In the readings for today at Mass, Jesus charges the disciples with feeding 5,000 men. That would, we assume, not include the women and children who might have also accompanied them to listen to the teacher from Nazareth. With only 5 loaves (the approximate equivalent of 5 dinner rolls) and 2 fish (likely smaller than the fish filets we are used to eating), the disciples wondered how they could feed this large of a group. Jesus accepts the gift of food offered.
Now, miracles are miracles no matter how they occur. And rampant speculation has swirled around how, exactly, this miracle occurred. Some argue that, perhaps people added their own meagre lunches to the basket of loaves and fish. Others support the idea of the supernatural multiplication of bread and fish.The first explanation doesn’t really make sense to some, especially given that people were hungry. And if hungry, could have consumed what they had in their own pouches to sate that hunger. The second explanation does not resonate well with a rational mind, and so is often seen as an allegorical tale. Loaves and fish just don’t naturally multiply exponentially after we pray over them. Or do they?
Consider the following:
If the disciples grumbled, Luke doesn’t record it. But they certainly were indecisive. Jesus was decisive. Instead of sending people away at a time of great need (hunger and frustration can go hand in hand), Jesus takes the matter (literally) into his own hands. He takes the little, and makes a big difference in the lives of the many people he serves. The disciples wanted the people to go home; Jesus wanted them to stay. Why? Ah…the lesson for the disciples begins!
Jesus gets the disciples to have the people sit in groups of 50 — a sure way to build a small community. It is, in Luke, the image of the Church with its small, individual congregations within the larger context of what would become the Christian religion. Jesus then blesses the food and then gives it to the disciples to distribute.
Food, that which nourishes, can well be said in the Gospels and elsewhere to be equated with God’s word or even God’s Law (Torah). Of course, in John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself the Bread of Life. The distribution of this food foreshadows the means by which the disciples, as apostles, would distribute the Word of God to feed the many congregations that constitute the Church. The one curiosity of this is that Jesus prays over the food, get’s God’s stamp of approval, then gives it to his disciples to distribute. God is the source; Jesus is the catalyst. The disciples are the means of distribution. In true managerial style, God (through Jesus) gets his disciples out of their complacency and into a mode of service that potentially grows the Kingdom of God. Had the disciples gotten their way, the Kingdom of God would have been impossible for the masses assembled to experience first hand.
If we look at our own small deeds, our own meagre works of charity which we will call (for lack of a better term) our proverbial lunch, others see the good at work in us. Some are jealous because they do not believe they have the ability to do those good works, or deny that they have gifts to offer the group. Others rejoice; some even help those who are jealous to see the gifts in them as valuable and edifying to the group. Whatever the case, all, even the jealous ones, know deep down that they have talents and gifts that God has given them to share with the greater community — be it spiritual gifts or temporal ones. Sometimes one just needs to find the niche within the community where their talents can be used. And sometimes, it takes some motivation (a hunger) to move toward a positive end.
The joy that emerges from this kind of agape-driven charity is multiplied, appreciated, satisfying, and infectious to the point of continued agape-driven charity. The charity of one person is multiplied by those receiving it joyfully, so much so that they in turn become charitable. They give what little they have in charity or good works, and the cycle of joy and charity continues. All of this in the context of community.
And what happens afterward? Twelve baskets filled with extra bits. What did the disciples do with all of that extra?! My guess — they were nourished by it, giving them enough food to eat for days.
Just as a work of charity nourishes those we serve, so they return the favor — in most cases, innumerably so.
So…is the miracle the rational one of exponential sharing within a group? Or one of a supernatural intervention, by which the impossible becomes possible? Or is it both? Whatever the factual nature may be, the truth of the miracle is borne out in the miraculous, exponential spread of Christianity throughout the world, the vast dissemination of God’s word to nearly every country, and the deep and abiding faith of those committed to the teachings of Jesus Christ.