We don’t have the same amount of context for this miracle in John’s Gospel compared to the synoptic Gospels. Prior to this in John, we have the woman at the well in Samaria (Chapter 4) and the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda (Chapter 5). In other Gospels this miracle happens after the beheading of John the Baptist and after the first missionary journey of the Apostles. There isn’t anything to disprove such a context in John, but it isn’t his primary focus for presenting this special sign that Jesus gave.
The scene for this passage of the Gospel opens with Jesus and His Apostles having crossed by boat to a big hillside with a lot of springtime grass. They go up some distance (implied by the word climbed) and then sit. God has chosen this location specifically for what is to happen.
It is entirely plausible that they could have been there a while, even several days, before the crowd arrives, because if they filled 12 baskets used for provisions while travelling, it stands to reason that they must have been empty, or very close to empty.
Why do you sit? To rest on a journey, to look at and appreciate a view, to converse, to eat, to teach, to listen, even to mourn (sit shiva), and also as an expression of authority (A judge sits to give verdicts, a king sits on a throne for official proceedings, we also talk about sittings of parliament.).
This scene can be viewed as Jesus, King, sitting with His trusted counsellors, advisors, princes, waiting for His army to arrive before the banquet can begin. Because 5000 men is army size, or at least enough for a planned ambush (Joshua 8).
Why did so many come to this designated location? And on the same day? And in this Gospel account, the maleness of the crowd is stressed. John uses “Have the men (anthropous) sit down /fall back, lean back, recline”, “so the men (andres) sat down/reclined”, “When the men (anthropoi) saw the sign that Jesus had performed/caused/made…”
An internal invitation from the Father is one likely answer.
A hunger for Jesus, and a desire to be a part of whatever God is doing, is another likely answer.
Curiosity is another possibility, but curiosity doesn’t usually go as far as significant travel by foot or by boat, and then a decent climb up the hill. That travel, and that climb, speak to the fitness of these men for battle.
It doesn’t feel like the men planned to do this travel in advance, or else they would have brought provisions with them. So this, ‘I’ve got to drop everything now, and go, God is calling me’ becomes more plausible, and really is God the Father marshalling an army of chosen men. We’ve heard accounts like this of ‘I’ve got to go’ from the children of Fatima, and others who have had heavenly encounters with the bodily presence of the mother of Jesus.
Philip may have been the best haggler/barterer and estimator of the apostles, quartermaster even, for the group, and good at it. Conservatively, if we accept that a denarius was a day’s wages, and a day’s wages would feed a family, even looking at a family size of six, and splitting a family member’s ration into 4, that’s 200 x 6 x 4 for a small piece each. 4800.
This is a massive assembly of men being marshalled high on a grassy hillside of Galilee by God the Father.
It is an army.
It is really weird that Jesus doesn’t do any teaching. Apart from His question to Philip, He only gives two commands, ‘Have the men sit down/recline’ and ‘Pick up the pieces left over’. These are the kind of commands you give to troops.
An army, of course, marches on its stomach. It is basic nourishing food; with a bit of zing as befits the king’s table.
Barley is the first grain harvested in the springtime, and it produces dark coloured loaves with a crunchy exterior, a chewy interior and stronger flavour than wheat. The word used for the fish ‘opsaria’ implies that they are small, probably boiled, and thus very easy to smear with fingers onto bread as a relish. Think a primitive kind of anchovette or sardine spread. That’s why the focus remains so strongly on the bread.
We have a perfect spring day, in a wide lush location with a spectacular view, marshalled together by God, for a meal of biblical proportions and biblical significance.
One of the expectations of the promised Messiah is that he would multiply food like the prophets of old, eg Elisha and Elijah. Jesus has just done that, but He has done it with Eucharistic overtones and Eucharistic and Passover significance.
‘Take, give thanks, break, distribute’ is the pattern of the Eucharist.
The Passover lamb had to be completely consumed, or the remainder burnt. Consider how incredible it is for a crowd of this massive size to only have enough scraps remaining to fill the 12 provision knapsacks. And you can be sure the hungry apostles will eat all those scraps.
The Eucharist is THE food of the army of God.
Jesus is that food.
They came hungry for Him, and He gave them an experience of Himself that points directly to the soon-to-come institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.
Indeed, the hungrier they were, the more they were given, because each received as much as he wanted – and all were completely satiated.
They experienced a foretaste and an earthly approximation to what the King’s heavenly banquet will be.
But it is God’s kingdom, not an earthly kingdom; so Jesus made Himself scarce as soon as it was over lest those wanting an earthy kingdom ruin God’s perfect plan for an eternal kingdom.
This is a Very Big sign that Jesus is who He claims to be; the Son of God, and that God can completely provide for His people. We can safely trust in God, and safely trust in Jesus.
May our hunger for Him, and our hunger for His Eucharist always grow and never diminish. Amen.
And when God calls, and marshals us, may our response be complete and immediate. Amen.