There is something very intimate about eating with another person. It is more than merely satisfying one’s hunger for food and quenching one’s thirst. Sharing a meal fulfills the hunger for human contact and interaction. It can be a sign of friendship and respect, even love. Families and friends enjoy each others’ company and exchange intimacies over a meal. People from all walks of life are honored at banquets. There is more than eating that goes on at table.
This intriguing event of the distribution of the loaves and fish was primarily intended for those followers of Jesus who were worried about the possibility of persecution from the legal authorities, other religious groups, even friends and family members, and also worried by what seemed to be the very slow progress of Christianity. The story reminds them, as President Roosevelt said when he was inaugurated in 1933, the only thing to fear is fear itself, blind unreasoning terror that paralyses our every action. The impossible will now seem reasonable when we choose to follow and accept this man of God. This is a reassuring story for the early Christian community but also for us today.
When we read the Gospels, besides taking in the details of the parable or factual event, we should pay close attention to what the disciples are doing. Are they on the periphery, watching and listening? Are they questioning Jesus? Are they sharing in the action? Most importantly, what are they learning? They represent us today. What they saw and experienced is what we are supposed to absorb. We need to understand their apprehension as well as their wonder, their hesitation as well as their courage. The disciples wanted to send the people away, and make them responsible for their own food. A natural response when the task seemed beyond their comfortable capacity to respond to the problem. They were still an inward-looking group, unable to move outside their own, self-contained little world, even though they were centered on Christ. They were looking to him, as usual, to deal with the tough stuff, and Christ’s answer to this was significant and astonishing: Feed them yourselves.
After outlining through parables the perspective of God’s kingdom, Jesus like a new Moses, withdrew with his disciples to a lonely place where they could be by themselves. He wanted to show the people who had followed him with enthusiasm that God can always satisfy their deepest hunger, as he had formerly done in the desert and make them into a people built on faith. A striking summary of what will later be their role in the Church is contained in the order Jesus gives his disciples: ‘Give them something to eat yourselves!’ (Matthew 14: 13-21).
They said this was impossible and quite beyond their powers and their means; all they had was five loaves and two fish.
So, once again it was up to him to show and teach them. he took the little food they had, made a ritual blessing, and told the disciples to distribute it among the people. The disciples did so, moving among the people and feeding them. All were fed, with much left over. The disciples thus became instrumental in the saving work of Christ; the disciples, the learners, had received a valuable and significant lesson in discipleship, the following of Christ; that the mission of Christ was to all who hear and follow him, not to a select few.
Sometimes when we pray for divine intervention, God’s answer to us is, “But you, you can do that yourselves.” This is what we see in today’s gospel where the disciples are so concerned about the hungry crowd that they instruct Jesus to dismiss them so that they could go and buy themselves something to eat. Jesus turns and says to them, “Hey, you give them something to eat. You can take care of that yourselves.” Only then do they remember the seemingly insignificant person with five loaves and two fish. Suddenly, to their surprise, there was more than enough to satisfy the enormous hunger of all the people. That is the essence of what we traditionally know as the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. But it is more significantly, the increase in the awareness of what can be done by the collection of individuals who can make great things happen when they cooperate for the good of all.
Whenever the Church gathers round the altar at Mass, it hears the word of God, the word of life, and shares in the sacramental body of Christ, All are fed from the same source, there is a communion, all become one in Christ.
Christ established a clear association between word and food; both are life-giving, both are necessary. In this passage we can glimpse, for a brief moment, a church, an assembly gathered around Christ, hearing the word of life, and receiving the food of life. All heard the same word, all received the same food. There was a communion. This was one of the things the apostles and disciples had to learn. The feeding of the 5000 is intimately linked to the institution of the Eucharist. Most telling is the use of the same verbs to describe what Jesus does in the miracle: he takes, blesses, breaks and gives. Just as he will do again at the Last Supper and just as we do in the Eucharist.
In the Eucharist we are both the ones who are fed and the ones who must enable Christ’s nourishment to reach others. If we can access this food, like the 5000, we will eat our fill, and yet there will be plenty left over.
The disciples thought at first that they would be able to pass on to others, the task of feeding the hungry crowds. But instead it is they who must do it, even if they have to do it with the slender provisions of five loaves and two fish. A real act of worship takes place in which Jesus is the central figure and the apostles are the necessary ministers. They bring their offerings, their presentation, Jesus says the blessing – an act of thanksgiving over the gifts – ‘the work of human hands’. Notice how the distribution of the food is by Jesus to the apostles and by them, to the crowds.
How true it is that the Church will never lack, in the desert of this world, the Eucharistic bread multiplied by the ministry of the twelve. All will eat and be satisfied and yet twelve baskets of fragments will be gathered up for the table of the Lord. The Sunday Eucharist is not about fast food for the soul. It is good to take time for it, so as to emphasize for ourselves and our families that it is a special time for being together. We need only to hunger and believe, in order to be made one with this act of pity and of sharing, bringing the tenderness of God to us!