The Miracle of Caring and Sharing

A reader writes:

The Director of Religious Education at my parish in PA just told me yesterday that Jesus may not have multiplied the loaves and fishes. First, I was told this by a women in my rosary group, so I went to the DRE because the women told me the DRE would agree with her and I was incredulous. My world was rocked because she did agree with her. I believe he did multiply the loaves and fishes and it was a miracle. Do you know what the current teaching is on this? I can’t imagine the DRE is teaching something she knows to be false. Was it taught at one time? In 2011, what is the Church’s stand on that miracle or lack there of. Please help!

Argh.  Give me strength! This dumb reading of the Gospels became trendy about two decades ago due to a commentary by a guy named William Barclay. It has no standing magisterially. That doesn’t mean the Magisterium condemns it (the Magisterium does not micro-manage Scriptural exegesis like that). Nor does it mean the Magisterium commends it. It simply means that the Magisterium is not about dealing with the minutiae of how theologians, DRE’s and Sunday school teachers read individual Gospel stories, as a general rule. It’s sort of like the question of whether a person should go play in the street. The Church offers basic guidelines on prudence, common sense, etc. But the Church does not micromanage where parents allow their children to play. There may be places where playing in the street is fine. There may be places where it’s suicide. There’s no one size fits all Magisterial take on the general question of playing in the street.

In the same way, the Church tends to allow for a lot of freedom in reading Scripture and seldom issues decrees on what is and is not permitted. So a Catholic can play with the idea that, for instance, the Ten Plagues of Egypt were natural events, albeit providentially timed natural events (for instance, a mud slide upriver turned the waters red, the frogs therefore fled the river, they died and that attracted flies, etc.).  You don’t *have* to buy that (and I don’t) but there’s nothing fundamentally contrary to Catholic faith in that (lame) reading of Exodus because we believe that God is the creator of nature and therefore can use natural means to do his work.

In the same way, one can play with the (exceedingly lame) “explanation” of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes where everybody was so moved by Jesus’ warm fuzziness that they all shared their lunches. The Church does not forbid this stupid way of reading the text, just as the Church has never issued an infallible decree that 2+2 does not equal five, nor a formal dogma that you should not play in traffic.

Nonetheless, all these things are wrong and stupid, as is the naturalistic reading of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. That’s because all common sense is against it. The notion that it is a wonder worthy of mention in all four Gospels that ancient Near Eastern semites shared their food is something that *only* suburban American cheapskates could believe. The duty of hospitality and sharing one’s bread with the stranger is ancient and deep-rooted in Near Eastern culture. It did not take Jesus’ warm fuzziness to prompt it, nor would anybody have remarked on it as something amazing.

No, what impressed the Gospel writers was that, well, Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes miraculously. What also impressed them was that Jesus himself directly connected this sign with the miracle of the Eucharist, which has now been multiplied to feed a billion souls every day.

So your teachers are wrong, having doubtless absorbed this silly theory from some source they trust without giving it any thought—because they trust the source. The Church does not condemn this dumb theory—or endorse it. It’s just trendy in certain circles for no more reason than that it is trendy. 

Now: how to get people who buy this dumb theory to reconsider? One good way to reach people who believe it is to point out the racism inherent in the story: as though it’s a miracle for Near Eastern people to share their lunches.

Indeed, one of the fun things to do is to induce PC whiplash with such folk by bringing up another favorite trope common in these circles: the notion that the Sin of Sodom was not, you know, sodomy but “unhospitality.”  According to this PC updating of Genesis 19, the big problem with the men of Sodom was not homosexuality, but that they did not give Lot and his family a good welcome. Prescinding from the fact that the threat of homosexual rape (Genesis 19:5) is a particularly acute form of inhospitality, the advocates of this particular bit of exegetical rubbish accidentally make extremely clear the fact that the duty of hospitality did not suddenly occur to the crowd of 5,000 people at the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. It was something they had engrained in their culture for millennia—and still do. I recall a Palestinian Christian friend remarking to me that the “Miracle of Caring and Sharing” reading of John 6 was a slap in the face any person from the Middle East. “My father would let our family *starve* before a guest went hungry.” Only piggy suburbanites find it amazing, let alone miraculous, that ancient Jews would share their food.

So bottom line: The Magisterium has, so far as I know, nothing to say about this dim and dumb reading of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, just as it has issued no formal teaching about playing in traffic. That said, I would say that both are extremely dumb ideas that have literally the entire Catholic exegetical tradition against them up till about 20 years ago, and I look forward to the complete demise of the Miracle of Caring and Sharing exegesis (which is already in decline and on its way out). It’s a brief hiccup in biblical interpretation that gained momentary popularity with the Woodstock Generation. God grant it a swift death and a forgotten grave in some footnote somewhere.