About 10 years ago I heard a priest give a homily on the Multiplication of the Loaves. All was going well until he mentioned that the real miracle was the miracle of sharing. Back then I was not quite as steeped in Catholic teaching, but something didn’t sit right with this homily. This meant that the laws of nature were not broken by the creator of the natural world, which is the definition of a miracle. This obviously is a dubious and scandalous interpretation of Holy Scripture and I figured I would tell my kids just how I felt about it this weekend.
This Sunday’s reading, the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, has given opportunity for misinterpretations of this incident once again. As usual, our family discussed the readings on our 30 minute drive to Mass; however, I was unusually fired up in my delivery when it was my turn to talk. Here were the key points I tried to explain to the kids.
First off, we can look at the Old Testament reading, 2 Kings 4:42-44, which was the first reading of the day. In light of the Old Testament pointing to the New Testament, it can be looked at as pointing to Jesus’s multiplication of the loaves. In the reading, there is a famine and a man comes give Elisha twenty barley loaves of bread which Elisha commands to be fed to at least a hundred men. His servant cries that this is not enough but after all had eaten, there was “some left over, according to the word of the Lord (2Kg 4:44)” that Elisha had previously recited.
In the story there is no sharing. There is no mention of any other bread being made present. This displays the power of God to multiply loaves. It was a sign, an indicator to the Jews that God is creator of the universe and as such has the power to break the laws of nature and make 20 loaves feed a hundred men. It was a preparation for them to be open to the power of Jesus and equate Him with God. This of course is undoubtedly why this reading precedes our Gospel for the day.
So let’s look at the Gospel (Jn 6:1-15) to see what John has to say about this event. The words themselves tell us everything we need to know. A large crowd of over five thousand people were listening to Jesus’s teachings when He asked the disciples to feed the people. Like the servant in 2 Kings, Philip expresses disbelief that it is possible, but Jesus had other plans. A boy gave Jesus two fish and five barley loaves. “Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted (Jn 6:11).” After all present ate, there was some left over, 12 baskets full.
There is no mincing of words there. The bread went from the boy, to the hands of Christ, to the people. Nowhere does it say loaves appeared from other attendees. Nowhere does it mention the word sharing. This was a genuine miracle. The unnatural, feeding five thousand people with 5 loaves of bread, was accomplished through a preternatural event. This was Jesus illustrating His powers as God just before He tells His followers something even harder to believe.
Divine Providence to that point in history had been preparing the Jews to accept that to have eternal salvation we must believe and eat the body of Christ. This would be a hard pill to swallow, but there were many miracles along the way to illustrate it. There was the manna in the desert (Ex 16), Elijah’s flour and oil (1 Kings 17), Elisa and the loaves, Jesus turning water into wine (John 2), the multiplication of the loaves (which happened twice), and so many more. Later in John 6, Jesus speaks of the manna in revealing this mystery to His followers:
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever (Jn 6:54-58).”
Therefore, this is the most egregious injustice to the sharing explanation of the multiplication of the loaves. Sharing eradicates the theological reason for the multiplication. It removes the most recent example of Jesus Christ’s powers over nature—His oneness with the Father. It takes away a sign that points to God’s plan for man’s salvation and detracts from what Vatican II called the “source and Summit of the Christian life (Lumen Gentium, 11). Ultimately, it could lead souls away from our Lord! The Bible tells us exactly what happened to the followers of Christ later that day who failed to see His miraculous nature:
“many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him (Jn 6:66).”
And this may be why I was so incensed in my talk Sunday morning. Sharing is an amazing thing and we are asked by Jesus to be charitable on many occasions in the Gospels. A charitable life should be preached from the pulpit of every Catholic parish. But it should not be done at the expense of a miracle which points to the greatest mystery in salvation history. It should not be done at the risk of diminishing the faith of Christians. Sharing is good, but multiplication saves souls!