I heard it again today. It was suggested to me that when we read John 6:1-15, wherein Jesus feeds a multitude with five barley loaves and two fish, it wasn't necessarily a miraculous event. Jesus simply encouraged a large disconnected crowd of people to redistribute the food they already possessed equitably among themselves. In those days, it was pointed out, people did not hit the road without a plan. There wasn't a 7 Eleven or a Jack in the Box on every corner. No Taco Bell. The people comprising that assembled crowd in that particular time and place would have been packing, meaning that they would have brought their own food and beverages, and more than likely had them discreetly stowed beneath their cloaks. Some might have brought more than they needed. Others might not have brought enough. All that Jesus did was to teach, by the example of a generous boy, that the crowd could abundantly feed itself if everyone shared what they already had in common.
Not a bad story. Not a bad lesson. Misses the point, I think.
I'm always curious whenever a believer, be they a theologian, a catechist, or the guy eating a donut next to me at coffee hour, feels the need to weed out the miracles from the words and works of Jesus in the Gospels. His life begins with a virgin birth and ends with resurrection and ascension. The water walking, dead raising, demon expelling, and food multiplying parts in the middle shouldn't be too much of a stretch to accept framed within that context. Why is removing the miraculous (and traditional) understanding of this event necessary? Does it provide more clarity, or is it simply too much to expect modern rational minds to accept the narrative literally?
We can begin by asking ourselves why the author of the Gospel included this event. Is it intended to teach us to share what we have with each other, that hunger and poverty are man induced, and that we, like Dorothy and her companions in Oz, have the solution to our dilemmas within our own grasp all along if we but trust to look? Or is the point of the event a confirmation that Jesus is the messiah, accompanied by signs and wonders, and that this God man is not only concerned with our eternal destiny, but demonstrates human compassion for our current temporal struggles? Might Jesus have even used this sign to prepare His followers, including us, to understand that He Himself would feed us always, would Himself become the bread come down from heaven, would be Eucharist?
In the Gospel story, we're told that the crowd had gathered because of the signs that Jesus was performing, specifically with the sick. This was not a marketed event. There were no flyers posted around the villages noting when and where Jesus would be, including a start and end time. It was a spontaneous crowd that gathered and grew in response to Jesus miraculously curing large numbers of sick people. As Jesus moved away from the populace, the crowd followed after him. Passover was near (think Eucharist.) Instead of returning home for the Passover the crowd continued to follow Jesus into the mountains. The crowd followed Jesus beyond where they had expected to follow Him. The crowd was compelled. Something amazing was happening. This was not a trip that they had planned and packed for. This was a movement of the Spirit. The crowd followed Jesus beyond the line of personal risk. Haven't you ever found yourself there?
"When Jesus raised his eyes
and saw that a large crowd was coming to him,
he said to Philip,
“Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?”
He said this to test him,
because he himself knew what he was going to do" John 6:5-6
Phillip's answer to Jesus assumes that everyone in the crowd would need to be fed. Phillip was a man of that time and place. He was familiar with his own culture. He did not say, "Well, most of these people probably have enough to feed themselves. We only need to worry about the geniuses that came along without a sack lunch." No. Instead, Phillip guesstimated that "Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little." John 6:7.
Enter the boy with the "five barley loaves and two fish." John 6:9 It seems that he had brought more than enough for himself. Most likely, when his mother packed his lunch, she always threw in a little extra, just in case. I don't think she realized that this time she was preparing a meal for 5,000 plus. The boy came forward to help, and directly or indirectly, gave the food to Andrew, who then brought the small amount to Jesus. Jesus responded with, "OK. That should do it," gave thanks, and then proceeded to offer the boy's lunch to the crowd. Not only did everyone have enough to eat, but more food was gathered up from the left overs than the amount that had been originally served.
Was this truly a miracle?
"When the people saw the sign he had done, they said,
“This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.”" John 6:5-14-15
The fed multitude believed that something supernatural had occurred. The gathered had become sharers in the type of sign and wonder they had set out to behold.
Jesus then realized that the crowd, in response to what they had witnessed, wanted to carry Him off and make Him king there and then, so He escaped further off into the mountains alone. The apostles departed by boat without Jesus. The boat encountered rough water, and Jesus caught up with them, having crossed the water on foot, just as they reached the other side. It should be noted that many of the people who had "eaten the bread" also departed by boat and were surprised to find Jesus on the other side. He chastised them for being more excited about the bread, the temporal comfort and curiosity, than the implication of the sign, which He went on to connect first to the manna by which their father's were fed in the desert, and then directly to Himself, to the Eucharist. The chapter ends with Jesus repeating that His flesh is real food and His blood real drink multiple times, and that His followers must consume Him in order to have life.( John 6:53-58) For most of the gathered, Jesus' words were too hard to accept. Most walked away. Jesus then asked his closest friends if they were going to leave Him too? Peter responded as we must, "Lord, to whom shall we go?" John 6:68
John Chapter 6 is all about the Eucharist. Jesus is the Bread of Life. Jesus giving us His own flesh and His own blood as food and drink. This is miraculous. This is the central miracle of our faith. Jesus offered on the cross for us. Jesus as the Passover Lamb. It requires faith in the miraculous. More than that, it feeds faith in the miraculous.
The Gospel is still too hard for many to accept. The signs and wonders that Jesus worked are too difficult for many present day believers to fully embrace. Miracles must be made metaphor, the wonder relegated to internal spirituality. The natural interpretation trumps the supernatural. It isn't surprising that some liturgists have begun to more celebrate the gathered than the sacrifice for which we gather. Our God is a miracle. Jesus is still working wonders among us. We need to be a people of the wonder. We need to offer, unashamed, our belief in the wonders of our God to a world much in need of wonder. Accepting that Jesus miraculously fed a multitude of hungry people does not negate the role of the gathered in the miracle. Jesus allowed the saved to participate in the saving act. The young boy risks rejection and scorn by offering a small gift to a large problem. Much like Mary's humble yes to the Angel by which the Word became flesh, Jesus takes a small humble act and magnifies it. When Andrew brought the boys small gift before Jesus, he asked Jesus, "what is that among so many?" John 6:9 Jesus responded by feeding the multitude with 12 baskets in excess. In the company of Jesus, we can always confidently approach the needs before us, the struggle at hand, in our homes, in our parishes, or within our world, bringing no more than the strength, the intelligence, and the faith we have on hand. Some may ask, "what is that against so great a problem?" We know the answer. Everything.