The feeding of the 5000 is described in all four gospels – the only one of Jesus’s miracles or signs that is. Each gospel writer focuses in slightly different ways – John tells us about the boy, about the green grass, and that the crowd wanted to make Jesus “king”.
All tell us of the miraculous feeding and the gathering of 12 baskets of left-overs. For the first readers this gathering in of 12 baskets would have been as remarkable as the feeding of the people – it is a symbolic gathering in of the 12 tribes of Israel who have been scattered and dispersed. The first readers would also have been reminded of the way that God fed the children of Israel in the wilderness. The people then were ‘satisfied’ full from the manna which God provided, and here the people are satisfied, full, from the bread which Jesus has provided. A third ‘echo’ would be with the story which is our Old Testament passage, where Elisha fed a crowd with only a little food. Jesus is seen as a second Elisha, the prophet returned. All these things help explain why the people want to make him king, why they saw in Jesus the prophet they were hoping for.
John says that Jesus withdrew at that point, it was not the time nor was this the way in which he would be revealed fully as king. Not as a king in front of an army, but crucified between two thieves – that is where the gospel tells us Jesus was proclaimed ‘King’, ‘King of the Jews’. What Jesus meant by King was very different from what the crowd were demanding.
Maybe the challenge for us is to see Jesus truly as King in the ordinariness of the day, and to trust he is king despite not having the great victories to prove it. John tells us Jesus did signs, signs which pointed to who he was, but his ministry was fulfilled in and through his sacrificial death.
In this Passover Jesus provides bread / food for the crowd, but at the subsequent Passover Jesus will be the bread – “This is my body”. John does not tell us about the Last Supper, his readers already knew it from Mark, but in this sign we find the bread shared so all are full, just as at the wedding of Cana we discovered the plentiful sharing of the wine for all the guests.
John is rich in the allusions and the references back to other passages, and we will be enriched if we think about them and discover what they mean, or what they might signify – for not everything is clear (what does John want us to understand by Jesus walking on the water, and the boat immediately reaching land?). But John also wants us to act on what we have read and heard, to sign up as disciples, as followers of Jesus as those who will share his love, speak his words, live for justice and the Kingdom values.
Will we be fed and strengthened today by God? – some of us are feeling in real need of some strength from God. Will we wonder at the generosity of God even if we are also a bit frightened and in awe of the mystery of a Jesus who we can’t control and who will not conveniently turn up as King and sort everything out? What do we get from this passage and what will we take away from it?
Rev’d Peter Reiss