The Miracle of the Loaves & Fishes

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

This week we begin to look at the sixth chapter of John; a chapter every Catholic should be familiar with because of its culmination in the great “Bread of Life” Eucharistic discourse. But before Jesus teaches his followers that he is the bread from heaven they must eat to gain eternal life, he first feeds them with ordinary bread which he gives to them in a very extraordinary way. It is the extraordinary way in which Jesus feeds the multitude in this Sunday’s gospel that I want to focus on.

A large crowd has gathered around Jesus. He had been performing healing miracles and was gaining quite a following. We are told in the gospel that about five thousand men were present. We are not told how many women and children may have also been with them, but it is a huge number of people by any measure. Crowds that large present certain practical problems, such as how to feed them all. The disciples can’t purchase enough food for everyone. But a small boy is found who has five barley loaves and two fish. From this meager amount Jesus is able to not only feed the crowd, but also to fill twelve wicker baskets with the leftovers.

This miracle is known as the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. It is the only miracle Jesus performs that is recorded in all four gospel accounts, so we know that it must have been especially important to the early Church. That makes it especially disheartening that many people today — including many Christians — don’t believe it to be true. They believe that Jesus fed the crowd. They just don’t believe it was a miracle.

It’s been called by some a “miracle of sharing.” Supposedly the people in the crowd had more than enough food to eat among themselves. They were just being selfish with it. The “miracle” was that Jesus inspired them to share their food with one another. When they did so, they found that there was more than enough to go around. The feeding of the five thousand is read as a parable about generosity. That’s a shame; not because generosity isn’t good, but because what’s actually happening here is so much better.

What the gospels present to us — all four of them — is not a parable about sharing, but an account of a miracleWe use that word rather loosely today to refer to any positive, unexpected development. “I thought I was going to fail my exam, but I managed to get an A — it’s a miracle!” Or, “I found a parking spot near my class — it’s a miracle!” Or, if you are a teacher, “All my students turned in their assignments on time — it’s a miracle!”

Calling these events “miracles” is just a figure of speech. We don’t really mean they are miraculous. We mean they are amazing good things. But they have explainable, natural causes and so are not truly miraculous. The same would be true if someone convinced a large crowd of people to share their food. It might be a nice story, but it’s a far cry from a miracle.

A miracle, properly speaking, is an event caused by God that operates outside of the order of nature. True miracles are quite rare, and very special. We must remember that God is the author of nature and works his will most often through nature. Just because something has a knowable, natural cause does not mean that God is not behind it. If you pray for a loved one to be healed of their cancer, and that person is healed, the fact that she was also receiving radiation therapy does not mean God did not hear your prayer and effect her healing. God works most often through natural creation, in accord with the laws he established.

But on rare and special occasions, God causes events in the created world which do not follow the laws of the created world. Remember, God made the laws of nature, but he himself is not bound by them. When he chooses to do things in the world which supersede nature, it is God’s way of declaring, “I am here. I am sovereign.” True miracles testify to God’s presence in very poignant ways. They remind us who is the Author of creation, because only the One who created the world could operate outside of its rules.

In the Old Testament, miracles show God’s favor and his blessing. God speaks to Moses through a burning bush that miraculously burns with fire but is not consumed. God sends plagues upon the Egyptians to show that the Hebrew people have his favor, and he parts the Red Sea so that they might be freed from their slavery. These miracles not only signify to the Egyptians that the Hebrew people were favored by God, but they signify that Moses in particular had God’s blessing and the Hebrew people should follow him.

The many miracles of Jesus recorded in the gospels do more than show that Jesus is favored by God. They show that Jesus is God. Jesus shows that he has power over natural forces by walking on water and calming the storm. Jesus shows that he has authority over spiritual forces by driving out demons. Jesus shows that he has power over life and death by healing the sick and raising the dead.

It is an unfortunate trend in modern Biblical scholarship (a trend which thankfully seems to be reversing) to assume that the miracles attributed to Jesus cannot be true. In the search for the so-called “historical Jesus,” these critics begin with the assumption that anything miraculous was only attributed to Jesus by later followers, and could not be anything Jesus actually did. Their reasoning is that… well, these things don’t really happen. They are too fantastic. Therefore the “historic Jesus” couldn’t have healed the sick, raised the dead, or walked on water. And he certainly couldn’t have fed over five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. The historical events behind these stories must have a more mundane explanation. And so they claim this event was really just a “miracle of sharing.”

In a certain sense, these critics are correct. This sort of thing doesn’t ordinarily happen. It is fantastic. It doesn’t seem possible. But that’s just the point. Jesus did the extraordinary. He did the impossible. And sometimes he did it in front of huge crowds of people. They noticed. They told others about it. Some made written accounts. And they came back for more. They wondered, who is this man who has such authority over heaven and earth?

Why do you think the five thousand were gathered there in the first place? The gospel tells us: “because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick.” They had already seen Jesus perform miracles and it got their attention. They were hungry, not just for bread, but for truth and for holiness. They were hungry for the divine. And that is exactly what Jesus offered them — it is what he still offers us. He offers us himself.

The crowd that our Lord miraculously fed would come back, and it would grow. “Come and see this man who heals the sick and feeds the hungry.” But when Jesus offers them not barley loaves, but his own flesh to eat, they turn away. Even though they had witnessed so great a miracle, they couldn’t believe in the greatest miracle of all; that God had become incarnate and was standing before them, and was now offering himself as food for their weary souls. It was too much for their minds to accept and their hearts to believe, and so they walked away.

You and I today are in a not too dissimilar situation. Jesus still comes to us, offering to heal us and to feed us. He offers us something much greater than barley loaves and fish. He offers us the bread of life, the bread of angels, his own divine flesh in the Eucharist. He offers us a miracle.

We can disbelieve, saying it is too good to be true. We can disbelieve, saying that it sounds too implausible. We can disbelieve, saying it’s just a parable, a symbol, or a folk tale meant to teach a moral lesson. We can do all of these things; and we would entirely miss the point.

Jesus performs miracles. He really does. He heals the sick. He raises the dead. Jesus truly did feed the hungry crowd, multiplying his gifts so abundantly that twelve baskets were filled to overflowing. And Jesus really does offer us his own Flesh and Blood in the Eucharist at each and every Mass. He invites us to be God-eaters. Yes, it sounds impossible. But Christ is God, and with God all things are possible.