Unconditional Generosity: Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand

CAFOD Icon: “Feeding of the Five Thousand” by Sr Esther of the Benedictine Community in Turvey, Bedfordshire.

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16 Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17 They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18 And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Matthew 14:13-21 NRSVA

The story of how Jesus manages to feed over five thousand people with only five loaves of bread and two fish is one of the Gospels’ most well-known miracles. It’s found in all four gospels, each told with a different theological and didactic emphasis; each Gospel writer wants us to take away something different from the narrative. So what does Matthew want his readers to know after reading this story?

A major theme in the Gospel of Matthew is that Jesus is the model for Christian disciples and that by reading the stories and teachings within, we can discern our own good discipleship and continue Jesus’ work. So perhaps we should explore how the disciples react to the situation around them. When evening comes, they notice that the large crowds around them are still there and they’re keen to not take responsibility for them, telling Jesus to send them away to get food for themselves. It seems understandable – it’s been a long day and the disciples want to spend their evening together. But Jesus feels differently, telling them it’s up to them to feed the crowds.

Once again, the disciples look for an excuse to send the crowds away, saying that they don’t have enough to feed everyone – and once again, Jesus challenges their reluctance by asking them to bring the little food they have to him. He blesses it and there is more than enough to feed everyone.

In the story, the disciples are indicative of what many societies teach us: to keep our resources to ourselves, to look after our own first, and that every person is responsible for themself. This worldview is expressed as “we don’t have enough for you too.” But Jesus’ miracle clearly demonstrates the message of Matthew’s story: what holds us back in helping others is not a lack of resources, but a lack of generosity.

Perhaps the story would have been different if the crowd weren’t a group of strangers. As individuals we find it easy to be generous to those we love; we don’t mind sharing our possessions and resources with our friends and loved ones, we always find time to talk to those who mean something to us, and we’re more likely to do things that may not be repaid for those we care about. But often we walk past homeless people saying “sorry, I haven’t got any money” when our wealth is vast compared to theirs. We say “I haven’t got time” when we don’t want to help with things we deem unworthy of our investment. Our generosity is so often conditional. By being generous we make ourselves vulnerable to losing something, and we’re only willing to do this for those we love. Matthew is clear that discipleship requires an unconditional generosity based upon love and compassion for our neighbours. We are called to share what we have with all, regardless of how we think of others.

We must also look at the bigger picture and ask why there are people who have more than others in the first place. The concept that there is an uneven distribution of economic resources and a disparity in the quality of life between the rich and the poor is known as social inequality. In a society where there are hierarchies of ethnicity, gender, age, wealth, power, and prestige, it’s no wonder that certain groups have better access to resources, rewards, and opportunities, and that society is more willing to help those groups in power.

We live in an unequal world. The richest 1% have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people combined. By increasing the taxes of the 1% by a mere 0.5%, enough revenue could be generated over 10 years to create 117 million jobs. The 22 richest men in the world have more wealth than all the women in Africa, while globally women and girls contribute 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work each day, valued at $10.8 trillion – three times the size of the global tech industry. Although the world produces enough food to feed everyone, 690 million people go to bed hungry each night – that’s 1 in 9, while 1 in 3 people suffer from malnutrition.

Governments are often reluctant to improve the lives of the poor, citing deficits, overspending, and an inability to make change. But these same governments are able to spend money on increasing military budgets and tax-cuts for the super wealthy. The world does not suffer from a lack of resources, but instead from a lack of unconditional generosity.

What Matthew wants us to realise is that we must never assume that our resources are not enough to help others. Generosity is a constant theme in the Gospels – the poor widow who gives all she has is praised (Mark 12:41-44), and Jesus tells a rich young man that he must give away all his possessions to the poor to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:16–3). Perhaps the most profound act of unconditional generosity in the Gospels is Jesus’ death and resurrection, giving his whole self for all humanity so that they may know God’s love and know that no power or structure can overcome God’s justice.

It would be naive to suggest that simply asking people to be more generous will create a fairer, more just world. We must proactively work towards dismantling oppressive structures that allow social inequality and resource hoarding to perpetuate. We must work towards dismantling white supremacy and institutional racism so that people of colour are no longer denied access to resources and justice based on racist systems. We must advocate for gender equality so that the gender pay gap is no longer a reality. We must petition governments to give trans* and non-binary people the same rights and protections as everyone else. We must expose the exploitation of big corporations and fight for a more just and compassionate economic system.

Jesus is clear: there is room at the table for all (John 14:2) and there is enough for everyone. May we be more unconditionally generous in how we share our resources and may we fight for justice in a world where social inequality is a sombre reality.

By your feeding of the five thousand in the desert, grant us a readiness to share the goods you give us.

By your strengthening the hungry and giving life to the weary, strengthen us to share your life with others.

By your raining down manna in the wilderness for your wandering people, rain down your manna of good will for a fair distribution of food among all peoples.

By your giving us life in the Eucharist strengthen us to take and give your life to others and those less fortunate than ourselves.

And we give glory, praise and thankfulness for your merciful compassion and care for all peoples of the earth.

Prayer by Sr Esther of the Benedictine Community in Turvey, Bedfordshire.