Homily for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Over the last couple hundred years, there have been a number of theologians and Bible commentators who have tried to explain away the miracles of Jesus as being merely symbolic.
One of the most significant early examples of this was by Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. President. In 1820 he completed a work titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, in which, by literally cutting and pasting the Gospels with a razor and glue, he put together a collection of Jesus’s teaching and some biographical details. In this he excluded all of Jesus’ miracles, most mentions of the supernatural, all passages that portray Jesus as divine, and—tellingly—all references to the Resurrection.
Others choose to keep their Bible intact, but they read the miracle stories with a nod and a wink, just like they read Greek mythology. They still believe in God, but when it comes to miracles they’re just too sophisticated and rational to take such things literally. After all, that kind of thing just doesn’t happen.
And if we’re honest, our own thinking about supernatural phenomena such as miracles often bears some similarities to this line of thinking. Chances are, we don’t quite know what to think about the miracles of Jesus. We may not want to dismiss them out of hand, and yet we struggle to completely believe them either. Could they really have happened?
The miracle in our Gospel today is one of the passages that most commonly receives this kind of revisionist treatment. In some circles, it’s become quite fashionable to explain the multiplication of the loaves and fish as a “miracle” of charity amongst the crowd. The thinking is that, because of their strict dietary rules, Jewish people in first-century Palestine would generally travel with the equivalent of a “packed-lunch”, so they wouldn’t be forced to eat ritually unclean food when away from home. And so, the thinking goes, the real miracle here is that Jesus opened the hearts of those in the crowd, and essentially inspired them to share the food they already had with each other.
However, there are a number of problems with this approach. Firstly, the text itself does not align well with such an interpretation. For instance, as fellow Jews, surely the disciples would have been aware of the “packed lunches”, and thus their incomprehension and subsequent bewilderment at this miracle would seem out of place.
Secondly, such an approach betrays a scepticism of Jesus’ miracles in general. It must be said that we Christians believe a lot more stranger things than Jesus’ ability to multiply food – things such as the Resurrection, for instance, which is the pivotal event of our faith, precisely because we maintain that it is a real historical event that happened on a certain day at a certain place, which had the effect of forever changing history.
Thirdly, such textual reimagining is certainly not how the first followers of Jesus—or the early Church as a whole—approached such accounts. I think it’s hard to deny that the first Christians were intensely interested in the miracles of Jesus, and that they didn’t see them as mere literary symbols! They saw them for what they really were: the action of God, breaking into our world.
We believe that Jesus was not just a regular human being, but was God-made-man. The one through whom all things were made. If this is true, it should not surprise us that Jesus is able to do things that regular humans can’t. It’s not that he’s some kind of magician – it’s that he’s one with the Father, the source of all being.
Turning now to the miracle itself, there’s an aspect of it that is often overlooked: namely, how it reveals Jesus’ deep and total concern for the multitude. He not only cared for their souls, he also cared for their bodies and did not want them to go away hungry. This reveals Jesus’ total care for his followers. It’s a beautiful thing to reflect on – Almighty God, often thought of as watching us from a distance, is deeply concerned about the small detail of feeding the crowd their next meal. The Omnipotent deity is not only concerned for our eternal salvation, he is also concerned about our daily needs.
The passage notes that Jesus “took pity on them”, and by extension he takes pity on us. This very personal and human concern of Jesus should offer us great comfort in knowing that his care is deep and exhaustive. And the concern that Jesus has for the physical needs of his followers also points to his spiritual concern for his followers’ souls. If he cares this much about our bodies—and he does—he cares all the more for our souls, and deeply desires to nourish our souls with the food of eternal life.
This leads to the fact that this miracle is a clear prefiguring of the Holy Eucharist. We’re told that Jesus took the offering of the people; he raised his eyes to Heaven and said the blessing; he broke the bread; and—through his disciples—he distributed his miraculous meal among the people, who were well-nourished as a result.
Note that Jesus didn’t simply feed the people himself, but that he chose to do so through his disciples. And we’re told that twelve baskets of scraps remained afterwards, which I think is a clear reference to the twelve apostles. This, again, is a prefiguring of how Christ would choose to organise his Church. He chose to work through the apostles, entrusting the sacraments and the ministry of the word to their care. And this continues down to our very day through their successors the bishops, who in turn delegate responsibility for parish ministry to us priests and deacons.
Finally, I think we can see in the structure of this miracle—just as in the structure of the Eucharistic liturgy—a image of our lives as followers of Christ. And this should not surprise us, given that by receiving the Body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ.
Just as Christ took the offering—and the priest takes the offering at Mass—so we take our lives as an offering. Just as Christ gives thanks for it, so do we give thanks for our lives – it’s a gift, which we haven’t earned. Just as the bread is broken, so our lives our broken – this speaks not only to the brokenness that we share with all people through Original Sin, but also specifically for us Christians to the fact that our lives are marked with the sign of the Cross, and how through our union with Christ the sufferings in our lives can be transformed into new life. Finally, just as Christ gives the transformed bread away to others, so we are called to give our lives away for others. Our lives aren’t about us, but are a gift intended for the good of others.
So we take our life, we give thanks for it, we allow it to be broken with Christ, and we give ourselves away. May the Eucharist we are about to celebrate unite us ever more with this great mystery, and may it nourish us in body and soul, so that, through us, the Lord may in turn be a source of nourishment for others. Amen.