We are taking a bit of an excursus or diversion here for the next few Sundays. You may know that throughout this Church year, we have been reading from the Gospel of Mark. Well, for the next several Sundays (with the exception of next Sunday because it is a special feast), we are reading from the Gospel of John. We are reading a very important part of John's Gospel at that: it is the sixth chapter, known as the Bread of Life Discourse. In this chapter, John shows us how Jesus is Eucharist for us. Today we begin with a familiar story: the feeding of the multitudes.
Someone once explained this miracle to me by saying that it happened because people were moved by Jesus' preaching and works among them, so in response, they took food they had with them and shared them with one another. As the food was passed around and the remnants were gathered up, it turned out they had enough to feed everyone after all – and then some. This wonderful story, they told me, showed the power of sharing in response to the work of God in our lives.
That's a lovely explanation, isn't it? Too bad it's garbage.
Yes, garbage. It's garbage for a few reasons. First, if that's the way it happened, why didn't the evangelists record it that way? This miracle has the distinction of being recorded in all four Gospels. One would think that if this had been a miracle about sharing, one of them would have reported it as such. But they didn't. Maybe you're thinking that the Gospel authors wouldn't have reported it that way because it would be embarrassing to Jesus. But that doesn't work either, because they reported embarrassing things about Jesus all the time. Just a few weeks ago, we read how Jesus could not accomplish any miracle in his home town. That was sure embarrassing. So I'm thinking that if the miracle turned out to be a case of wonderful sharing, that's how the story would have been told.
Another reason this explanation doesn't work is that it misses the point entirely. The sharing explanation seems to take the power out of Jesus' hands and put it in the hands of the crowd. We like that kind of explanation in our culture, because we want it to be about us. We want to feel in control, to feel that we have the power to fix our problems and handle our own lives. But the truth is that we are not in control: all we have are five barley loaves and two fish, and that seems woefully inadequate to address the incredible needs we and our contemporaries have every day. The whole point of this story is that we can't address all our hungers, but Jesus absolutely can do so, and because of that the story of sharing does not make much sense at all.
The real explanation here is that Jesus took five barley loaves and two fish, and passed them around, and they became enough to feed thousands. We believe in miracles, brothers and sisters in Christ, and a miracle is exactly what we believe happened here. And it wasn't a miracle of human making, it was a miracle of Jesus' power at work in the world which addressed a need that Jesus noticed, made up for human inadequacies, and fed the crowd more wonderfully than they could ever have imagined.
First of all, Jesus notices a need. He sees that the people are coming to him, clamoring after his healing miracles and the words he has been preaching. They recognize he is someone special, someone they want to hear more of, and they follow him without any thought for their own comfort. And so Jesus notices that they are hungry. Now let's just stop for a minute and acknowledge that there are probably two kinds of hunger going on here: certainly physical hunger, since they have not eaten, but also a spiritual hunger. A hunger for eternal life that will only ever be fulfilled in God himself. Jesus here intends to feed them in both ways.
Second, Jesus makes up for our inadequacies. Having seen the need, he asks Philip to arrange to feed them. Philip falls for it, hook, line and sinker. "Two hundred days' wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little." Philip says there is no way they could take care of the physical hunger of the crowd, and with his response, betrays that he is also quite unprepared to take care of their spiritual hunger. But Jesus takes them where they are at. Andrew offers the five loaves and two fish that come from one of the boys in the crowd. That's all they can find. We should note that barley loaves are particularly inadequate since they were considered the bread of the poor. But even with that little, poor bread, Jesus feeds the great crowd. So little food is obviously inadequate for the hunger of so many, but Jesus uses it and makes up for the lack, feeding the people and satisfying their every hunger.
Third, Jesus feeds the crowd more wonderfully than they could have ever imagined. John's Gospel is filled with images of superabundance: huge jugs of water made into incredible wine at Cana, and now five loaves and two fish that feed a large crowd, and provide twelve wicker baskets of leftovers. Jesus takes care of every need with overwhelming power. He does not just provide a little afternoon snack; he provides a glorious meal, feeding crowds of people with bounty and grace. Indeed this is a miracle of Jesus our God taking notice of our needs, filling up our lack, and feeding us with superabundance. This is no simple sharing ritual, but a gracious act of God in our world to make his presence and care for his people known.
What is important here is that we need to know that this kind of thing goes on all the time, even in our own day. Jesus always notices the needs and hungers of his people. Perhaps you have seen a need in your community, maybe a family who is in need, or a whole segment of the population not served in some way. You need to know that you noticed that because of the spirit of Jesus working in you. It's very easy to go through life noticing nothing and no one, but that doesn't happen in disciples. Disciples are the ears and eyes of Jesus, and he notices the needs of his people through us every day. Now, having noticed a need, we may very well feel inadequate to fill it. What good is our few hours of time or few dollars going to do for such a huge need? How can our imperfect talents make up for such a need? Here we have to trust that Jesus will do with our imperfect offerings as he did with the five loaves and two fish. Jesus makes up for our lack, and we can take comfort in that. If we are faithful to respond to the need with what we have, we can be sure that Jesus will use what we have to feed our hungry world with superabundance.
We can do that because Jesus feeds us all the time. Every time we come to the Table of the Lord, we are given a little bit of bread and a sip of wine that has become the Body and Blood of Christ our Savior. At every Eucharist, we are fed more wonderfully and superabundantly than even the crowd in today's Gospel. We are fed with food that will never pass away or perish, we are fed with the Bread of Eternal life. Since we disciples have that gift at our disposal, we would do well to bring ourselves to it as often as we can, and as well-disposed for it as we can. We must make it our constant care to attend Mass every week, and even during the week if we can, and to use the Sacrament of Penance to prepare ourselves to receive the grace of the Eucharist. Disciples who regularly and faithfully feed themselves with the Bread of Life will find it natural to offer their meager gifts to feed great hungers in our world, hungers that our God longs to fill.
And so we gratefully come to the Eucharist today, to take part in a meal even more wonderful than the feeding of the multitudes, and partake of a bread far more nourishing than barley loaves. We come to the Eucharist today to have all of our hungers fed, and to take baskets of leftovers to feed those who hunger in and around us this week. We pray for the grace to notice the needs of others and
the grace to offer what we have to serve the poor, trusting in God to make up for what we lack. We pray the words of the psalmist with trust and gratitude: "The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs."