For many years I have not been able to accept at face value the scriptural account of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as a miraculous act by Jesus, a demonstration of his divine power. It sounded more like a description of magic than I thought was appropriate to ascribe to him. I settled for another, non-literal, interpretation: the idea that his preaching and his person were so full of love that they penetrated the selfishness of his hearers, who then shared with their neighbors, known and unknown, enabling all to have more than enough to eat. It seemed to me that we could still speak of it as a miracle — not a material one but a moral, spiritual one. I knew that that would be much more important than pulling rabbits (or fish and bread) out of a hat (or a basket). I have preached that interpretation for over 30 years. And then, only a few years ago, I found in the National Catholic Reporter a homily written by a Sister Mary McGlone, in which she described an event in which she was centrally involved and which was strikingly similar to the one we know from John’s gospel. Grateful to Sister Mary, I eagerly share it with you. She described a 14-hour bus ride from Lima, Peru, on which, she said, everyone was crabby, hungry and thirsty. And now I quote her directly —
I had one orange hidden in my otherwise depleted food pack. I realized that there was no way I could secretly peel an orange on a hot bus. I waited until I was desperate. Then I pulled out the orange and immediately felt the toddler on its Mom’s lap next to me look and lean into my seat. I peeled the orange and offered mother and child a couple of sections. People started to look at me, so I shared more. Finally, I was left with one section for myself. Then the woman in front of me said, “I have some bread, but it would make us too thirsty.” A young man said, “I have a liter of Coke.” Little by little, the bus became the scene of a picnic potluck, each sharing what they had hidden and receiving from one another. And it all got started with an orange.
I can’t claim that our bus ride repeated Jesus’ miracle with the loaves, but there are similarities. Everyone was hungry; no one had enough to meet the need. In Jesus’ case, one child gave all that he had. In our case, each opened up their hidden store and we found that among us there was more than enough. Interpreting both stories, it seems to me that the key is that when we give out of our scarcity, we will find that there is enough. In Paul’s words, we will be living “in a manner worthy of our call” and we will understand how the hand of the Lord feeds us.
And there’s more to the story: it doesn’t stop at the sharing of our food with others in need, especially in hard times (like a national depression) when our store is running low. No, it has also to do with the donation of our time when our schedules are stretched and packed to the point of bursting. It has to do with our speaking up in just causes when we judge that others are wiser or better informed than we are. It has to do with contributing even a few dollars to help the destitute while wealthier persons are giving millions. And so on.
The lesson is that we have to stop seeing ourselves as the source of the donation and decide instead to be the channel of a much larger donation, the source of which is the Spirit of God within us. The possibilities and the power are limitless!
So let’s face it: most of the time all we really have to offer from our own possessions is a few rolls and a couple of fish — or maybe just an orange! But how they multiply!