The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle that Jesus worked that is found in all four Gospels (Mt 14:13-21; Lk 9:10-17; Jn 6:1-15). While details differ, what is common are the numbers: With five loaves and two fish, five thousand (“besides women and children” in Matthew) are fed and twelve baskets are gathered.
The story in Mark begins by Jesus having compassion on the crowds when he sees them because they seem as sheep without a shepherd. The images of sheep and shepherd evoke many Old Testament references where kings are condemned by prophets for not being shepherds to their people and to the pleas of prophets to God to shepherd his people. Here, Jesus takes on the role of shepherd of the people. Though he begins this role by teaching the people, he does not stop there. Theory is translated into action, words are shown in deeds.
In Mark the disciples are shown in a bad light. Their response to Jesus’ charge to them, “you give them something to eat”, is sarcastic. They stress the impossibility of what Jesus charges them to do and even ridicule that charge. Jesus responds by asking them to do what they are told and when they find out that there are only five loaves and two fish, they are ordered to ask the crowd to sit down in groups. Miraculously these are enough to feed five thousand and also to gather what is left over which signify the abundance of the miracle. Not only do people have enough, they have more than enough.
The primary function of the feeding miracle in this section of the Gospel is to demonstrate that the people now have a true shepherd in Jesus. They need not be hungry anymore. God’s word and bread will be available in abundance because of the presence of Jesus.
While some see the miracle clearly as miraculous and which cannot be explained rationally, others see it as one in which selflessness is at the core. Seeing Jesus share his own meal so freely, others were motivated into sharing what they had so that there was more than required. It is in giving that we receive and more than we ever expected.