14:15 – The disciples are full of reasons to dismiss the crowds, and very reasonable reasons they sound, too: “The place is deserted/wilderness” (ἐρημός ὁ τόπος) and “the hour is late” (literally, “has already passed on”, ἤδη παρῆλθεν). But we have also seen that the disciples have pretensions to be gatekeepers to Jesus, so that He sometimes has to overrule them: “Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not.” Likewise, note that the Greeks in John 12:21 come to Philip to gain access to Jesus. I do not want to impute motives unjustly, but there does seem a likelihood that the disciples are urging Jesus to “dismiss the crowd” so that they may have Him to themselves for a while.
This makes Jesus’ reply quite pointed: “They do not need to go away” – quite the contrary! What they need is to be with Jesus. And the disciples need to be the means by which that happens.
Like the book of Jonah, the entire episode of the feeding of the 5,000 is orchestrated to change the attitude of the disciples. They are to learn their job: “You give them something to eat.” This is the logical extension (as the Master, so the disciples) of Jesus’ own utterance: “my flesh is food indeed.” The disciples need to learn that their lives are to be “blessed, broken, and given” for the life of the world, as was Jesus’.
The Greek is very emphatic: δότε αὐτοῖς ὑμεῖς φαγεῖν. The pronoun is displaced from any of the normal positions: “Give them, you, [something] to eat.” Yet the real emphasis comes from the miracle itself. The way Jesus teaches this lesson is as personal and unforgettable as His teaching them about servanthood by washing of their feet. He gives each doubting disciple a basket full of bread fragments. We ought to consider the OT antecedents for this miracle. I have heard many sermons that link it to the Manna – an easy connection, since Jesus makes it Himself (John 6:36). But the closest precedent is instead the miracle done by Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42-44:
Then a man came from Baal Shalisha, and brought the man of God (sc. Elisha) bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley bread, and newly ripened grain in his knapsack. And he said, “Give it to the people, that they may eat.”
But his servant said, “What? Shall I set this before one hundred men?”
He said again, “Give it to the people, that they may eat; for thus says the Lord: ‘They shall eat and have some left over.’” So he set it before them; and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the Lord.
Note the parallels: Elisha’s disciples constitute a movement contrary to the established kingdom of the Omride dynasty, just as Jesus’ kingdom movement is an affront to the house of Herod. In both stories, it is the nutritionally inferior barley bread, foodstuff of the poor, that is multiplied. In both stories, the master commands his disciples to distribute to the people. In both stories, the disciples object on the grounds of the scantiness of the provisions: “What? Shall I set this before one hundred men?” “A lad here has 5 barley loaves and two fish, but what are they among so many?” And in both stories there are leftovers.
There is a political dimension to this as well, as we should recall from Acts 12:20-23, where the inhabitants of Phoenicia are willing to call Herod Antipas’ voice “of a god and not of a man” because “their region was supplied with food from the king’s country”. Consider the famous American electoral promise of “a chicken in every pot” (the RNC for Hoover in 1928), or the Rabshakeh’s promises to Jerusalem in the name of Sennacherib in 2 Kings 18:
… for so has the king of Assyria said, “Make peace with me, and come out to me, and each man will eat of his vine and each man of his fig tree, and each man will drink the water of his cistern. Until I come and take you to a land like your land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of oil yielding olives and honey, and you may live and not die, and do not heed Hezekiah for he will mislead you, saying, ‘The Lord will save us.’
Promises of prosperity and food are part of what Walter Brueggemann calls “the economics of satiety” by which “the royal consciousness” is perpetuated in the minds of the people: panis et circenses. Bread and political power are linked again in 2 Kings 7:1-2, where Elisha predicts that “Tomorrow about this time a seah of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria” – and is immediately contradicted by a servant of the king. And we should remember that the manna, that type of the bread in Matthew 14, was sent as a response to the Israelites’ complaints against Moses and Aaron: “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3)
Bread and power go together. Feeding 5,000 people and echoing Elisha is not an apolitical move by Jesus.