The symbolism of the multiplication of loaves and fish has to do with the teaching of Jesus. Jesus breaks down the Law (five loaves, the pentateuch), and the prophets (the two fish, major and minor prophets) so that all may be nourished by this teaching. The insufficiency of the Law and the Prophets is made abundantly nourishing through the grace of Christ. This was the same reality that the children of Israel struggled with in the desert. The food that God provided, the manna, seemed truly insufficient. The people wanted flesh to eat, to satisfy their cravings. God comes in the flesh of Jesus to fully satisfy our cravings. The Law and the Prophets could not satisfy the craving for communion with God because it only served to reinforce the weight of sin and separation. Jesus is not bringing a teaching that is different in content from the Law and the Prophets. Rather, He makes that teaching abundantly satisfying by fulfilling it in His flesh and multiplying it for us.
The twelve are all given baskets of the leftovers that they may continue to satisfy the cravings for truth and communion with God of all the people they encounter. Jesus reveals by this gesture that they will continue His work by giving the food of truth themselves, and that by their communion with Him they will always have an abundance. Even Judas carries a basket with which he could feed the poor – Christ is already showing him how much more important it is to receive His teaching and share it generously than worry about money.
This is why Jesus withdrew. But the crowds do not withdraw from him. They try to follow him, as if riveted to him. Not even John’s tragic end diverted or frightened them. So great a thing is earnest desire, so great a thing is love, that it overcomes and dispels all dangers.1
HILARY OF POITIERS:
Having taken the bread and the fish, the Lord looked up to heaven, then blessed and broke them. He gave thanks to the Father that, after the time of the law and the prophets, he himself was soon to be changed into evangelical food. After this the people were ordered to sit on the grass but not to lie down. Supported by the law, each one was covered as it were with the fruit of his works as with the grass on the ground.2
In this miracle Jesus was teaching them humility, temperance, charity, to be of like mind toward one another and to share all things in common. He did so in his choice of location, by providing nothing more than loaves and fishes, by setting the same food before all and having them share it in common and by affording no one more than another.3
HILARY OF POITIERS:
The loaves were given to the apostles, for through them the gifts of divine grace were to be administered. The crowds were then fed with the five loaves and two fish, and they were satisfied. The leftover fragments of bread and fish, after the people had their fill, amounted to twelve baskets. Thus, by the word of God coming from the teaching of the law and the prophets, the multitude was satisfied; and an abundance of divine power, reserved for the Gentiles from the ministry of the eternal food, was left over for the twelve apostles.4
And not even here does he hold back on the miracle, but it continues as the loaves become fragments. The broken pieces signify that of those loaves, some remained unreceived. This was in order that those who were absent might also learn what had been done.
For this providential purpose, then, Jesus indeed permitted the crowds to get hungry in order that no one might suppose what took place to be as illusion.
For this purpose he also caused just twelve baskets to remain over: That Judas, too, might bear one. He wanted all the disciples to know his power. He fed their hunger. In Elijah’s case something similar also took place.5
The people in the desert deserved to be reprimanded, not because they desired meat but because they murmured against the Lord as a result of this desire for meat.6
For when evil becomes our delight and good the opposite, we ought to entreat God to win us back to the love of the good rather than to grant us the evil.7
We would be censured along with those who dwelled in the desert and who desired the disgusting food of vice and filthiness after having eaten the heavenly manna, and we would seem to complain like them: “It was well with us in Egypt, when we sat over pots of flesh and ate onions and garlic and cucumbers and melons.” Although this manner of speaking first referred to that people, nonetheless we see it now daily fulfilled in our life and profession. For everyone who has first renounced this world and then returns to his former pursuits and his erstwhile desires proclaims that in deed and in intention he is the same as they were, and he says, “It was well with me in Egypt.”8
- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 49. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (p. 7). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON MATTHEW 4.11. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (p. 8). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 49.3. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (p. 8). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON MATTHEW 4.11. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (pp. 8–9). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 49.3. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (p. 9). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- CONFESSIONS 10.31.46. Lienhard, J. T., & Rombs, R. J. (Eds.). (2001). Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (p. 216). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- TRACTATE ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 73.2. Lienhard, J. T., & Rombs, R. J. (Eds.). (2001). Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (p. 216). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- CONFERENCE 3.7.5–6. Lienhard, J. T., & Rombs, R. J. (Eds.). (2001). Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (p. 216). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.