What’s the difference between the feeding of the 4,000 and the 5,000?
The difference is obviously 1,000! However, there’s another importance difference and I’d like to take a look at that today…
In the Gospel last week, we heard Matthew’s account of the feeding of the five thousand. The feeding of the multitudes was clearly important to the Gospel writers since, aside from the Resurrection, it is the only miracle recorded by all four Evangelists.
However, it is important to note that both Matthew and Mark record two different feedings of the multitude. The first feeding is of 5,000 people and the subsequent one is of 4,000:
When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”… taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds… And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. – Matthew 14:13-21
Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days, and have nothing to eat; and I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.”… And commanding the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds… Those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children… – Matthew 15:32-39
Why did Matthew and Mark include two miracles of the same kind? After all, if Jesus has already fed 5,000 people, what is really added to the Gospel story by including a second feeding of a smaller number? It seems odd. Wouldn’t it have been better to use that precious ink and parchment to record some different miracle?
Location, location, location…
The feeding of the 4,000 is important because of where it took place. The feeding of the 5,000 took place near Bethsaida, close to the Sea of Galilee. In contrast, the feeding of the 4,000 took place in the region of the Gerasenes, in the region around the Decapolis.
Okay, so the two miracles took place in different regions, so what? It’s important because the first region was Jewish (5,000) and the second region was Gentile (4,000). There are some numerical clues in the text which also point to this distinction (numbers in the Bible are rarely accidental)…
1. Feeding of the 5,000
In this miracle, Jesus takes five loves and feeds five thousand, which is reminiscent of the five books of the Jewish Law (Genesis, Exodus, …). Not only that, but when everyone had finished eating, twelve baskets of left-overs were collected, which was probably alluding to the twelve tribes of Israel.
2. Feeding of the 4,000
In this second miracle, seven loaves are used and seven baskets are collected. The number seven is symbolic of completeness (i.e. not just Jews but Gentiles too) and the number seven is evocative of the seven days of creation when God created all humanity.
So, what is the significance of two feedings of the multitudes? Both miracles show the provision of the Lord, His love for all His people, both Jew and Gentile. In these miracles He feeds them with miraculous bread, in preparation for the day when they would be fed sacramentally by His very own Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread
– 1 Corinthians 10:17