinterpreted in many ways (there are six versions of it in the NT) to express many dimensions of christological faith, incorporating numerous features from the Bible, Jewish tradition, and Christian experience:

Boring notes that Matthew does not develop all of these overtones. His version is about one-third shorter than Mark's. Matthew de-emphasizes elements that reflect badly on the disciples, omits features that picture the community as the wandering people of God in the wilderness, but he emphasizes the eucharistic features. [p. 324]


There is an interesting difference between the opening actions in Matthew and Mark

Matthew: "When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick." (14:14)
Mark: "As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things" (6:34)

Generally we think of Matthew's Jesus as a teacher, so why the change to healing -- assuming that he was using Mark? In Luke, Jesus does both: "he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing." (9:11).

Perhaps Matthew was stressing the contrast between Herod who destroyed a life and Jesus who restores lives. Herod who does everything to protect himself and Jesus who meets the needs of others in his life of obedience to God even if it meant giving up his own desire for solitude.

This opening verse relates to a question I will expand on later: if the sick need curing, and the hungry need feeding; what do the disciples need?


Jesus doesn't see the crowd as being an ignorant bunch of fools who need proper teaching about the Bible or about the church or about the kingdom. Jesus sees the crowd as people with problems, people with illnesses, people, who are hungry. Perhaps we think too much and spend too much time and energy just trying to teach people. What about their other needs?

I've often used this quote from the course Witnesses for Christ, "You don't throw a drowning person a sandwich no matter how good the sandwich is." For news to be truly good, it has to meet some need of the hearer/receiver.

Jesus also suggests that prayers may be answered in different ways.

The sick are healed instantly by Jesus alone. They present their needs and Jesus responds.

The hungry are fed after a lot of work by the disciples.

The disciples don't actually present to Jesus the need of the crowd, but their solution: "Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves" (v. 15). It seems like a reasonable request. Boring writes:

The disciples assume (or hope) that the village markets will be able to cope with crowds of five thousand plus. Contrary to Jesus' teaching, they look first to the imperial economy to supply the need, rather than to God (6:25-34). [p. 306]

How often are our prayers asking God to bless our plans, rather than putting ourselves at God's disposal?

Jesus tells them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat" (v. 16). (Note that the "you" is emphasized in Greek.)

Why does Jesus do this? Perhaps it was a word that the disciples needed to hear. When Jesus sees the sick, he heals. When he sees the ignorant, he teaches. When he sees the demon-possessed, he exorcises. When he sees the hungry, he provides food. When he sees disciples, he challenges them to go to work: "You do something." (Or, more specifically, "feed the hungry.")

Have you ever thought about how much work it would be to distribute food to 5000 men, besides women and children -- and then to clean up the mess? Could it be significant that there were 12 disciples and 12 baskets of garbage picked up at the end?

It would have been so much easier for the disciples if Jesus had done what they asked, "Send the people away." He will do that later in v. 22.

There certainly could have been other ways of feeding the hungry that didn't involve so much work by the disciples. Jesus could have miraculously made the people's hunger pains disappear. If Jesus was going to miraculously make food appear -- why not have it appear in the stomachs -- no work for the disciples and no garbage to clean up. Jesus could have waved his hand and the magic words, "Colonel Sanders," and every family would have their own bucket of chicken right in front of them.

As I suggested in other notes, Matthew has an emphasis that being disciples means more than just being learners. It also means being workers. This text also suggests that the disciples need to be stewards of the meager resources at their disposal.

Sometimes, for divine miracles to occur, disciples may have to do a lot of work. Perhaps that is a difference between disciples and the crowds. While all received the benefit of the miracle; the disciples were asked to work and work hard to make it happen -- and then to clean up the mess -- each had one of the twelve baskets to fill up.

Along this line Boring states: "However the story is interpreted, Jesus' charge to his disciples stands: 'You give them something to eat.' The source of the feeding is God, but the resources are human. The work of the disciples, the "bread" of human effort, is honored, used, and magnified by Jesus." [p. 326]


One might also make a comparison/contrast between the first temptation. In Matthew's account, the Tempter's first request is to turn stones (plural) into loaves (plural) of bread (Mt 4:3). (In Luke's account stones and loaves are singular.) In Matthew, it does not seem to be a temptation just to feed himself, but to do some miracle where much bread is produced. This is perhaps a temptation to do something that brings glory to himself even though it may provide food for the hungry. In that wilderness it was not the proper time nor motivation to miraculously provide food.

When he does miraculously feed the crowds, it seems unlikely to me that the crowds even knew about the miracle that produced the bread. They just received a portion from the disciples. Jesus did what was needed without drawing great attention to himself -- especially himself as a miracle worker. His act was not motivated by the Tempter. It was not motivated by his desire for personal glory. He just blessed the food before a meal as was usual in Jewish families. With such a large crowd, some probably didn't even hear his prayer or see him looking up into heaven.


Matthew has a stronger connection between this feeding and the Last Supper (Mt 26:20-29). The verbs "take, bless, broke, & give" are exactly the same in Greek (although their forms and tenses may differ) in both contexts. (There are slight differences of words in comparing these two texts in the other synoptics.) In addition, in Matthew, the fish disappear during distribution.

Also in Matthew there is a greater hint that this feast prefigures the end time feast. Matthew's other use of the Greek anaklino = "lie (sit) down" = "lie/sit at a table to eat" (v. 19) is in 8:11: "Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac in the kingdom of heaven."

It's hard to tell where the crowd came from who meet Jesus on the beach (v. 14). Often trips in a boat signified going to a Gentile territory (8:28; 14:34) or back to Jewish lands (9:1). Whether they were Jews or Gentiles or both, it was a "great crowd" (v. 14), probably coming from east and west.


After John's death, Jesus seeks to be alone. The crowds don't allow it. But after caring for their needs, he dismisses the crowds, and he goes up the mountain by himself to pray (v. 23). We all struggle with dividing our time and energies caring for our own needs and caring for the needs of others -- our time alone with God and our time together with the saints and the needy. According to family systems theory, this is a primary tension that each healthy person (or group) faces. Caring for self (as an individual and as a group) and caring for others are both important. An over-emphasis on either leads to unhealthy narcissism or enmeshment.

I think that we also need to struggle with "salvation by grace through faith" and the demand to bear good fruit. James 2:14-17 says: "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' [same word as in Mt 14:20] and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."

Theologically, I am aware of the heresies of Pelagius and his little brother Semi. We can't add anything to God's gift of salvation. However, practically speaking, we can't just pray that God would provide housing for the homeless or food to the hungry or money in the offering plate. We need to spend a week or more working for Habitat for Humanity. We need to participate in CROP Walks, send money to Hunger Appeals and food to food banks. We need to be generous with our regular giving to the church.

I wonder what might happen if at all our congregational potluck meals we invited the homeless and poor to come and eat -- knowing that they couldn't bring a dish to share. Certainly, most of our congregations donate to food banks to feed the poor and hungry; but what about the fellowship that comes about by gathering in groups and eating together? Don't they also need that?

The Methodist Church a few blocks away from my church periodically has free meals for the community. Part of the reason is to offer food to the hungry transients who are in the area. Part of the reason is to get local folks together to meet one another. Part of the reason is that those doing it enjoy doing it. How many other congregations have even considered having a potluck that is for the whole community -- especially those who have no pots or luck?

In our text the disciples express concern for the needs of the crowd. They bring those needs to Jesus. We need to pray for others. Sometimes Jesus' answer to our intercessions is, "You do something about it." We might push the answer even further, "I've provided you with food, distribute it. I've provided you with money, donate some. I've provided you with time and abilities, volunteer them."

Frequently the image of the church as a "hospital for sinners" is used. That is a good corrective to the impression that it is a "club for saints." However, as a "hospital for sinners," in order for the church to do its "healing" ministry, it will need dedicated, committed, and trained workers and volunteers, just like a hospital needs doctors, nurses, administrators, dieticians, housekeepers, volunteers, etc. Sometimes we come to church being more of a sinner in need of healing -- a consumer. (Especially using the image of holy communion where we consume Christ in bread and wine, consumerism may not be a bad image for the church.) Sometimes we come to church being more of a volunteer to bring God's miracles to other sinners -- a contributor.

From what I've read about the early church, primarily Hippolytus of Rome, they were more concerned about right living than they were about right theology. For example, he has a list of unacceptable occupations, which had to be given up in order to join the church, e.g., prostitution. Baptismal sponsors testified to the behaviors of the candidates, not the orthodoxy of their faith-statements. At the same time he also has the first clear reference to baptizing infants before they can speak or do anything. I also realize that Hippolytus is not scriptures or part of our confessions; but with our many consumer-minded church members' "serve me" attitudes, perhaps we need to stress the need for contributing-minded church members with a "serve others" attitude. Divine miracles can require a lot of human work.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364