In those days when there again was a great crowd without anything to eat,
Jesus summoned the disciples and said,
“My heart is moved with pity for the crowd,
because they have been with me now for three days
and have nothing to eat.
If I send them away hungry to their homes,
they will collapse on the way,
and some of them have come a great distance.”
His disciples answered him, “Where can anyone get enough bread
to satisfy them here in this deserted place?”
Still he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?”
They replied, “Seven.”
He ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground.
Then, taking the seven loaves he gave thanks, broke them,
and gave them to his disciples to distribute,
and they distributed them to the crowd.
They also had a few fish.
He said the blessing over them
and ordered them distributed also.
They ate and were satisfied.
They picked up the fragments left over–seven baskets.
There were about four thousand people.
He dismissed the crowd and got into the boat with his disciples
and came to the region of Dalmanutha.
8:1–2 In contrast to the earlier miracle of the loaves, this time Jesus takes the initiative. He has continued his ministry of mercy in the Decapolis area, and so great is the people’s attraction to him that they have remained with him for three days and have nothing to eat. Jesus is evidently satisfying a need deeper than physical hunger. Yet he also cares about the people’s bodily needs. In the previous incident his compassion was occasioned by their being like sheep without a shepherd (6:34), a biblical image for God’s people lacking sound leadership. Here it is their hunger that causes him to be moved with pity. As in 1:41 and 6:34 the verb denotes strong, gut-wrenching emotion.
8:3 As if to test his disciples (see John 6:6), he presents the problem to them: If I send them away hungry, they will collapse on the way. The word for collapse (RSV “faint”) is used elsewhere in the New Testament for losing heart or getting discouraged in the face of the struggles of the Christian life (Gal 6:9; Heb 12:3, 5). Jesus is challenging his disciples to stretch their faith, as a lesson for their future pastoral ministry: How will they respond when God’s people faint for lack of spiritual nourishment, and they do not have the resources to feed them? Will their solution be to send the people away (as in Mark 6:36), or will they trust Jesus to provide, using whatever small amount they can give him?
8:4 The disciples’ skeptical response (echoing Moses’ complaint in Num 11:13), seems strange in light of the miraculous feeding they have already witnessed. But many modern disciples of Jesus could attest how easy it is to forget the lessons of discipleship. Throughout the Bread Section Mark highlights the disciples’ slowness to grasp the revelation of Jesus (Mark 6:52; 8:21)—not to disparage them, but to remind us, his readers, of the poverty of our own faith. Do we not yet understand that Jesus is the Bread, and that he is able to multiply whatever we put into his hands?
8:5–7 Since the disciples do not yet grasp the point, Jesus gives them a hint to remind them of the earlier bread miracle: How many loaves do you have? This time the answer is seven, barely enough for a lean meal for the Twelve. Again Jesus orders the crowd to sit down, as if reclining for a banquet. Mark records nearly the same sequence of actions as in 6:41, again with eucharistic overtones. Instead of saying that Jesus “blessed” the loaves, Mark uses a synonym, gave thanks (eucharisteō), the same word used for the blessing of the cup at the Last Supper (14:23; see also Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24). Once again the pattern is that Jesus takes what little his disciples have to offer, blesses it, and gives it back to them; in that very process the paltry amount mysteriously becomes more than enough to satisfy the needs of all. Rather than handing out the loaves himself, Jesus insists on the involvement of his disciples: he gave them to his disciples to distribute. Because of its eucharistic significance, the primary focus is on the bread; only afterward does Mark also mention the blessing and distribution of the few fish.
8:8–10 The people who were famished only moments before ate and were satisfied, as proven by the abundant leftover fragments. Mark carefully records the numbers involved, hinting at their symbolic significance. In the first feast in the desert Jesus had fed five thousand men with five loaves and two fish, ending up with twelve baskets of leftovers; this time, in Gentile territory, he feeds four thousand with seven loaves and a few fish, ending up with seven baskets of leftovers. The word for baskets is different; whereas in 6:43 Mark used a term denoting wicker baskets typically used by Jews, here he uses the ordinary Greek word for a (large) basket (see Acts 9:25). The numbers suggest a similar Jew-Gentile contrast. Twelve signifies the twelve tribes of Israel; seven may be intended to evoke the seven pagan nations that inhabited Canaan before Israel entered the land (Deut 7:1; Acts 13:19). The number four alludes to the four directions of the compass (see Rev 7:1); thus the four thousand fed by Jesus represent the whole world, to whom the mission of the Church would be directed.
Friends, today’s Gospel tells of Jesus feeding the four thousand with seven loaves and a few fish.
An awful lot of contemporary theologians and Bible commentators have tried to explain away the miracles of Jesus as spiritual symbols. Perhaps most notoriously, many preachers tried to explain the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as a “miracle” of charity, with everyone sharing the little that he had.
But I think it’s hard to deny that the first Christians were intensely interested in the miracles of Jesus, and that they didn’t see them as mere literary symbols! They saw them for what they really were: actions of God, breaking into our world.
– Bishop Robert Barron