Lessons from Loaves and Fishes

I normally avoid the “horizontal harmony” model of New Testament commentary—analysis that takes pieces out of each gospel and strings them together into a single narrative that supposedly tells a single story. That’s just not how narratives work. Each gospel was created to be a complete story in its own right. Each evangelist had different doctrinal and rhetorical objectives, and we miss these when we smush them all together or treat the New Testament like a jigsaw puzzle with nicely interlocking pieces spread across four different boxes.

On the other hand, though, we can learn a lot by studying the events that are repeated in most or all of the gospels. With any ancient source, including the Bible, multiple independent attributions tell us things. Other than the events of Holy Week—which are remarkably similar in the four gospels—very few events in Jesus’s life are documented in all four gospels. When we find something that is, we can be sure that the first generation of Christians saw that thing as an important part of their faith.

By that criteria, the most important thing that Jesus did before the final week of his life was to feed a multitude of 5000 men (plus women and children) with five loaves of bread and two fish. This story occurs, with almost all details handled consistently in all four gospels: Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-14. Furthermore, a similar story of Jesus feeding 4,000 (plus women and children) occurs in Matthew (15:32-39) and Mark (8:1-9). While the first Christians disagreed about many important historical and doctrinal points concerning the namesake of their religion, they all seemed to agree that Jesus fed people.

For both Matthew and Luke, the story takes on an extra dimension, as it recalls Satan’s first temptation of Christ in the wilderness. In these passages (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4: 1-13). In those passages, Jesus had been fasting for 40 days, and the devil challenged him to turn a stone into bread. Jesus resists the temptation by quoting scripture. When he is faced with the prospect of OTHER people being hungry in the desert, Jesus does things differently. He still doesn’t turn stones into bread. But he turns a little bit of bread into a lot of bread. And in the process, he teaches some important lessons about service, pastoral care, and leadership in the Church. Here are five of them:

Temporal needs have spiritual consequences
At the core of all six multitude-feeding stories is a very simple narrative: people were hungry, and Jesus made sure that they were fed. It is significant that this happened while Jesus was teaching the gospel—an activity that the New Testament frequently equates with nourishing the spirit (Mat 4:4, John 14:4). In several places, Jesus has to remind his followers that, while metaphorical nourishment is fine and important, non-metaphorical nourishment is also vital—and that people cannot focus on the things of the spirit until their immediate physiological needs are taken care of. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus is actually criticized for being a “glutton and a drinker” because he rejected the ascetic lifestyle of John the Baptist and frequently ate and drank with his followers (Mat 11:18-19).

When he teaches a large audience until late in the evening and realizes that they want to stay and listen so much that they are neglecting to eat. When the disciples urge him to let the people go into the villages to buy food—essentially forcing them to choose between feeding their bodies and feeding their souls—Jesus insists on finding a way to nourish both body and soul at the same time. To put this a little differently, Jesus understands that physiological needs have spiritual consequences because a soul is both a body and a spirit. People cannot flourish if only one part of their soul has been fed, and genuine pastoral care cannot ignore things like food and shelter.

We are supposed to find our own ways to solve problems without turning people away
In all four gospels, the conversation between Jesus and his apostles goes like this: The disciples say that people are getting hungry, so Jesus should stop teaching and let them go buy food. And Jesus responds by saying, “you guys figure out how to feed them.” It is important to note that, before solving the problem, Jesus rejects their offered solution, which is to turn people away, and charges them with finding a way to feed them without turning them out. In Luke and John, the disciples protest that it would cost 200 denarii to feed everyone (a denarius was about one day’s wages for a common laborer), and Jesus tells them to see what people in the crowd have.

What I find most significant here is that, while the disciples wanted to solve the problem in the easiest way, which was to dismiss people and therefore make the vexing problem go away (including the unlikely assumption that everyone in the crowd had enough money to buy food in town). Jesus insisted that they come up with a better plan. It is always easier to solve problems by getting rid of people—who, let’s face it, cause most of our problems. But when we do that, we minister only to our own needs, and that just isn’t enough.

Communities usually have the resources to meet everyone’s needs, but that takes organization and a shared vision
One way to read the story of the loaves and the fishes is to shift the locus of the miracle from Jesus to the multitude—that is, to read the huge difference between the five loaves/2 fishes and the 5000 men (plus women and children) as a bit of narrative hyperbole to strengthen what Jesus really did: to convince everyone in the crowd to share the resources that they already had. Such hyperbole is not atypical of ancient texts, and we can’t deny that this is how the miracle begins. Jesus has the disciples ask everyone what they already have, and he made that enough for everybody.

If we read it this way—if we assume that the resources to feed the multitude already existed within the multitude but just weren’t distributed well—then we produce a near-perfect allegory for the world we live in today—the world contains all the resources necessary to feed everyone in it, but those resources are not well distributed, resulting in some people deprived of the resources they need to live. If we read the allegory this way, then we become the disciples charged with organizing ways to meet people’s temporal needs in a world of both vast abundance and profound inequality. This would be a miracle every bit as impressive as generating bread and fish bits out of thin air.

Nobody has to prove their worthiness to exist
There are some differences in the six versions of the loaves and fishes story-type. But not a single one of them records Jesus or his disciples asking people to prove that they were worthy of being fed. They don’t ask people to show an ID or take an oath. They don’t try to weed out Samaritans or Romans or Greeks. And they don’t try to make sure that anyone “belongs” in Galilee. Those who were hungry got food. That was the only qualification necessary, s it should be. Nobody ever has to prove that they have a right to exist.

Apostles eat last
In all four versions of the story, there are exactly twelve baskets of food left over after the multitude has been fed (nobody ever asks where the baskets came from)—for the twelve apostles who were managing the affair. The implication here is clear: apostles eat last. Guardians sleep on the floor. The people in charge have to make sure that everybody else is taken care of before they meet their own needs, and if there is any sacrificing to be done, they have to be the first ones to do it. This, it turns out, is a cardinal principle of leadership in the Kingdom of God.


  1. This may be my favorite NT reflection yet in terms of lessons learned. There is one more lesson I take from John 6:9 (only, not parallel in the other Gospels). “There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?” The lesson is be that lad. The boy who offered what he had even though it was not enough.

  2. I’m enjoying these insights. As we’re contemplating dealing with an evaporating Great Salt Lake, I also seen an application of this parable to the scripture in D&C, ie. the earth is full, there is enough and to spare. The issue is is not lack of resources, it’s the distribution, using what we have that is the key to not only humans but the earth.

  3. ” the most important thing that Jesus did before the final week of his life was to feed a multitude of 5000 men”

    No way: it’s the parallel healings of the suffering in society.

  4. These are very strange takeaways the OP is getting from this parable, and it seems that he is still trying to force a whole lot of meaning or read his opinions into things that might not be saying anything, really, about what he wants them to.

    For example, the observation that this is teaching about redistributing resources and needing an organization with a shared vision to accomplish this . . . the situation that necessitated the miracle is that there were literally not enough resources to go around. No organization or shared vision was going to fix that problem.

    It also doesn’t really state anywhere that the disciples ate last, or even when they ate. We do know, however, that when Jesus visited those at Bountiful, he distributed the bread of the sacrament to the disciples, who then were commanded to eat first before distributing to the rest of the people, who then ate. So probably doesn’t matter trying to figure out whether the 5,000 or disciples at first, last, or at the same time, or drawing a big lesson from this … we have at least one example or precedent of disciples charged with caring over people eating first and this not being a bad thing.

    I don’t think the disciples were being lazy, looking for the simplest solution, or trying to ‘make the vexing problem go away’ with their suggestions. They may have simply not had the power to create food miraculously and so weren’t aware this was an option. In John’s account, it states that Jesus asks the question about what to do knowing already how he was going to solve the problem (and also asked the question in loaded way – implying that the solution would involve buying bread). For all we know, he may have wanted the disciples to really fully consider the impossibility of feeding all of these people before he performed his miracle. Almost a bit like a magician setting the stage before his big trick.

    Lastly, the OP omitted a significant detail from John’s account which, if believable and taken at face value, shifts the focus away from whatever lessons on pastoral care that are being drawn, and more on how or how not to receive a miracle. The miracle did convince everyone that Jesus was special, but then they reacted by having a desire to take him by force and make him their king. In response, Jesus was forced to withdraw from them. The miracle turned to their own condemnation and the loss of Jesus’ presence because of what they wanted him to do for them once they saw and experienced his power. Interactions the next day with members of that same multitude reinforce the notion that they didn’t really understand why they received that miracle and what it was meant to demonstrate to them about who he was.

  5. See, I thoroughly enjoyed this reading of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes because of how perfectly it syncs up with the rest of Christ’s teachings–how he taught the rich young man to sell all that he has give to the poor, and the parable of the rich fool gathering into barns, and the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, not to mention the sheer fact that on the Day of Pentecost, the disciples “had all things common.” The premier importance of redistributing resources to feed the poor is likewise heavily endorsed by the Book of Mormon (4 Nephi 1:3; Mosiah 4:16-19; Mosiah 18:27; Jacob 2:13-9; 3 Nephi 26:19) and the Doctrine and Covenants (42:30-34; 49:20; 119:1). At a certain point, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s those who oppose the resource re-distribution reading who are imposing their own opinions, not the other way around.

  6. “Communities usually have the resources to meet everyone’s needs, but that takes organization and a shared vision”

    Another thought, one that is supported by the text, not just reading hyperbole in the text is community is never enough without God. The law of consecration won’t work, without God. When we gather, there is never enough to satisfy the need. But with God, he will multiple our willingness to share endlessly. But we have to first be a people coming to God through difficult circumstances (in the wilderness as it were) and be willing to give all we have.

    More specifically, interestingly, that “all we have” was given by just one or two. Think about that the next time you’re eating a meal. Will you give the entire thing away to someone who hasn’t prepared/worked/brought like you have?

    Also interestingly, the Savior, maybe with a bit of sarcasm told the apostles it was THEIR responsibility to feed the people. They were clearly unable to do so. So the Lord did it directly based on the generosity of a one or two willing disciples who gave all they had. More food for thought.

  7. J – Sorry, I may have not stated clearly my point on resource allocation, because I don’t think you quite understood what I was objecting to. As you have pointed out in your comment and citations, the importance of giving to the poor and giving of one’s plentiful resources to another who lacks is part of being a Christian.

    I labeled that as one of the strange takeaways because the OP called this one of the lessons specifically from the story of the feeding of the 5,000, and as I read that story at least, it has nothing to do it. You would need to look elsewhere for that lesson, as you have done.

    Rather, the miracle seems to be in the context of the opposite situation – there are insufficient collective resources to satisfy everybody, or really anybody at all. Jesus performed a miracle to fix the problem, and in the process I think also may have been attempting to teach the people who he was and what he was offering. At least that is what the rest of the story from John’s gospel seems to suggest.

  8. WW,

    I agree. Placing the feeding of the multitude in clear juxtaposition to the bread of life sermon yields the most profound meaning of that miracle.


    “…community is never enough without God.”

    This is absolutely critical to understanding how Zion operates–IMO. It’s not enough to impose a system of beliefs — however virtuous those beliefs may be — upon a society to get it functioning in a zion-like manner. There must be transformation on the part of the individuals within the group. And that can only happen by when they yield their hearts to God.

  9. I’m bemused by different understandings of how the multitude was fed. There may be a dozen readings, but I usually hear two–a stone soup version and an ex nihilo version. (I’m a stone soup reader, myself.) It seems obvious the takeaways will be different, depending on how you read the miracle.

  10. Kathleen L Stogner says:

    you said aesthetic – did you mean ascetic?

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