Loaves and Fish – Understanding the Reading through the Eyes of the Church

Matthew 14:14-22

14 And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick. 15 And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals. 16 But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat. 17 And they say unto him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes. 18 He said, Bring them hither to me. 19 And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. 20 And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full. 21 And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children. 22 And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away.

The Gospel reading of the Five Loaves and Two Fish, also known as the Feeding of the 5000, is one of the most popular Gospel stories and frequently preached on.  The problem is, when you engage in self-interpretation, you can imagine so many lessons that might be intended here.  But was that the intent of the author of the Gospel?  In this homily, we will look at the historic understanding of this miracle, and why self-interpretation can lead us away from truth and the important questions raised by this account.

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Homily – 8th Sunday after Pentecost

The Feeding of the 5000 – The Multiplication of the Loaves

Glory to Jesus Christ!

A young preacher graduated from Bible College and was invited back to his home congregation to preach a sermon. He wanted to make a good impression. He worked really hard and he wrote his sermon word for word and memorized it. He had a very dramatic beginning to the sermon just like he was taught in Bible School.

He started by hitting the pulpit real hard and said, “Jesus took 5,000 fishes and 2,000 loaves and he fed five people!” He added a dramatic pause and he pointed his finger at the congregation and said, “Could you do that?” Everyone roared with laughter and he couldn’t imagine what was going on. At that point one man raised his hand. Well that outraged the young preacher and he cried, “Sir, you are guilty of blasphemy. How could you claim to do something that only our Lord could do?” This man stood up and began to explain to the young preacher about the big mistake that he had made.

The preacher, when he realized what he had done, was so humiliated that he couldn’t say another word and he sat down in disgrace. His home church was very loving, though and they all came and put their arms around him and they said, “Look, everyone makes mistakes. Forget about it. You work on this sermon and next Sunday try it again.”

So the next Sunday after working on that sermon another entire week, he stood up in front of the congregation. This time he got all of his facts and figures straight, but he started out the very same way. He hit the pulpit very dramatically and he said, “Jesus took five loaves and two fishes and he fed 5,000 people. Could you do that?” The same man raised his hand. Well the preacher was out of his mind with upset now and he said, “Sir, how can you claim to do something like that?”  The man looked at him man with a grin and said, “With the leftovers from your sermon last Sunday.”

Now that was just a little joke, a little preacher humor.  But, the joke belies the ubiquity of this particular Gospel story.  When we look at Gospel accounts of the life of Christ, it is common to find the same story in two or sometimes all three of the synoptic Gospels.  Some stories appear in only one Gospel.  But this story – the feeding of the 5000 – appears in all four Gospels.  I’ve not doubled checked for myself, but I have heard it said that it is the only miracle account from Christ’s life told fully in all four Gospels.  And it is a story that is constantly preached on.  And one that many preachers will use to support any number of teachings they want to find biblical support for.  It’s a story told by some preachers as a metaphor for community. By others the story is used to recall how Israel was many times protected and sustained by God. Others say it mirrors the Jewish expectation of an end of time banquet with God (why they wouldn’t preach about our heavenly banquet with God as told in Revelation is beyond me, but that choice probably tells you more about the preacher than it does the scripture).  If you go to that deep source of theological knowledge, the internet, a Know the Bible website is ready to tell you that this story teaches us that with God all things are possible.

I think that with a Gospel story that is so often told and read, it is important to understand how the Church interprets this passage, and why it is appointed for us to hear on this Sunday.  And toward that end, I commend to anyone looking for a simple exegesis of the Gospels, to find the Explanation of Blessed Theophylact.  It is a priceless starting point whenever you wonder what a Gospel passage means.

First, we start with the people following Christ as he departs and he see them and has compassion on them and heals them.  Some commentators suggest that this is a wholly free gift and that unlike some of his other healings, like last week, where he responds to their faith, here he just heals them without any show of faith.  But the fathers tell us this is not true.  That in fact, by following him – and especially by taking after him with no provisions for food or water of shelter – they are demonstrating great faith.

Having done that the disciples come to Christ and urge him to send them away as they need to go buy food and they are not near any place.  Christ tells the disciples to give them something to eat, though he knows there is nothing.  But he awaits their response, out of humility – the miracle he is about to work is of necessity – not out of vanity or pride.  And note, he has gone out to a far and barren place, so there can be no doubt that what is about to transpire is a true miracle.  Had food been brought along, the disciples could have fed them when asked, but there was none.

And he commands the disciples to bring him what they have – two fish and five loaves.  Maybe enough to feed the disciples, at least a small meal.  But he commands them to bring it for the crowd.  From this we learn that we must give in hospitality, even the little we have, to those who need it.  Now stop just a second and contrast this patristic understanding of the verse with our internet websites that say we should learn – “with God all things are possible” – That give the idea of a prosperity Gospel – that God will multiply our small into great for our benefit.  But this isn’t about prosperity – it is about giving even the last that we have to God.  God may well multiply what we give, but it is not for us.

The literal multiplication was done in a way to retain it in the memory of the disciples.  They had to distribute the food.  To prove it was not a mere illusion, there was food left over – 12 baskets worth, such that even Judas would have to carry the burden of one.  He multiplies the loaves and the fish, showing he is the creator of all on the land and on the sea, and the Giver of all.  That’s the literal explanation.

Now St. Hilary of Poitiers – a French saint known as the Athanasius of the East – has a truly poignant spiritual explanation of the Gospel, and it is one that the Church accepts, as I’ll explain in a bit.  St. Hilary says “Mystically; The Word of God, on the close of the Law, entered the ship, that is, the Church; and departed into the desert, that is, leaving to walk with Israel, He passes into breasts void of Divine knowledge. The multitude learning this, follows the Lord out of the city into the desert, going, that is, from the Synagogue to the Church. The Lord sees them, and has compassion upon them, and heals all sickness and infirmity, that is, He cleanses their obstructed minds, and unbelieving hearts for the understanding of the new preaching.”

Blessed Theophylact echoes this in a sense, explaining that this happened after Herod had John the Baptist beheaded, showing that he rejected those who prophesied of Christ.  Christ then withdraws to the desert, to the nations that were desolate without God and he heals the sick in soul and feeds them.

Now ponder on that.  Today protestants will use this passage to say that it shows “how Israel was many times protected and sustained by God.”  But the Church tells us this story does nothing of the sort.  When Israel, in the person of Herod or the unbelieving Jews, denied Christ and those who prophesied of him, he departs – he leaves them for the desolate nations – the Gentiles and those believing Jews who follow.  Their spiritual infirmities – their muddied souls – are healed and they are fed with the greatest spiritual food – the very Body and Blood of Christ.

This in a nutshell is why those who seek to understand scripture outside of the Church that gave us the scripture tread on such dangerous ground.   The ancient understanding of this scripture falls to their modern theological or political needs.  When Christ departed he got into a ship – what St. Hilary tells us represents the Church.  This is the place of safety, inside the ark that is the Church, safely with Christ.

So brothers and sister as we return to this liturgy, let us not be like that young bible preacher, pounding the table and shouting “Jesus took five loaves and two fishes and he fed 5,000 people. Could you do that?”  Because that is not and never was the question.  When we understand the scriptures we can ask those questions that really matter.  Have we given all in hospitality?  Have we followed Christ without provision, fear or reservation?  Have we feasted on his Holy food?  Do we appreciate the burden we carry having received his miraculous gifts?  Have we allowed Christ to truly heal the infirmities of our souls?  We don’t have to pound the pulpit on those questions.  We need only follow Christ in his Church and struggle confidently toward salvation.

Glory to Jesus Christ!!

 

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