5 Loaves, 2 Fish, and a Lesson for the Community
Today’s Gospel reading is from St. Mark, the story known as “the feeding of the five thousand” (Mk 6:34-44).
In this familiar story, Jesus and the twelve apostles have traveled across the Sea of Galilee to a deserted area, to get away from the crowds of people and get a bit of rest. The people had seen where they were going and followed on foot, around the lake. Mark says that Jesus was “moved with pity” when He saw them and began to teach them. It was getting late and the disciples suggested that Jesus should send the people back to the towns so they could find food and places to spend the night.
Jesus surprised them by telling them to feed the people themselves. They protested that it would cost “two hundred days’ wages” to feed so many. This didn’t faze Jesus. Instead, He asked, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” They returned with the news that they had five loaves and two fish. Jesus instructed them to have the people sit down in groups. Then He took the food they had, blessed it, broke it into pieces and told the disciples to pass it out among the people.
When everyone had eaten their fill, they gathered up what was left and found they had 12 baskets full of leftovers.
In this last week of the Christmas season, following our celebration of the shining forth of the light to the Gentiles too, what are we to make of this story? Why is it told here?
It seems to me that it’s here with good reason.
First, however, it’s important to understand a bit about the customs of the people at the time. We’re used to going places and taking a food with us, which we can eat in front of others without experiencing any social requirement to share it with people who are not part of our group. That was not the case in Palestine at the time. If you had food, you could only eat it if you had enough to share with those in the group with whom you found yourself. Hence the disciples’ dilemma – where and how could they get so much food?
It seems to me that we should assume that families took some food along with them when going out into a deserted area with their children. Most of us would grab something for the children (and for ourselves too, in most cases) when racing out the door to see a celebrity, if for no other reason than to keep the children quietly occupied during the event. I don’t think it would have been that much different in those days.
However, no one would have had enough to feed all of those around them, so the food would have stayed packed up, hidden within the robes and traveling bags of the people.
When Jesus told the disciples to share what they had with the large crowd (5,000 men plus women and children), He didn’t tell them He was going to multiply the food miraculously. He just gave thanks for the food they had, asked a blessing on the meal, and began sharing it. With that example, everyone else who had food with them was freed to take it out too, and share it with those around them. It became a great picnic! No one was restricted to only what they owned or had brought. On the other hand, no would have felt compelled to hide or guard what they had. All could share it. And the result was that there were 12 baskets more of food than was needed!
During this week, as we reflect on the great gift of salvation having been extended to all peoples, this lesson is appropriate. We each have something. It may not be much. But it is something that we can share with the community, with our community on a local level and with our larger global community. There are problems that need to be solved. There are wrongs to be righted. There are joys and sorrows to be shared. None of us can do everything. None of us can change all of the structures of our society or our church. None of us can even meet all of the needs of our individual families. However, all of us can step out in faith and do a little bit. Show a little compassion. Give a hand to someone who is down. Listen to someone who needs a friendly ear. Pray with someone who is alone.
As we do this in faith, we join the larger community of Christian witnesses who have truly changed the world, one problem and one little step at a time. Jesus asks us to look at what gifts we have, give thanks for them, and then start sharing them with those we meet. As we respond to His leadership, “miracles” will happen in our world.