The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand with five loaves and two fish in which twelve baskets are gathered and which is the Gospel text of today is the only miracle that Jesus worked that is found in all four Gospels (Mt 14:13-21; Mk 6:35-44; Lk 9:10-17). While each evangelist narrates it slightly different from the others, the numbers that are used are the same in all four Gospels. A variety of explanations have been offered as to what really happened. While some think that there was a miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fish though it cannot be explained how, others think that when people saw Jesus and disciples sharing the little they had, they were also motivated to share their own food with others. Still others give a sacramental explanation to the miracle. There is no need to deny the historicity of the miracle simply because we have never witnessed a miraculous multiplication of food. At the same time, however, the literal, historical miracle of Jesus on this occasion is full of ongoing and important significance for John’s community and for us, and this it is necessary to go beyond what happened to the import and meaning of the miracle.
There are several aspects of the miracle that are exclusive to John and these serve to bring out clearly the meaning as John may have intended. It is only in the Gospel of John that there is a reference to the Passover and this serves to bring to mind the Exodus. This is made even more explicit when Jesus instructs his disciples to gather up the fragments so that nothing may be lost, much like Moses asked the people not to leave any manna around after they had eaten. While in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus says the blessing over the bread; in John he “gives thanks”. This serves to emphasize the Eucharistic element of the miracle and the discourse on the Bread of Life that follows. This idea is further accentuated when Jesus gives the bread to the people himself and not like in the Synoptic Gospels to the disciples who give it to the people.
The miracle while it may be seen as the supernatural provision for the physical hunger of a large crowd on a specific occasion is much more than just that. Indeed, the miracle is a deed filled with symbolism at more than one level. The primary symbolism is that of messianic provision, which both points to the reality of present fulfillment and foreshadows the blessings that will continue to flow in the future. This provision takes place in the wilderness, just as manna was provided in the wilderness. It is a kind of messianic banquet in which the people recline at table. Jesus is the messianic provider. He is the Bread of Life. People go away from his presence healed and filled. The hungry are healed and filled now as they will also be filled in the future. The miracle typifies the full and complete blessing of humanity in the meeting of human need and the experience of ultimate well-being, universal shalom or wholeness. The feeding of the multitude is thus the harbinger of good news for the Johannine community and also for people of every era. God is not far away and aloof from us. God is not simply a God up there in heaven. Jesus shows us that God does not stand outside of life, but is right here with us, beside us in our broken and troubled and suffering world. It is an indication to all peoples who dare to see and experience that the Messiah is in their midst. Not only will God offer bread but also the choicest of gifts and these will be given freely and gratuitously. These will be in abundance just as the abundance at the feeding of the five thousand. There will be enough and more. God gives them freely because of his unconditional love. His love was shown in a variety of ways to the people of Israel. Like he provided manna to them in the desert, he also provided bread to them through the prophets as narrated in the first reading of today. However, this love was shown in the most perfect way in and through the sending of his Son, Jesus Christ. In doing so he provided not only for their physical needs, but ensured that every human need was sated in Jesus Christ.
This does not mean, of course, that those who believe in Jesus will have no problems or misery. But it does mean that God will give us the grace and aid to bear the load as we overcome and move through whatever may befall us. Ours is not a faith of easy answers and unrealistic solutions. Jesus entered life and died on the cross for us, showing us that in whatever we experience, in whatever may trouble us, in whatever distress or threat we feel, we need not fear because God is in it with us. God will lift up in our midst what we need to make it through.
This is the perseverance and courage to which the second reading of today calls the Ephesians and us. Our call as disciples of Jesus is a lofty call and we must live out that call in and through our words and deeds. Like the disciples of Jesus we sometimes find that our care and compassion is limited to prayer and good wishes. Like the disciples we wish people well but have no intention of taking positive action to help the situation. And, again like the disciple, what prevents us from taking positive action is often the realistic assessment that the little we are able to do is not really going to make any appreciable difference.
But in the gospel we are challenged to see that when we translate our care and compassion into positive action, the little we are able to do is multiplied by God's grace in such a way that it becomes more than sufficient for the need. In whatever crisis or issue we face in life, in whatever trouble may come our way, the power of God’s love will provide what we need.