This narrative, like the feeding of the five thousand (14:15-21), teaches us about Jesus' power and care for us. He heals the multitudes (15:29-31), acts out of compassion for their need (v. 32; compare 9:36; 14:14; 20:34) and provides for them (15:33-39).
Jesus Meets People's Needs (15:29-31)
After some time alone with his disciples (v. 21), Jesus returns to meeting the people's needs. Jesus here meets people's physical needs (v. 30). Those ultraconservative Christians who have considered ministry to people's physical needs "liberal" need to read the Bible more carefully themselves (compare vv. 3, 7-9; Is 1:10-17; 58:3-9; Jer 22:16; Amos 5:21-24). Some theologians have critiqued some forms of Christianity for focusing on "meeting our needs" instead of on glorifying God. The critique is partly right and partly wrong. Jesus met the broken where they were, meeting their needs. Nevertheless, only those who pressed on to become his servant-disciples would really come to know who he was. Even his initial acts of compassion led to God's glory; though the crowds had exercised some faith in bringing the ailing to Jesus, they still were amazed by the miracles and praised the God of Israel (Mt 15:30-31).
Recognizing Our Need, Showing Compassion (15:32)
The text does not suggest that people were complaining about the food situation. Although one should not argue from silence (especially on the historical level), it is possible that the passage implies that Jesus, like his Father, recognizes our need before we ask (6:8, 32). Indeed, sometimes he protects us from dangers of which we are not even aware.
Disciples Should Grow in Faith (15:33-34)
Jesus acts even though his disciples "don't get it." In contrast to the multitudes who flock to Jesus for miracles, the disciples seem blind to his true character (compare Weeden 1971:28); despite Jesus' earlier feeding miracle, they assume again that they must procure bread by purely natural means (v. 33). They are still learning, and Jesus does not yet reprove their unbelief-although he will if it continues (16:8-11). He demands more of maturer Christians who have seen his works than he does from young Christians who have seen fewer (compare Ex 17:5-6; 32:10; Num 14:22-23). Some contemporary writers say that God acts only in response to faith; in the Bible, however, he sometimes acts in advance of faith to teach us how to trust him.
Jesus Organizes His Ministry for Efficiency (15:35-36)
What was not humanly possible, Jesus performed as a miracle; the distribution of the food was humanly possible, however, and Jesus organized it efficiently. The fact that the Lord empowers us is all the more reason for us to be good stewards of what he gives and to observe principles like delegated responsibility (Ex 18:14-26). Tremendous revivals followed the ministries of George Whitefield and John Wesley. But because Wesley organized his converts (Noll 1992:92), his results have made a greater direct impact on subsequent generations.
Jesus Again Supplies More Than Enough (15:37-39)
See comment on 14:20-21. Matthew provides both a literal lesson taken from the story and a figurative lesson based on the context. Figuratively, the leftovers symbolize that plenty of the "children's bread" remains for other seekers (15:26-28). But on the literal level Matthew teaches about God's limitless power and design in providing his children's needs. One might think that more food would remain after this feeding miracle than the previous one; after all, this time Jesus started with more food and fewer people (although the baskets used this time may have been larger). But such was not the case, reminding us that God's design rather than natural considerations determines the magnitude of any miracle.
Everett and Esther Cook pioneered many churches during and after the Great Depression, trusting God to supply their needs. In one town, having drawn a small number of women to their opening meetings, they prayed that God would send them some men as well. Everett decided to "put some legs to my prayers," as he put it, and went out to the streets to invite some men; he found only one, but promised him, "I can definitely guarantee you a seat."
The man did not come that night, but Everett concluded this was fortunate, because he would have broken his promise: no seats were available! Some men had driven into town from a nearby army camp, spotted the tent and entered the meeting. Many were converted and began bringing their friends, and from that day forward the Cooks' meetings never lacked for men. God does not always answer prayers so quickly, but we can be confident that no request offered for his honor is too hard for him.