Why did Jesus feed the 5,000?
Each Gospel writer gives a different answer. In this post, I’ll unpack Luke’s account. I’ll start wide before zooming in on the passage.
Luke writes his Gospel to give an “orderly account” of “all that Jesus began to do and teach” so a man named Theophilus could be certain about what he had been taught (Luke 1:1-4, Acts 1:1-2).
A few themes distinguish Luke’s Gospel, especially in contrast to Matthew and Mark:
- Jesus cares for the poor and marginalized of society.
- Jesus receives Gentiles.
- Jesus relies on and sends the Holy Spirit to carry out God’s work.
- Much space is spent “on the way” to Jerusalem (Luke 9-19).
These themes are not absent from the other Gospels; they’re just given greater prominence in Luke.
Luke orders his account of Jesus’ life around (primarily) geographic divisions:
- Prologue: Jesus’ birth and preparation for ministry—Luke 1:1-4:13
- Ministry in Galilee (northern Israel)—Luke 4:14-9:50
- Summary scenes—Luke 4:14-37
- First tour—Luke 4:38-7:50
- Second tour—Luke 8:1-56
- Third tour—Luke 9:1-50
- Journey to Jerusalem—Luke 9:51-19:27
- Final Week in Jerusalem—Luke 19:28-24:53
Because the feeding of the 5,000 occurs in Luke 9:10-17, this post will focus on the Galilean section of Luke.
Notice how Jesus’ ministry in Galilee unfolds. First, Jesus preaches the good news of the kingdom of God on his own, gathering his disciples along the way (Luke 4:43). Second, he proclaims the good news of the kingdom, being more intentional about incorporating his disciples in the work (Luke 8:1). Third, he gives the disciples much opportunity to do the work themselves under his oversight (Luke 9:2).
At the end of the section, however, they are unable to:
- cast out a demon (Luke 9:40)
- understand Jesus’ destiny (Luke 9:45)
- become truly great (Luke 9:46-48)
- distinguish enemies from friends (Luke 9:49-50)
These disciples must learn the way of the cross before they’ll be ready to build the Kingdom. So Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), and the next 10 chapters illustrate Jesus’ immovable commitment to go and die for the sins of the people.
Before we look at the feeding episode in detail, we should understand Luke’s summary of the entire Galilean ministry. Luke’s introductory scene sets the stage for all that follows:
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21, ESV)
Time slows as Luke draws out the tale: standing up, receiving the scroll, unrolling it, finding just the right spot, reading, rolling it up, handing it back, and sitting down. Eyes glued. Scripture fulfilled.
According to Luke, Jesus’ ministry is one of proclaiming good news to the poor. He brings liberty, sight, freedom, and favor to the captive, blind, oppressed, and miserable. Jesus chose that passage from Isaiah to describe his work. Luke chose that scene from Jesus’ life to describe God’s purpose in Christ.
Jesus’ work in Galilee—and his inclusion of the disciples in that work—is focused on bringing good news to the poor.
Like Matthew, Luke shows Jesus instructing the disciples in the preaching of the word of God (Luke 8:1-14). But Luke doesn’t focus on the word nearly as much as Matthew does. In the third Galilean tour, Luke gives a more complementary twofold commission “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:2).
As they proclaim and heal, the disciples must take no provisions. They must learn to rely on the hospitality of those who will receive the kingdom (Luke 9:3-6).
As they preach, Herod the tetrarch hears of it and feels some guilt over his oppression of the captive John (Luke 9:7-8). He wants to see Jesus (Luke 9:9), but not so he may worship him (Luke 23:8-11).
On their return from proclaiming and healing, the apostles make a report, and Jesus withdraws with them to Bethsaida (Luke 9:10). The crowds follow, and Jesus welcomes them. He again models for the disciples the twofold ministry: “He spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing” (Luke 9:11).
Though Luke’s account of the feeding is very similar to Matthew’s account, be careful not to sidetrack interpretation by harmonizing them. Notice a few subtle differences that highlight Luke’s unique purpose.
The disciples’ solution to overcrowding:
- Matthew: “Send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves” (Matt 14:15).
- Luke: “Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions” (Luke 9:12).
Jesus’ alternative proposal:
- Matthew: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (Matt 14:16).
- Luke: “You give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13).
The disciples’ indignation:
- Matthew: “We have only five loaves here and two fish” (Matt 14:17).
- Luke: “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people” (Luke 9:13).
- Matthew: “Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass” (Matt 14:19).
- Luke: “And he said to his disciples, ‘Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each‘” (Luke 9:14).
While Matthew’s account focuses on the crowd’s real need (not just food but the word of God), Luke’s account focuses on the idea of hospitality. The crowd needs not just food but lodging. The disciples are unwilling to be hosts for such a crowd. Jesus directly plays the role of host: speaking, instructing the disciples, and shepherding the people into smaller groups.
The Main Point
With the feeding of the 5,000, Luke isn’t focused on Jesus’ identity as the Son of God (as John is). He’s also not focused on training the disciples to preach the word (as Matthew is). He’s more interested in showing Jesus’ benevolent hospitality to the poor and hungry masses.
The point of the story is this: Jesus’ followers, on mission from their master, must learn not only to accept hospitality but give it in Jesus’ name. Such hospitality will be both lavish (Luke 9:17) and costly (Luke 9:13b). This good news of the kingdom is not only for the wealthy, the successful, the happy, the Jews. It’s for those who are down and out, oppressed, captive, blind, marginalized, and hungry. And the message of the Kingdom must be illustrated visibly by the Kingdom’s messengers.
Question: This week, how can you be lavishly hospitable to the poor who might be ready to follow Jesus?