It grates against our ears to hear the number given as five thousand and then to be told that the women and children weren’t counted. It should, I guess. It is helpful to remember that equality of men and women – and adults and children – is not part of our human experience ever since we lost the garden. (We should be clear that scripture attributes this to our fall from communion with God, and not to God’s eternal design.) But it wouldn’t have sounded strange to Matthew’s congregation; it would have said something much different to them.
First of all, it would have clued them in that we are hearing about a banquet. Banquets at the time were public rituals not private parties. As public events they were the affairs of men. The fact that this is a banquet is important for Matthew, because he has set this banquet of Jesus alongside the banquet of Herod Antipas.
This is a banquet, a public occasion, not a spontaneous picnic in the park (at the time of Jesus, people didn’t picnic out in nature). At such occasions, the food was set before the men, what remained would then be taken away to be shared with the women and children. (It was a man’s obligation not to eat to excess, to remember that others would need to eat from this table.) After the women and children ate, what remained would be shared with the poor. (So it was also the obligation of the women and children not to over indulge. Whatever they ate beyond what was needed was stolen from the mouth of the poor.) So this simple reference “those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children” clues the reader in that what happened out there in the wilderness was not as a quick lunch but the banquet of God.
At this banquet of God everyone ate and was satisfied – and there were still twelve baskets left over, twelve baskets for the poor, twelve for the twelve tribes of Israel.
All are fed at the table of God.
All are fed. Not those in power. Not those with privilege. Not those with abundant lands. Not those with houses and fields and people to come tend their gardens and clean their houses and prepare their meals. All. The men, the women and children, and the poor.
5,000 was bigger than all but a few cities in Israel. 5,000 households may be hyperbole – but it proclaims the bounty of God. The banquet of God has come to us in this Jesus of Nazareth. Israel is fed again in the wilderness. The nations are gathered to feast at Zion. The reign of God is present to us in this blessed and broken bread.
And all are fed.