In the world today, preoccupied as it is with the Pandemic, elections, and sports events, it is all too easy to forget that famine is stalking the lands of Africa and Asia, and soon will likely reach vast areas of Latin America. If it is true that “the poor you have always with you” (Mat 26:11), you can be sure that many of them will be hungry and thirsty. And no less true that we in the affluent nations are increasingly called upon to do something about that.
In today’s gospel reading we come to one of several accounts of Jesus that involve the multiplication of loaves of bread and even some fish. Or
perhaps division would be more accurate. An account of feeding five thousand men, not counting women and children, appears in every gospel. In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus works two miracles of loaves and fish, first feeding five thousand men and then four thousand. Luke and John mention only one such event. In any case, it was a very ancient and widespread tradition in Christian circles and never disputed.
Not until the eighteenth century, anyway, when these events, whether one or two of them, were discounted as embarrassing fairy tales or examples of mistaken perception. I’m sure you have heard such explanations many times. One of the oldest is that Jesus simply convinced all those men (and perhaps women and children) who had followed him out into the desert but who had cannily hidden loaves and fish in their clothes, to divvy them up later. That’s the real miracle, we are told. Sharing. Presumably the second mob learned nothing from the first one, because according to Matthew and Mark, Jesus had to do it over again.
Sharing is wonderful, perhaps even a miracle in a world where greed and stinginess are considered virtues. But that is not how the gospels have it. No matter how we twist the texts around, there isn’t a word about people sneaking food around in their tunics. On a hot day in Palestine, it would be pretty hard to keep all that smelly stuff secret, much less eat it afterwards. But the plain fact is that the text says the people were hungry, they had no food, and no money to buy any. Sound familiar?
And if the evangelists were fools or liars, why should we should believe the stories of all those people following Jesus out into the desert in the first place? Or that people actually ate bread and fish, or that there were baskets and baskets of leftovers. Why not grapes and dried mutton? Or roast beef sandwiches? Why is it only the middle part of the story we are expected not to believe?
Even today, it would take a large bakery to produce a thousand loaves of bread to order in a day, and a small fleet to produce twenty-five hundred edible fish. One wonders what happened to the leftovers.
All the gospels tell us that there were five thousand men present. Matthew adds the telling feature, “not counting women and children.” That is why my friend Megan McKenna calls this the feeding of the ten thousand. Or perhaps even more. One way or another, twelve baskets of leftovers is hardly a lot. You get much more than that after a rock concert on a hot summer night.
But why believe any of it? Why are these stories there at all?
Matthew doesn’t say. Mark simply notes that the disciples did not understand, and Jesus says the same thing later on in John’s gospel. I have a strong suspicion that the enlightened scholars of the eighteenth century (and today) also failed to understand. But what is there to understand?
Not that Jesus was able to work miracles, or even to turn stones into bread, which he refused to do to entertain the devil. As Jesus himself says, the miracle of the loaves is a sign, a sign that the Reign of God has come into the world, a reign we are still having trouble recognizing. As the responsory psalm for today tells us in no uncertain terms:
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand,
And satisfy the desire of every living thing. [Ps. 145:15-16.]
Feeding the hungry is a sign of the compassion of God. And from the verdict of the Son of Man found toward the end of Matthew’s gospel, without that kind of compassion we can’t even enter the Kingdom of Heaven.