Today's Gospel reading (Sixth Sunday after Pentecost) was from Mark 8. I always remember how the commentators on this "feeding of the multitude" passage identify this crowd with the crowd that shouted, "Crucify him!" In their mind, the people who came to hear Jesus were too limited to see beyond the pressing needs of their empty stomachs. Once this new prophet couldn't fill their bellies, they bent easily before the propaganda of their religious leaders.
There is an undertone of dualist elitism in this interpretation. It suggests that the masses are only capable of understanding gross physical satisfaction, and only the disciples (barely!) can rise above primitive fleshly desires to consider spiritual matters. Furthermore, Jesus himself says that they [the crowd] "have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat." They don't seem to mind physical deprivation in order to hear the Good News -- unlike the disciples, who brought just enough bread and fish for themselves to hold out through Jesus' long-winded sermons!
One could say that Jesus' concern for the crowd echoes Maslow's hierarchy of needs: Jesus realizes that he can't make much more progress on their spiritual needs until he fulfills their physical ones. However, Maslow's pyramid can also serve a more subtle form of dualist elitism: those who are "self-actualized" have "ascended" through the levels of baser need-seeking to reach the top, where they have achieved contentness within themselves. The rest bumble around at varying levels of baseness -- either wondering where to find some scraps of food and a place to sleep tonight, fearfully casting their votes for the candidate who promises to be tough on terrorists, or trying to get their boss to respect their not-so-unselfishly-motivated hard work. There is a taste of the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election here: those who appear to be saved are saved, and those deprived are destined to various levels of eternal deprivation.
Jesus himself doesn't say anything of the sort. It seems he realizes innocently and perhaps even naively that he has talked for three days straight, and that those folks, who walked all the way out to the middle of nowhere to seek and listen to him, are in danger: "If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will collapse on the way, and some of them have come a great distance." Jesus isn't handing out the "bread" part of "bread and circuses"; he isn't interested in pandering to a disinterested crowd, but his audience here is not disinterested.
I heard a good sermon today explaining this passage as Jesus giving us a template for the form of the Eucharistic liturgy. The priest's arguments made sense, but I was thinking the whole time about what I wrote above: there probably really were a whole bunch of very hungry people whom Jesus fed, and that physical hunger is just as relevant as the symbolic, allegorical, or liturgical interpretations of the story. The key phrase is "just as relevant" -- not more, nor less. The demonstration of the structure of the Divine Liturgy is just as important as the exhibition of Jesus' practical compassion.