Once again, this weekend we encounter the Gospel describing the miracle of the loaves and fishes: how thousands were fed from very little.
It’s not uncommon (unfortunately) to hear preachers wax eloquently about how this is really a story about sharing.
That interpretation isn’t exactly new. It actually has its roots in the ’50s (maybe even earlier) and was popularized by the noted Protestant commentator William Barclay. Barclay was a New Testament scholar and professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at Glasgow University in Scotland. He wrote 17 books in The Daily Study Bible series — engaging and wildly popular volumes that over the decades have been used by countless readers, teachers and preachers to help make the Bible (and Bible study) accessible to the masses.
Here’s what Barclay wrote about this Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew:
Picture the scene. There is the crowd; it is late; and they are hungry. But as it really likely that the vast majority of that crowd would set out around the lake without any food at all? Would they not take something with them, however little? Now it was evening and they were hungry. But they were also selfish. And they would not produce what they had in case they had to share it and left themselves without enough. Then Jesus took the lead. Such as he and his disciples had, he began to share with a blessing and an invitation and a smile. And thereupon all began to share, and before they knew what was happening, there was enough and more than enough for all.
If this is what happened, it was not the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes; it was the miracle of the changing of selfish people into generous people at the touch of Christ. It was the miracle of the birth of love in grudging hearts. It was the miracle of changed men and women with something of Christ in them to banish their selfishness.
Obviously, that seems to diminish the idea of God’s grace making the impossible possible. It turns a monumental (and Eucharistic) event into an opportunity for people to be nice.
Pope Benedict, preaching on this Gospel in 2011, offered this interpretation, focusing on both communion (and Holy Communion) and compassion:
The miracle consists in the brotherly sharing of a few loaves which, entrusted to the power of God, not only sufficed for everyone but enough was left over to fill 12 baskets. The Lord asked this of the disciples so that it would be they who distributed the bread to the multitude; in this way he taught and prepared them for their future apostolic mission: in fact, they were to bring to all the nourishment of the Word of life and of the sacraments.
In this miraculous sign the incarnation of God and the work of redemption are interwoven. Jesus, in fact, “went ashore” from the boat to meet the men and women (cf. Mt 14:14). St Maximus the Confessor said that the Word of God made himself present for our sake, by taking flesh, derived from us and conformed to us in all things save sin, in order to expose us to his teaching with words and examples suitable for us” (Ambigua 33: PG 91, 1285 C).
Here the Lord offers us an eloquent example of his compassion for people. We are reminded of all our brothers and sisters in the Horn of Africa who in these days are suffering the dramatic consequences of famine, exacerbated by war and by the lack of solid institutions. Christ is attentive to material needs but he wished to give more, because man always “hungers for more, he needs more” (Jesus of Nazareth, Doubleday, New York 2007, p. 267 (English translation). God’s love is present in the bread of Christ; in the encounter with him “we feed on the living God himself, so to speak, we truly eat the ‘bread from Heaven’” (ibid. p. 268).
Dear friends. “in the Eucharist Jesus also makes us witnesses of God’s compassion towards all our brothers and sisters. The Eucharistic mystery thus gives rise to a service of charity towards neighbor” (Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 88).
Jimmy Akin a few years ago drew on another lesson, this one from St. John Paul:
It’s a miracle with spiritual implications. Pope Benedict mentioned that it points to Jesus as the Bread of Life, and that it shows what God can do with our little when we turn to him. John Paul II dwells on the latter point in a particularly moving way:
“It is exactly the same with your lives. Left alone to face the difficult challenges of life today, you feel conscious of your inadequacy and afraid of what the future may hold for you.
But what I say to you is this: place your lives in the hands of Jesus. He will accept you, and bless you, and he will make such use of your lives as will be beyond your greatest expectations!
In other words: surrender yourselves, like so many loaves and fishes, into the all-powerful, sustaining hands of God and you will find yourselves transformed with ‘newness of life’, with fullness of life. ‘Unload your burden on the Lord, and he will support you.’
Jimmy Akin concludes:
Now can we please not have any more of the “miracle of sharing” homilies?
Can I hear an “Amen”?