This very well-known account of what is commonly, but wrongly, called the multiplication of the loaves is familiar to everyone, believers and unbelievers. We are however about to collide with its topicality. It occurs six times in the Gospels, such was its hold on the primitive Christian community.
Translation Canon Tony Dickinson
The action takes place on the eastern shore of Lake Tiberias, outside the traditional territory of Israel: Jesus and his companions are therefore in pagan country.
Safely on the beach, they are resting after their hard day. But already they are no longer at ease, because a crowd is coming to make demands on them, drawn by their reputation and their sense of welcome. The disciples are worried. Evening is coming. And what is going to happen with all these foreigners who do not belong to our people, and who have nothing to eat, while we have just enough for ourselves? They are seriously upsetting us. So the natural response is that they say to Jesus: « Send them home. » Let them vanish. Let them find somewhere else to sleep. We can’t do anything for them. We have only enough for us. Why have they come to bother us anyway? Let them go home. Let them go to the surrounding villages and buy themselves something to eat. There are too many for us to look after. Send them home.
Give them something to eat yourselves. That is the response of Jesus. But how? We have only five loaves and two fish. Give them yourselves… And to emphasise that it is up to the disciples to stir themselves, after blessing the loaves, Jesus gives them to the disciples so that they can offer them to the crowd. It is the disciples who were worried and who in the end give in abundance.
But how have they done it when they had only three loaves and two fish to feed 5000 men? That isn’t the problem, we don’t want to know. The text doesn’t talk about it. The problem is that the people are hungry. The truth of the Gospel is that we need to start from the needs of men and women and not from what we have.
Not looking to ourselves but to others. Give them something to eat, without looking at what you don’t have, without looking at what is left over for you; because, even after giving to the crowd, there are leftovers, twelve baskets full, one for each disciple. They wanted to send all these foreigners away; and it is these foreigners who offer them a full basket each.
We don’t know what happened. Mark’s Gospel says that the disciples understood nothing about the business with the loaves. We don’t really understand any better. We understand only that there is something impossible about these instructions of Jesus. Feeding 5000 men? Certainly not. Let them go away. Let them go and feed somewhere else. The word of God is asking for the impossible. We know. The Bible is full of men and women who make the impossible happen at God’s request. Because they have the faith which gives the power to dare, to launch themselves toward the impossible.
As Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel (11:22): « Have faith in God. In truth I tell you: if anyone says to this mountain: move yourself from there and throw yourself into the sea, and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what they say will happen, it will be granted them.” Obviously, nobody takes this statement seriously, not even Jesus. It means that faith allows us to leave what is reasonable, what is properly thought through, to propel ourselves toward what is risky, imprudent, toward what is out of the ordinary, toward the unexpected, toward adventure, toward what is barely imaginable, towards what men and women need.
And if we can’t move the whole mountain at one go, we can move it one stone at a time. And each stone that is moved increases our faith and gives us the strength to move the rest. As Albert Schweitzer said in one of his sermons: « My experience in everyday life has taught me this: works do not come from faith, it is faith which comes from works. » 5000 men is a lot. But let us begin to take bread to a few and we will push back the limits of the possible and increase our own faith.
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