Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
This provision of food in the wilderness stands in vivid contrast to the drunken feast of Herod Antipas that we heard about on August 1. What a variety of values food can express! It is about far more than satisfying physical hunger; it is rich in symbolism. If you get a chance, read Roland Barthes’ ‘mythologies’, of which there are a few volumes. It is fascinating to see everything we do as language.
This meal in the desert was not without precedent: Moses, Elijah and Elisha had fed people without the benefit of resources. The present miracle resembles particularly the one performed by Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42-44. In both cases, unlike the manna in the desert, there are leftovers. Leftovers mean that everyone has had enough and more than enough. The point is that this miracle is greater than the manna of the exodus.
Jesus did not say, “I will feed them.” He said, ‘You feed them.” Miracles don't leave us passive; we have to provide some material, however inadequate. When Moses said he wanted a sign to take with him, God said, “What is that in your hand?” He worked on that (Exodus 4:1-3). A widow needed financial help. Elisha asked what she had in her house. She replied that she had only a small amount of oil. He told her to borrow jars into which to pour the oil and then multiplied it until all the jars were full (2 Kings 4:1-7). In today’s reading Jesus asked them to bring him the loaves and fish. We have to bring something to the table.
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