The event we read about in today’s Gospel, the multiplication of the loaves and fish, is one of the most extraordinary miracles Jesus did during his earthly life. Even though we weren’t there 2000 years ago to be fed by the hands of the disciples, this miracle is also one of the most meaningful for us today. It shows us clearly that when men and women give Jesus what they have, he can multiply it to do wonderful and miraculous things for us and for others.
Let’s go back in time together to that late afternoon on the seashore of Galilee and look at the scene to make sure we don’t miss any important details. Our Lord had just finished several hours of preaching and healing of the sick. Since it was getting late, and the disciples cared about the people in the crowd, they came to Jesus and told him to dismiss them so that they could get something to eat. The disciples likely knew that the people would stay as long as Jesus was preaching and miraculously healing the sick.
If Jesus were here, right now, curing people of their cancer, broken legs, diabetes, deafness, advancing blindness and other maladies, we probably would be in no hurry to leave either.
The disciples cared about the crowds, but their care led them to suggest something that actually was not in the people’s best interest — to leave Jesus.
Jesus responds immediately to the disciples. “There is no need for them to go: give them something to eat yourselves.” Feed them yourselves!
By the response of the disciples to this, it appears that they would have, if they had the resources. “All we have are five loaves and two fish,” they replied. This response shows clearly the type of lives the disciples were living.
First, they were living lives of great sacrifice and also great sharing. There were only carrying seven pieces of food total to feed what at least had to have been Jesus, the 12 apostles and an unnamed amount of other close disciples. You can do the math yourself! They were not going to be eating very much that night. And yet they were willing to share that food with others.
“Bring them to me!,” Jesus said. He took the five loaves and two fish, raised his eyes to heaven, said the blessing, broke the bread, handed them to his disciples, who then handed them to the crowd.
He took – gave thanks – gave out. Did you spot the miracle? No? No hocus-pocus, no sleight of hand, no smoke and mirrors; the miracle simply happens because Jesus is present; because Jesus is God, because he says so.
John makes it clear that this miracle is a sign. In other words, it points beyond itself to a higher reality. The people, of course, do not yet understand this. They are still at the level of having had their hunger satisfied in a way that cost them nothing.
Indeed, the very hunger of the people for bread is a sign pointing beyond itself to a higher, or should we say, deeper hunger. It is Jesus’ great desire to lead them to understand this hunger as one only God can satisfy. He wants to bring them to understand that their hunger is more for Him than for bread.
Some years ago, somebody sent me a postcard that had a slogan emblazoned on it that went like this: “Hell hath no fury like me when I’m slightly inconvenienced and hungry.” It’s the kind of thing that makes people smile, because it sheds a different light on a well-known truth, but also points towards something that we recognize in ourselves.
The postcard I read made me smile. But it also reminded me of my experiences of my most basic needs being challenged. When I’m hungry, or tired, then my usual defense mechanisms are worn down, and I may no longer recognize myself as the person I expect myself to be. Important needs require attention.
In the Gospel passage, Jesus arrives before a great crowd, and he realizes that their need is both simple and great. It is one of the simplest needs of human persons, but if it is unsatisfied, it becomes a great problem.
Jesus knows he must satisfy their essential need. And in doing so, he teaches us that the deeper need he has come to address is one that depends only on him for satisfaction. Only He can satisfy that hunger His Body and Blood, for spiritual food, hunger for God in our lives.
They sit on the ground, in touch with the earth on which they depend, and the meager offering of bread and fish brings abundant satisfaction to the great multitude. There is plenty left over, too. The people are satisfied, but they misjudge the situation.
They want to rejoice in the fulfillment of their most basic needs, and to control that need. Jesus demands more. He wants them to move away from seeking to control their needs and to search for deeper satisfaction.
The miracle of the feeding of the multitude is a sign whose meaning is realized at the Last Supper (the Eucharist) and which will be fully realized only in the heavenly banquet at which Jesus will feed us with the food of angels.
Notice that Jesus handed the bread and fish to his disciples who then passed it among the people in the crowd.
The crowds ate until they were full and then the disciples collected the scraps and filled twelve wicker baskets. Twelve baskets of leftovers — one, basically, for every apostle. It’s almost as if Jesus wanted to be able to give them a tangible reminder, in a certain sense, of what he could do when they gave to him what they had.
Jesus gives us a message that the Apostles will provide from the inexhaustible source of his miracle forever, to the end of time.
What does this event say to us today? It shows us what Jesus can do when a disciple puts what he or she has at his disposal. The disciples gave Jesus all they had that day — and it wasn’t much — but with the five loaves and two fish Jesus was able to feed a crowd of 5000 men, until they were satisfied.
So Jesus can also do with us. When we put what we have at his disposal — our time, our talents, our resources, even our failings — he can do great things.
Let me tell you a story:
“One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a figure in the distance. As he got closer, he realized the figure was a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, ‘What are you doing?’ The youth replied, ‘Throwing starfish in the ocean. The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.’ ‘Son,’ the man replied, ‘don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t possibly make a difference!’ After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said, ‘I made a difference for that one.’” (Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower)
Each time we come together for the Mass, we are invited to sit on the ground, to be close to the earth we depend upon, and to share our humility together. We bring ourselves and our little gifts because we want to make difference and want to become different, more like our Lord as we receive His Body and Blood. Whatever we know outside of status or wealth, within this place we are united in our profound need and longing. We are fed with something that is simple and great at the same time – simple bread and wine, great and eternal life. It is a privilege for us to recognize ever more deeply the awesome extent of our need for God’s mercy and redemption. We lose nothing in this encounter. The loss comes when we are too proud of our ability to address our own needs. He can feed us with more than we need.