Five Loaves and Two Fishes: You Do the Math

July 29, 2018


The news is full of truly sorrowful stories of how a President and his party’s legislative majority make a priority of something they call “tax reform,” but which is simply taking money away from the needy in order to inflate still further the riches of less than one percent of the population who live in wealth unexampled in all human history. This is to reward the people who make those elected leaders themselves rich as rewards for following the bidding of the richest of the rich.

Today, all around the world, people attending Masses hear a story commonly called “The Feeding of the Five Thousand.” Saint John the Evangelist, who included it in his Gospel (6:1–15) that was to become canonical, was clearly set on putting forth lessons that have nothing at all to do with whether or not such an event literally happened on such and such a day in Galilee (any more than the similar story about Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42–44 —also heard at today’s Mass—need be read as mere history). It strikes me that what is important to note is principles that are taken for granted in the narrative; and they are ones directly applicable to what’s so very wrong about the current push to rob the poor to give to the rich—which, while exemplified by the current Washington regime, is all too far from unique around the world.

  1. The Apostles automatically accept it as a given that the people must be fed when Jesus saw a crowd approaching and asked “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” These people are out for a day’s excursion by the lake to listen to a man whom they had seen going about doing good. They’re not in danger of starving, but it’s significant that Jesus immediately assumes that his right-hand men will agree with him that feeding these people is to be taken for granted. The contrast with what assumptions he could make about current leaders, whose very last consideration is the needs of powerless people, is already striking.
  2. Philip says to Jesus that they’d need a lot of money to go buy food for all these people: “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” So these are not do-gooders who ignore hard facts. But nothing is said about getting the people to buy their own food, nor does the question of how “deserving” these particular people might be enter into it. No one is saying “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
  3. No one asks why these people have come unprepared. That might be an interesting question for another day, but it has no bearing on what is seen as the immediate issue.
  4. Andrew tells Jesus that he has spotted a young boy who has five barley loaves and two fish. I don’t know if he had asked the kid if he’d be willing to contribute this food, insufficient though it was for thousands of people. If he were a budding Wall Street climber, the child might automatically say, “Hold on! What’s mine is mine and these people are not my problem.” But would you say that in Jesus’s presence? No, and the boy would know that this was the wrong gathering in which to come out with that kind of thinking. People who loudly claim to be followers of Jesus today often say much worse things, making incoherent their claims to be his disciples. But the people that we find ourselves among are often cause, as much as result, of our attitudes and behaviors. The rarified Senate gymnasium and the House of Representatives dining room don’t seem to have unmixedly good effects on their denizens.
  5. Nobody mentions long-term consequences at all, much less the give-them-an-inch-they’ll-take-a-mile principle in which the poor become lazy unless they are constantly made to face harsh reality. In the event, there was an abundance of food left over after the people had had their fill. It’s as though the writer knew that, in the future, rich societies would have the means to wipe out all the hunger in the world immediately, given even a minimal will to do so, and, with good management, would still have plenty left over.
  6. And this was no merely utilitarian help given to the people. None of this, “You’re poor and should be grateful for bare sustenance that comes from generosity of your betters.” Jesus urged them to relax, sitting down on grass that Saint John considers it relevant to tell us was lush and thus comfortable. This catering emergency was being turned into a rather nice occasion, even before the people heard the nourishing words that they had come for.
  7. And we have no record that Jesus went on to talk to them about the caring actions of his gang or to draw lessons from it. As so often, his actions spoke for themselves.
  8. Jesus didn’t hand out the food himself but depended on his followers to do carry it to the people. “God has no hands but our hands.”
  9. As for what I (a believer that “there are more things in heaven and earth. . . than are dreamt of,” certainly by me) would regard as a side issue, namely the question of whether this records a miracle or a myth: Saint Augustine points out somewhere that it’s rather silly to be blasé about the fact that a few grains of wheat can lead to a whole field that produces a rich harvest and then worry about the unlikelihood of this particular feeding of the thousands. Why marvel only at the unusual and accept without particular remark the absolutely normal thing that is equally remarkable—equally “miraculous”?

I’m no scripture scholar, much less a theologian; but I’m a person who had read the newspaper before I went to Mass this morning, where I went to be fed by what we call “the living Bread” the multiplication of which has continued unceasingly through the ages, both for the rich and the poor. It’s not as though the lessons encased in this story, as rich as the most resonant ancient myths, are hard for an open mind to grasp (somewhat like, for instance, that of the manna for the unattractively grumbling Israelites in the desert). Nor are the lessons little-known or difficult to comprehend. They have to be ignored or explained away by those who call themselves Christians but care nothing for those outside their tribe or class, including even the most innocent children about whom they can be particularly brutal. The same master who taught his first followers to look after others also did not shrink from what can sound like threats but are really just straightforward statements of the ultimate misfortune of being that kind of self-seeking character. We can’t say we weren’t warned. The illusion of total self-sufficiency always finally ends in tragedy.


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