Matthew 14: 13-21
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 31, 2011
The miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish is so central to the gospel message that it is one of the few miracles found in all four gospels. Indeed, two separate versions of it are found in Matthew and Mark (see Matthew 15:32-39 and Mark 8:1-10). The scenario is uncomplicated. The compassion of Jesus attracts a large crowd and soon they find themselves in a deserted place where no food is available. The disciples, who frequently seem disconcerted by Jesus’ apparent lack of foresight, point out that there was a real problem since no food was readily available for this large crowd.
Jesus seems quite unconcerned and, rather blithely, tells the disciples to provide them with food. Their response scarcely conceals their amazement that the Master should not notice how impossible that is: “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” But Jesus simply asks that they give him the loaves, blesses and breaks them, and then gives them to the disciples for distribution. All eat and are filled with the twelve baskets of left-over fragments!
Obviously, the contrast intended is that between the total inability of the disciples alone to deal with a desperate situation and the ease with which Jesus provides a solution. We must not trivialize the story by making it just another miracle of Jesus, performed long ago, by which he demonstrated his divinity. That may be part of it, but the message goes much deeper than that. It is all about the inability of humans, in any age, to deal with serious problems without divine help. The result is an all too common tendency simply to give up rather than to do what they can while invoking God’s assistance. How often have we heard someone say, after a first feeble attempt, “There, I told you it wouldn’t work?”
The more one reflects upon the ways of God with us humans, the more it becomes clear that God really does trust us and really does want us to become free and responsible persons who do not sit around waiting for someone else to solve our problems. At the same time, it is clear that many of these problems are well beyond our abilities, particularly when our motivation is centered in ambition and pride rather than in real concern for the welfare of others. It is literally true that we have only “five loaves and two fish,” i.e. that our resources are hopelessly inadequate. But our strength grows immeasurably in the presence of God.
When the young David volunteered to fight the giant, Goliath, it appeared to be a suicidal mission. The Bible seems to suggest that God simply took over and enabled him to do what would have been impossible. In fact, however, it was David’s faith in God which, providing him with confidence in himself and a positive attitude toward life, enabled him to imagine a new way to fight the giant. King Saul’s way, with sword and armor, was doomed from the start; David’s new way, with sling and stone, turned the tables completely. Pessimistic Saul could think only of the old way; optimistic (and believing) David found a better and successful way to fight the giant.
Authentic faith and genuine holiness should never be pictured as cautious and defensive before the challenges of life. Rather, real faith stirs up the imagination and makes a person creative and innovative in dealing with problems. In today’s gospel, we are assured of God’s desire to make us more hopeful and positive, even as he promises to join us in the desperately needed work of liberation and hopefulness and loving concern. When Jesus “blessed and broke” the loaves of bread he anticipated the Eucharist in which we are constantly challenged to bring both loving concern and daring ingenuity into our efforts to deal with the problems of life.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.