Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Last week, we had a little discussion of the Miracle of Caring and Sharing, the tedious notion that the True Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes is that Jesus’ warm fuzziness prompted everybody to share their lunch. I have nothing but derision for the notion that this account replaces the traditional view that Jesus miraculously multiplied loaves and fishes, as a sign of the coming bounty of the Eucharist. However, reader Ye Olde Statistician makes an interesting (and completely orthodox point) by writing:
Still … If the Gospel is a living thing, as we like to think, it may be no coincidence that this notion — that the miracle was one of inspiring-others-to-share — has become popular in OUR day and age. Palestinian Jews of the first century may have needed no miracle to share with their fellow Jews. But Late Modern Westerners in the grip of a vague and inchoate Nietzschean/Randian triumph of the will may need to hear precisely that message.
After all, Augustine, whose chops are generally supposed pretty good, he being a Father of the Church and all, once said that
“When, again, not some one interpretation, but two or more interpretations are put upon the same words of Scripture, even though the meaning the writer intended remain undiscovered, there is no danger if it can be shown from other passages of Scripture that any of the interpretations put on the words is in harmony with the truth. And if a man in searching the Scriptures endeavors to get at the intention of the author through whom the Holy Spirit spoke, whether he succeeds in this endeavor, or whether he draws a different meaning from the words, but one that is not opposed to sound doctrine, he is free from blame so long as he is supported by the testimony of some other passage of Scripture. For the author perhaps saw that this very meaning lay in the words which we are trying to interpret; and assuredly the Holy Spirit, who through him spoke these words, foresaw that this interpretation would occur to the reader, nay, made provision that it should occur to him, seeing that it too is founded on truth. For what more liberal and more fruitful provision could God have made in regard to the Sacred Scriptures than that the same words might be understood in several senses, all of which are sanctioned by the concurring testimony of other passages equally divine?” — On Christian Doctrine, Book III ch. 27.
That’s really insightful. And it is, I repeat, quite orthodox. For the Church teaches that Scripture may be read in several senses at once. So, for instance, one can read the story of the conquest of Canaan by Joshua allegorically, and see in the defeat of the seven nations of Canaan an image of the defeat of the seven deadly sins in the soul. Likewise, you can (as Jesus does in John 6) see in the Manna of Exodus 16 an allegory of Jesus the Bread of Life. Or you can see in the ark of the covenant an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary who likewise bore within herself the God of Israel who is the Word, the Bread of Life, and the Great High Priest just as the ark contained the tablets of the law, the manna and shared the Holy of Holies with the Staff of Aaron the High Priest.
In the same, the story of the multiplication of loaves and fishes can be given a moral sense reading which our chintzy age might need to hear: that generosity is one of the marks of a disciple. The key to keeping from being stupid is to make sure that such a reading doesn’t cancel out the literal sense reading (which is that Jesus miraculously multiplied loaves and fishes). (As St. Thomas says, all other senses are dependent on the literal sense.) We do this in lots of other ways all the time. So we say, “That guy is a David against Goliath,” when somebody fights city hall, without imagining we have therefore explained away the historicity of David. We say, “That guy who broke his heroin habit is a regular Lazarus,” without meaning that there was no raising of Lazarus. So it’s possible to see do a moral sense “caring and sharing” reading of the miracle of the loaves and fishes which applies it to our cheapskate individualist culture.
The main problem, I fear, is that very few of the people who appeal to the caring and sharing reading of the text do so with the intention of preserving the literal sense (i.e., that Jesus miraculously multipled loaves and fishes). They typically do it to replace the literal sense because they have a prejudice against miracles and a prejudice in favor of watery liberal Protestant moralism that denies the supernatural.
But that doesn’t negate YOS’s point, which is interesting. Our selfish, individualist culture can stand with a good dose of old-fashioned biblical communitarianism. I suspect, however, that there are less roundabout and confusing ways of getting that across, like a straightforward exegesis of Jesus command to give to whoever asks of us. That demand alone is enough to boil much of modernity to rags. (I speak as one who is lousy at obeying it.)