Jesus went off to the other side of the Sea of Galilee – or of Tiberias – and a large crowd followed him, impressed by the signs he gave by curing the sick. Jesus climbed the hillside, and sat down there with his disciples. It was shortly before the Jewish feast of Passover. Looking up, Jesus saw the crowds approaching and said to Philip, ‘Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?’ He only said this to test Philip; he himself knew exactly what he was going to do. Philip answered, ‘Two hundred denarii would only buy enough to give them a small piece each.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, ‘There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fish; but what is that between so many?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Make the people sit down.’ There was plenty of grass there, and as many as five thousand men sat down. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and gave them out to all who were sitting ready; he then did the same with the fish, giving out as much as was wanted. When they had eaten enough he said to the disciples, ‘Pick up the pieces left over, so that nothing gets wasted.’ So they picked them up, and filled twelve hampers with scraps left over from the meal of five barley loaves. The people, seeing this sign that he had given, said, ‘This really is the prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, who could see they were about to come and take him by force and make him king, escaped back to the hills by himself.
Jesus went off to the other side of the Sea of Galilee – or of Tiberias – and a large crowd followed him, impressed by the signs he gave by curing the sick. Jesus climbed the hillside, and sat down there with his disciples. It was shortly before the Jewish feast of Passover.
Looking up, Jesus saw the crowds approaching and said to Philip, ‘Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?’ He only said this to test Philip; he himself knew exactly what he was going to do. Philip answered, ‘Two hundred denarii would only buy enough to give them a small piece each.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, ‘There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fish; but what is that between so many?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Make the people sit down.’ There was plenty of grass there, and as many as five thousand men sat down. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and gave them out to all who were sitting ready; he then did the same with the fish, giving out as much as was wanted. When they had eaten enough he said to the disciples, ‘Pick up the pieces left over, so that nothing gets wasted.’ So they picked them up, and filled twelve hampers with scraps left over from the meal of five barley loaves. The people, seeing this sign that he had given, said, ‘This really is the prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, who could see they were about to come and take him by force and make him king, escaped back to the hills by himself.
We should not be surprised if we feel a bit ill at ease when we hear in today’s gospel that Jesus worked stupendous miracles. It is not because, like many of our contemporaries, we deny in principle the possibility of a miracle. For many, indeed, belief in miracles is a thing of the past, or the privilege of a few uneducated people. Our unease in the face of miracles is due, not so much to our lack of faith, as to our bad conscience. We continue to believe in Jesus and we accept his great power, but so far, we have never succeeded in witnessing a real miracle. It is strange that people take for granted that Jesus has worked exceptional miracles, like that related in this gospel passage, but cannot remember anything extraordinary or marvellous that God has done. We need to ask ourselves why this is. Why does Jesus not continue to work wonders for us as he did for his disciples in Galilee? Maybe if we read the account again we will discover some of the reasons. Certainly if we act today, as the disciples did then, we will witness miracles wrought by Jesus as they did.
I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
This account belongs to a longer collection (Jn 6, 1-58), which is of great importance in the fourth gospel. It presents the multiplication of the loaves (Jn 6, 1-15) as a sign. Jesus will explain its real significance in the discourse that follows (Jn 6, 26-58). John emphasizes the sovereign initiative of Jesus, but does not mention his compassion. The real motive for this miracle was not the people’s need for bread, but the disciples’ lack of faith. Jesus is testing the disciples, while the crowd experience only the miracle. The fact that the food was given free of charge does not mean that it can be wasted. The disciples are entrusted with the distribution and instructed to collect what was left over. They are the immediate witnesses of the miracle and also its ministers. God’s gift is not lessened by the fact of being gratuitous. Jesus rejects any honour that might come to him from satisfying the people’s hunger, and he corrects their expectations. A messiah whose mission was no more than to feed the hungry would be of little value. Jesus’ real plan extends much further, but he begins by meeting the needs of his people. We learn from Jesus to be sensitive to the needs of others, but not to limit ourselves simply to meeting their needs.
This episode, placed right at the centre of Jesus’ public ministry, is introduced by a number of details which serve to make the story real: the place and time, and the participants are clearly mentioned (Jn 6, 1-4). The episode took place near the time of the Jewish feast of Passover (Jn 6, 1-4). The crowd are hungry for signs and they gather around Jesus, who already enjoys a reputation as a healer. The miracle, and the explanation given by Jesus, are both placed in a Paschal context.
The account of the miracle (6, 5-15) follows closely the synoptic tradition (Mk 6,34-44; Mt 14,14-21; Lk 9,11-17). However, in John the initiative comes directly from Jesus. When he looked up and saw the crowd, he wanted to test Philip (6, 5). Without any other motivation, and knowing exactly what he was doing (6, 6), he decided to feed the people. It was a decision his disciples had not expected.
As related also in the synoptics, what was needed was beyond their means. They did not have sufficient money (Jn 6, 7) and had very few provisions (6, 9). The fact that they remembered a small boy with a few loaves – barley loaves, the bread of the poor people (2 Kings 7, 1.16) – emphasizes the poverty of the available resources. The first to be surprised by the sign were the disciples. They were the best witnesses. They knew they had not enough food for so many people (Jn 6,7-9) and yet they were told to feed the crowd and to collect the pieces left over (Jn 6,10) that had not been distributed (Jn 6,11).
Jesus acted in the manner of someone presiding over a Jewish feast: he blessed the bread and gave it out, and then gave the disciples instructions to collect whatever was left over when all had had their fill (Jn 6,11-12). The miracle itself is not described, but the results were evident. The loaves that were multiplied were of barley (Jn 6,9), similar to when Elisha had given orders for twenty loaves to be divided among a hundred people (2 Kings 4,42-44). What happened here is obviously far greater: the number of people was greater, the loaves were fewer and there was much more left over.
A common feature in the accounts of miracles is the emphasis on the people’s reaction. This is the only time in John’s gospel that Jesus is publicly acknowledged as a wonderworker. The people recognized that only a prophet could give such a sign, and acclaimed Jesus as the one who was to come (Jn 6,14). It was understandable then, that they would want to proclaim him king. Jesus saw their political motive and knew that it was contrary to his understanding of what the messiah should be. It was not his work to satisfy people’s hunger. Seeing signs is not the same thing as having faith (Jn 6, 26). He moved away from the people who wanted to take him away from his mission, and from his disciples (6, 15). He went back alone to the hills he had left in order to feed the people.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
The disciples were present at the multiplication of the loaves on the hillside. They had spent their life close to Jesus, accompanying him as he went though Galilee, healing the sick and preaching the Kingdom. They could not fail to have seen the miracle, since Jesus had never been out of their sight. They were witnesses of this miraculous event because they had always been with the one who had power to accomplish it. Today, as then, the way to assist at stupendous miracles is to follow Jesus everywhere, to be with him when he is preaching or healing, to accompany him when he walks and when he rests.
If, on the other hand, we leave Jesus for any excuse whatsoever, or for any other person or any task, it will be impossible for him to reveal to us how stupendous and marvellous he really is, and the things he wants to do for us and for others. Unless we maintain a continuous profound relationship with the one who works miracles, we have no chance of being present for them. If we give our lives to Jesus, he will transform them into one continuous surprise, and a marvellous adventure. We do not realize how much we are missing when we stay away from Jesus, even for a short while.
The reality is that it is not easy to share our lives with Jesus. Maybe that is our excuse, but the first thing Jesus does with those who are close to him is to let them see how little they can do without him, and how much they are missing. When Jesus looked down from the hillside where he was sitting with his disciples, he saw the crowd approaching. He realized immediately that he would have to give them something to eat. He asked Philip where they could get some bread for them, to make sure the disciples realized how short of provisions they were, and to bring home to them the poverty of their resources They knew from experience that the needs of the people were always beyond their means. This was a constant threat to their faith and a permanent cause of disappointment to them. Neither Philip’s two hundred denarii, nor Andrew’s five loaves and few fish, would be nearly enough to satisfy the hunger of the crowd.
But the extraordinary thing is that Jesus pays no attention to the insufficiency of their resources. This is always how Jesus’ miracles begin. What’s more, Jesus makes use of their limited resources, and then of the disciples themselves, to accomplish his miracle. Jesus needs very little from his disciples to allow them to witness his miracle. He makes them realize how little they can do on their own, but he asks them to put themselves and the little they have at his disposal. The people will have enough to eat from the little bread the disciples had, because they had enough faith, and put not only the bread they had but their whole selves at his disposal. While Jesus was performing the miracle, praising God and blessing the bread, the disciples were busy getting the people to sit down. Thanks to the disciples, the people had a place to sit on the grass, before the bread reached them. And again, thanks to the disciples, nothing was wasted of the bread that was left over from the miraculous multiplication. Being short of resources was not an obstacle to becoming “servants” of a miracle.
It is consoling to notice that without the help of the disciples, even though they had insufficient resources, Jesus would not have been able to satisfy the hunger of the crowd. He needed their poverty and their obedience. He made sure they noticed with their own eyes, that the amount of bread they had would not be enough to feed the people, but he wanted them to be the ones to distribute the bread he had multiplied and to collect what was left over. Jesus was concerned, not with how little they had to offer, but with their obedience. They were witnesses of the miracle and the only people involved in its administration. Jesus asks very little of his disciples in order for him to perform miracles. Their poverty was enough, however great it might be, but of even greater importance was their obedience and availability. Well then, if the prophet of God who satisfies the hunger of the crowd, demands so little, we should ask ourselves why he does not count more on us. We continue to be his disciples but we have stopped believing in his miracles. But since he does not worry about the poverty of our resources, there is no reason why we cannot be present at his miracles, provided we are willing to put ourselves at his disposal. Let’s not forget, however, that while Jesus used the little his disciples had, he did not make them the beneficiaries of the miracle. They were given work to do, making sure the people had a place to sit and then distributing the bread and fish. He did not multiply the bread only for the disciples. They were Jesus’ servants first when they gave him what they possessed, and then servants of the hungry people when they distributed the bread that had just been multiplied. The disciples did not benefit from the miracle themselves, but they offered their services to Jesus so that the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fish might be of benefit to the people who were suffering from hunger. Jesus still has need of people who will cooperate with him in miracles that are not for their own benefit, who will offer themselves to distribute bread to the people who, in spite of their extreme hunger, continue to search for Jesus, and find in him an answer to their poverty. If he is to perform miracles in our day, Jesus needs disciples who put at his disposal all that they have, even if it is very little, and who are willing to serve him.
Finally, it is important to emphasize that one of the great miracles of Jesus, the one we are reflecting on today, was of little real use, however wonderful it might seem. Jesus fed the multitude one day, and while we marvel at the miracle, we should not forget that their hunger returned the next day, when they did not have Jesus with them. With this miracle, Jesus wanted, not just to surprise us with his great power, but to remind us that there are always people around us suffering from hunger, and we must do something for them, however little we may have at our disposal. All he asks of us is that we put our little resources in his hands, and do what we can for the hungry, while he works the miracle.
As long as there is hunger, it will be necessary for us to make every effort possible, and to obey the Lord in whatever he wants of us, and then God will continue to work miracles. That there is hunger in today’s world is an injustice and a scandal. There is something wrong with a world where people waste the things they have, and have nothing to meet the essential needs of others. This should touch the hearts of Christians especially. The truth is that where there is most hunger today, there are fewer disciples of Jesus. Christian countries enjoy a higher level of wellbeing and show little compassion. This is the reason why we do not see miracles. It is not because they are no longer possible!
without whom nothing is strong, nothing holy,
support us always with your love.
Guide us so to use the good things of this world,
that even now we may hold fast to what endures for ever.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Music used in the reflection: “Mountain with Many Rivers” by Lee Rosevere (CC-BY-NC)