In today’s Gospel reading Jesus feeds a crowd of people who have come to follow Him. There are those who find this improbable and who even feel the need to emphasise the metaphorical aspect of the event. That would be a mistake on at least two levels. In the first place one can hardly profess a belief in the most miraculuous event of all, the Resurrection of Jesus, and doubt that He had the ability to feed those who needed Him. In the second place, it risks taking away from the deep meaning of the event.
It is prefaced by what must have been a truly awful event for Jesus – the execution of His cousin, John at the whim of the tyrant, Herod. Like so many of us His first reaction was to find a place of solitude where He could mourn and perhaps come to terms with what had just happened. It is a need common to humanity, and reminds us that Jesus truly was human as well as divine. It is in His reaction to those who interrupted His need for solitude that we glimpse the Divine. Where you or I might have been irritated, Jesus is “moved to pity.” The Greek goes further and refers to a stirring of the body’s “inward parts,” which tells us something of the depth of His compassion. Where life has been taken, despite His own sorrow, Jesus gives life.
His disciples get the point that you or I might have got, that He needs silence and space; Jesus gets the larger point, which is that where there is need, there He must be with God’s love. So He heals. Then, rather than disperse the crowd, He feeds them. There is a reference back here to the Manna in the wilderness, as well as a resonance forward to the Last Supper. Here Jesus offers His time and patience, later it will be His body and His blood.
The miracle upon which we tend to focus is the feeding of the five thousand (although, given the women and children who were not counted, it must have been more), but we should not forget the sign of God’s Grace in Jesus putting aside His own needs for ours. There is love, not that we love Him, but that He loved us first. The miracle is God’s compassion for us. However much we may feel undeserving, it is ours all the same. Can we go and do likewise?