Jesus feeds a multitude of people from five barley loaves and two fish (Jn 6:1-15). By the time one is a middle-aged Catholic, one has heard and/or read this Gospel hundreds of times. Even as a young adult, my mind summarized the key takeaways then wondered about other details. The feast of Passover was near. Jesus broke bread. Jesus shared the fragments with all present. This was a physical event of feeding human bodies. This event prefaced the Spiritual nourishment Jesus initiated at the Last Supper. That Spiritual nourishment is what we receive as the Sacrament of the Eucharist. There is an interesting symbolism with the 12 remaining baskets of broken bread within the hands of the 12 disciples.
Let’s get one irksome question out of the way. Why does the Gospel say fed 5,000 men? What about the women? I have read many scholarly discussions including one presenting the idea of the men in one area and the women in another. Frankly, there were and still are women shepherds. Rachel was a shepherd (Gen 29:6,9). Jesus’ gift of the Eucharist was a gift for all of mankind. That day Jesus would have fed all who were present. The understanding of Jesus’ miracle requires one appreciate just how far that food had stretched. Really, whatever number simply represents a large population of humanity.
For any Gospel story or parable, there will be a historical meaning placing Jesus’ words and actions in the context of His ministry. There also will be a call to imagine how these words speak to me today as an invitation to follow Jesus by acting within the world in which I live. Jesus calls each of us to examine and understand the Gospel at both levels.
Jesus asks the disciples what they are to do to address the food needs. Philip despairs at the overwhelming nature of the challenge. Money alone could not handle it. Andrew digs a tad deeper on an individual level. One kid has five loaves and two fish, but what is that in comparison to the population size? The stage is now set for the disciples to experience and understand the miracle. Part of the lesson is about a loving and providential God. Yet, another part of the lesson is that one is called to look deeply at the challenge as well as available resources. Only after that analysis is complete does one prayerfully converse with our provident God regarding participating in a resolution.
Of the 5,000 men was it really only one boy who had provisions? Or, was it that the heart of the child was the only one that responded in faith? I suspect the child’s heart trusted the call of the Holy Spirit. That child’s example speaks volumes to us today as individuals and as a country. Theodore Roosevelt said, “It is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it.” The Holy Spirit calls each of us to share with all from the gifts we have received.
Just how big was a barley loaf? In my research, I found that in Jesus’ day barley loaves were a food for the poor. Ah, the poor boy handing over the loaves is akin to the poor woman giving all she had with her gift of two coins (Mk 12:41-44). Interestingly, barley loaves are healthful, with today’s loaves often baked the size of a pita bread.
Jesus’ message is of course broader than the bare necessities of life. It is more a call to analyze a need, then begin to respond by sharing from what we have. At some point in the process, a provident God will ensure what we gave will help achieve its intended effect.
Today I am remembering a brother and a younger sister two years apart in age. Both had identical reports for a similarly named, but grade-level differentiated assignment. Standing outside the principal’s office, I gently tapped a file folder. I told the boy that his purported report contained the data given to his sister’s class. There came a time in life to either choose to own up to one’s mistake or to choose being proven a liar. Once trust was gone, it was something one would only earn back over a long period of time by essentially proving one’s words were true. Again, he said the report was his. We joined his parents in the principal’s office. The principal gently began the investigation discussion. The student replied, “I plagiarized the report.”
I still marvel at both the outcome and speed of that seed sprouting. Participating in something beyond what one could reasonably expect is what it means to dwell in the mystery of one of God’s miracles. The crowd misunderstood. But, we humbly follow Jesus’ example of asking God the Father what is next.
Anchor columnist Dr. Helen J. Flavin, Ph.D., is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer.