The Gospel assigned to this Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time gives us an account of one of the greatest of all the miracles, namely the Feeding of the Multitude. This miracle is very well attested to in the Gospels and occurs no less than six times. The accounts of the Feeding of the Five Thousand occurs in all four of the Gospels with many of the details being exactly the same such as the fact that it involved five loaves and two fish.
There are two other accounts of a very similar miracle which occurs in Matthew and Mark involving four thousand people with seven loaves and a few small fish. While it is possible that there were two separate miracles involving loaves and fish most of the scholars regard them as one miracle.
The account we are presented with today comes from the Gospel of John and it has a little more detail than the other accounts. The important thing to note about all six of these accounts is the heavy Eucharistic overtones they possess. Jesus takes the bread, then he blesses it and breaks it before distributing it to the crowds.
These are the four distinct actions of the Eucharist: take, bless, break and give. We see these clearly in the parts of the mass where they correspond to the Offertory, the Eucharistic Prayer, the Fragmentation at the Agnus Dei and the distribution of Holy Communion. The Evangelists therefore want us to be very clear that the Feeding of the Five Thousand is closely connected to the Eucharist.
Indeed, in the Gospel of John, there is no actual celebration of the Eucharist at the Last Supper; there, rather, John has the Washing of the Feet, and so in his Gospel if we want to find references to the Eucharist it is to the feeding of the Five Thousand that we must look.
Of course, the other aspect of this great miracle is Jesus’ compassion for the people and his desire that they should not go hungry. So eager are they for miracles and for the Word of God that they have followed Jesus into an isolated place far from any village. They do this without thought of what they are to eat so hungry are they for something higher, something more spiritual.
Jesus feeds them with earthly food but he does so in such a way that there are, as we have seen, strong overtones of the Eucharist which is to be his final and most defining action prior to his death on the Cross. This Eucharist is what feeds the Christian Community down through the generations until today, and it will continue to do so until it reaches its culmination in the great Banquet of Heaven.
In the Eucharist we receive a fragment of earthly food in the piece of bread and the sip of wine but we know that by them we are abundantly fed by the body and blood of Jesus Christ himself. It is this spiritual food that sustains the Christian family and keeps us faithful to the God of our salvation.
There are other things worth noticing about this great miracle. One is that Jesus uses the disciples. He does not distribute the loaves and fishes himself but he invites the disciples to do it for him. This shows us that in the Church Christ prefers to act through the agency of his ministers and his many disciples. He only rarely intervenes in our lives directly. More commonly he allows us to act on each other. We are sustained and healed by our brothers and sisters in the Church.
This tells us that we, each of us, need to be active Christians in the world. It tells us that we need to model ourselves on those disciples and bring food to the hungry; that is both physical food and spiritual food. It is our responsibility to serve the human family in practical ways but also through prayer and other forms of spiritual support.
Another lesson that we ought to take from this text is the extraordinary generosity of Christ. He could simply have arranged things so that each one had precisely enough to eat, but he gives out far more than that. He gave to each as much as was wanted and then when the scraps were picked up there were twelve baskets full.
In the separate accounts of the Feeding of the Four Thousand to be found in Matthew and Mark we are told that it took place in the Decapolis region which was outside the Jewish area. We are told that seven baskets were gathered up on that occasion.
It is thought by scholars that the twelve baskets represented the twelve tribes of Israel, twelve being a sacred number amongst the Jews. In the case of the miracle occurring in Gentile areas it is thought that the seven baskets represented the seven nations that were expelled from the Promised Land to make way for the Israelites. Whatever these numbers actually represent, clearly we understand them to be symbolic numbers, that is numbers with great significance for the people.
Another interesting little snippet occurs when the disciples say that there is a boy present with five loaves and two fish; but, as they say, ‘what is that among so many.’ The disciples look immediately to the practical, they stress the difficulties of the situation. To them, feeding all these people is something truly impossible. But, of course, this is not how Jesus sees things.
At the end of the Nineteenth Century when this Church was built our parish consisted of large numbers of very poor Irish families with very few middle-class people. And yet when we look at this fabulous building we see what they achieved. The priest who inspired those people had a vision; he could see far beyond what merely practical people thought was possible. With the help of those people he achieved the construction of a very beautiful building which will give glory to God for many centuries and inspire the prayers of multitudes of people.
Jesus is not bound by what to our minds is possible. He is the Son of God, he has come to bring us salvation, he enters our world to break through the barrier between heaven and earth. We are his disciples, it is our task to see well beyond the limitations of time and space and money. It is our task to bring life and hope to the world. Our mission is to communicate the Good News of the Gospel to our brothers and sisters who live around us and to feed them with the Word of God and so enable them to embrace the salvation Christ has won for them.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand is not a miracle that occurred two thousand years ago in the hills of Galilee and then is forgotten. No, it is a miracle that continues each day of the Christian era; it is a miracle that each one of us is involved in; it is a miracle that continues to change the world.