The miracle of the loaves and fishes is a tale we have heard over and over since childhood. It is the only miracle recounted in all four gospels. Yet despite its familiarity, its full meaning often escapes our understanding.
Was this miracle merely a crowd pleaser? Did Jesus just throw in a free meal for the multitudes… sort of a biblical version of free-hot-dog-day at the ballpark? Or was it a simply a huge parlor trick meant to wow the faithful and confound the skeptics? Doubtless the miracle served both purposes. But in all of Christ’s words and actions, there is a single, much deeper message: God loves us. And Jesus is literally the embodiment of that love.
Where we see scraps, he can create abundance. Where we see emptiness and depression, he can create profound fulfillment and boundless joy. He is the bread of life. And in Christ, that life is abundant. The crowd did not need to come back for seconds. They were filled to satisfaction and there was enough left over for doggy bags… twelve baskets worth. What a perfect analogy for God’s love. Out of scarcity comes the endless buffet, the bottomless basket.
This is a very different kind of miracle, but a very familiar kind of gospel… while it is comforting, it is also challenging. In other miracles, Jesus is presented with a problem. He acts miraculously to resolve it… publicly calling on the Father, laying on hands, commanding spirits… and then the miracle happens. But in this gospel the miracle takes place off-stage. And it comes not directly from Jesus, but through the hands of the disciples, which is a minor miracle in itself. As the gospel begins the disciples are ready to shoo the crowd away: Go home folks. The show’s over. But Jesus transforms them from would-be bouncers into sacramental servants. He instructs them to share their meager provisions with the people. It is a teaching moment for the disciples and for us. We are not meant to be passive recipients of God’s grace, but to be active channels of his love. We do not come to Christ merely to be fed, but to feed others.
That is a condition of our discipleship.
That does not mean occasionally making a painless contribution or going through the motions of community service. Charity is not mindless, mechanical giving. It is sharing the love on which we are nourished. It’s not dispensing empty, loveless calories. It is sacrificially giving of ourselves as Christ has given of himself to us. Like the disciples when they fed the hungry crowd that had over-stayed their leave, Jesus expects us to be loving, to be nurturing, especially to those who are inconvenient… the poor, the aged, the infirmed, the addicted.
While the gospel speaks of “crowds,” each one on that hillside was a beloved child of God. Like us, each had primitive survival instincts that ask: “Where’s my share? Why didn’t I get that piece?” Yet every one was fed and each went away satisfied. God does not love us as crowds, or as a species… a mere category of his creation. He knows and loves each one of us in our own personal failings and foolishness. He has a plan for each one of us and more than enough love to fill your basket and mine to overflowing. In that blessed assurance, let us taste and see the goodness of the Lord. And like the disciples, let us have the faith to dig into our own scarcity and share in abundance from the bottomless basket of God’s love.
The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.