Explaining Away the Greatest Miracle of Jesus' Ministry

Did Jesus feed 5,000 men (plus women and children) with just five loaves and two fish? Or was there a "miracle of sharing"?
Did Jesus feed 5,000 men (plus women and children) with just five loaves and two fish? Or was there a "miracle of sharing"? (photo: Register Files)

Of all the many miracles Jesus performed during his earthly ministry (that is, before his passion, death, and Resurrection), there is one that stands out: the feeding of the five thousands.

Unlike any other miracle from his ministry, this one is recorded in all four gospels is the feeding of the five thousand.

You would think that people would have a handle on the fact that this was a miracle--an unmistakable supernatural intervention in the order of nature.

Yet every year we are subjected to homilies that try to explain it away as a natural event, suggesting that all Jesus really did was motivate people to share the food that they had with them, so it was really a "miracle of sharing" rather than a miraculous multiplication of loaves.

I've written about the subject before, but let's see what Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II have to say about the matter . . .


Pope Benedict on the Miracle

Recently I was delighted to discover that Pope Benedict has been discussing the miracle in his Sunday Angeluses . . . er, Angeli . . . er, Angelus messages. Here's what he had to say earlier this summer:

This Sunday we began by reading Chapter six of John’s Gospel. The chapter opens with the scene of the multiplication of the loaves, which Jesus later comments on in the Synagogue of Capernaum, pointing to himself as the “bread” which gives life. . . .

A boy’s presence is also mentioned in the scene of the multiplication. On perceiving the problem of feeding so many hungry people, he shared the little he had brought with him: five loaves and two fish (cf. Jn 6:9).

The miracle was not worked from nothing, but from a first modest sharing of what a simple lad had brought with him. Jesus does not ask us for what we do not have.

Rather, he makes us see that if each person offers the little he has the miracle can always be repeated: God is capable of multiplying our small acts of love and making us share in his gift.

The crowd was impressed by the miracle: it sees in Jesus the new Moses, worthy of power, and in the new manna, the future guaranteed.

However the people stopped at the material element, which they had eaten, and the Lord “perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king,... withdrew again to the hills by himself” (Jn 6:15).

Jesus is not an earthly king who exercises dominion but a king who serves, who stoops down to human beings not only to satisfy their physical hunger, but above all their deeper hunger, the hunger for guidance, meaning and truth, the hunger for God [Angelus, July 29, 2012].

So Pope Benedict sees the miracle in the traditional (and obvious) way, as a multiplication of loaves.

He stressed the same thing the next week:

The Reading of the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel continues in the Liturgy of the Word of this Sunday. We are in the synagogue of Capharnaum where Jesus was giving his well-known discourse after the multiplication of the loaves. . . .

The crowd does not understand, it believes that Jesus is asking for the observance of precepts in order to obtain the continuation of that miracle, and asks: “what must we do, to be dong the works of God?” (v. 28). . . .

“What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (v. 28), the crowd asks, ready to act in order to perpetuate the miracle of the loaves.

But Jesus, the true bread of life that satisfies our hunger for meaning and for truth, cannot be “earned” with human work; he comes to us only as a gift of God’s love, as a work of God to be asked for and received [Angelus, August 5, 2012].

And he stressed it the week after that, this time adding that it was Jesus himself who satisfied the hunger of the five thousand though a miracle he worked that miraculously satisfied their physical hunger. They didn't satisfy their own hunger by passing around the food they had with them.

The Reading of the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel in the Liturgy of these Sundays has led us to reflect on the multiplication of the loaves, with which the Lord satisfied the hunger of a crowd of five thousand, and on the invitation Jesus addresses to all those whom he had feed to busy themselves seeking a food that endures to eternal life.

Jesus wants to help them understand the profound meaning of the miracle he had worked: in miraculously satisfying their physical hunger; he prepares them to receive the news that he is the Bread which has come down from heaven (cf. Jn 6:41), which will satisfy hunger for ever [Angelus, August 12, 2012].

And most recently he spoke specifically of Jesus satisfying their hunger with fives loaves and two fish:

On the past few Sundays we have meditated on the “Bread of Life” discourse, which Jesus gave in the Synagogue of Capernaum after satisfying the hunger of thousands of people with five loaves and two fish [Angelus, August 26, 2012].


John Paul II on the Miracle

I don't want to have an unnecessary multiplication of quotations, but I would like to add a couple from John Paul II that show this isn't just a "Benedict thing." Back in 1982, he told the youth of Scotland:

There is an episode in the life of Saint Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, which can serve as an example for what I wish to tell you. Jesus had been teaching a crowd of five thousand people about the Kingdom of God.

They had listened carefully all day, and as evening approached he did not want to send them away hungry, so he told his disciples to give them something to eat.

He said this really to test them, because he knew exactly what he was going to do.

One of the disciples - it was Saint Andrew - said: “There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fishes; but what is that between so many?”

Jesus took the loaves, blessed them, and gave them out to all who were sitting waiting; he then did the same with the fish, giving out as much as was wanted. Later the disciples collected twelve baskets of the fragments that were left over.

Now the point I wish to make is this: Saint Andrew gave Jesus all there was available, and Jesus miraculously fed those five thousand people and still had something left over [Address to the Young People of Scotland, May 31, 1982].

Note that John Paul II doesn't just say that Jesus used the five loaves and two fish, he specifies that they were "all there was available." So people didn't bring out the food they were had stashed under their cloaks and start passing it around. What the boy had was what was available. Of course, some people might have had food with them, but it wasn't available for what Jesus was doing, which was a real, physical miracle.

And 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”.

Now can we please not have any more of the "miracle of sharing" homilies?



By the Way . . .

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