The True Meaning of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

A Thanksgiving Mass reading from the gospel according to AmChurch:

The Jewish feast of Passover was near.  When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, "Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?" He said this to test him, because he himself knew that Philip was so stupid he’d believe anything. Philip answered him, "Two hundred days' wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little bit." One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?" Jesus said, "Have the people recline." Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and the crowd, so moved at his warm fuzziness, started to share their lunches with each other and sing “Anthem”.

And Jesus said unto them, “You believe in me because my warm fuzziness inspired you to share your lunch. Now go forth to all the nations with a cock-and-bull story of ‘miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes’ as a midrash on this purely naturalistic event. For behold, what could be a greater wonder than that ancient Near Eastern people should show hospitality? As it is written: ‘Everybody everywhere is as chintzy as a suburban American is about sharing food. For suburban America is the measure of all things.’”

And the apostles, being suckers, said, “D’uhhhh okay!”

And so it came to pass that sharing lunch was accounted a wonder of God and the only miracle besides the Resurrection of Christ recorded in all four gospels.

In countless parishes all over the US this Thanksgiving, some variation on this rubbish will be the theme of the homily as, once again, this tired naturalistic exegesis is trotted out to bore parishioners, confuse the young, irritate the theologically-informed, and insult the ancient Jews it so casually caricatures.

Here’s the facts: Sharing food was not a miracle in Jesus’ culture.  This is not only known, but much capitalized upon, when the text under discussion is not John 6, but Genesis 19.  Then we are often informed that the real sin of Sodom had nothing to do with sodomy but was, instead, lack of hospitality (Ezekiel 16:49).  Prescinding from the fact that the threat of homosexual rape implied in Genesis 19:5 is a particularly acute form of inhospitality, I agree heartily with Ezekiel—and so did most people in the ancient Near East.  Failure to show hospitality was a very big deal.

Indeed, it still is.  The father of a Palestinian Christian family I know of reacted to the quintessentially American provincialism of this interpretation with some warmth, “My family would starve before a guest under our roof went hungry!”

And that’s the little hitch with this staple of the AmChurch homily handbook.  It renders the sign in John 6 less than meaningless while insulting Near Eastern people to boot. 

The miracle of the loaves and fishes is that Jesus multiplied five loaves and two fishes into food for five thousand people in an ex nihilo act of pure creation—just like he’s God or something.  Its deeper meaning is that this same Jesus now gives millions his Crucified, Risen, and Glorified Eucharistic Body and Blood to eat and drink so that we might live forever—just like he’s God or something.

Copyright 2007 - Mark P. Shea