An Introduction to the Didactic Mystery of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes

by David Gray, August 2, 2014


Today’s Gospel reading at Mass comes from Matthew 14:13-21:

    When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”

    Jesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” Then he said, “Bring them here to me,” and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.

    Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over — twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children..

The Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes is a narrative that all of the Gospels have in common. In addition to the one above, it can also be found in John 6:1-15, Mark 6:33-44, and Luke 9:10-17. This miracle is also what I call a Didactic Mystery, because of its depth in unfolding meaning.

Using an excerpt from my book Cooperating with God: Life with the Cross, I took the Johnannine account, used in the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time of the B Cycle of the Liturgical Calendar, to reflect upon Jesus’ Teaching on Reclining in Him, . For this Matthean narrative for A Cycle, I’ll draw again from that book to give an overall introduction to the Didactic Mystery of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes.

An Introduction to the Didactic Mystery
of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes

  • An amended excerpt from my book Cooperating with God: Life with the Cross
  • The deeper we immerse our hearts into these Fifteen Didactic Mysteries, the more frequently we will begin to see certain familiar patterns emerge and present themselves as opportunities for spiritual reflections. In the instant case, all four Gospel accounts offer us four completely different introductions to support this real event.

    According to Matthew, after Jesus had heard about the death of John the Waymaker (Cf. Mt. 14:2-12), He immediately withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by Himself, and a crowd, upon hearing of His location, followed Him on foot from their towns. The towns people arrived at Jesus’ intended destination before Him, as the text says, “When Jesus heard of it, He withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by Himself. The crowd heard of this and followed Him on foot from their towns. When He disembarked and saw the vast crowd, His heart was moved with pity for them, and He cured their sick.”

    Mark agrees that John’s death preceded the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes and that it may have prompted Jesus’ retreat to the ‘deserted place’. According to Mark, after John had been laid in a tomb by his disciples, Jesus’ Apostles gathered around Him to give account of all they had done and taught on their mission (Cf. Mk. 6:6-13). In response to their hard work, Jesus said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile.” The Marcan narrative agrees with Matthew in reporting that the crowd preceded Jesus’ arrival at the intended location, and that His heart was moved with pity when He disembarked from the boat, but rather than curing the sick, Mark writes that “He began to teach them many things.”

    Luke is not a hybrid Gospel in the least, but it does have a syncretic approach to the present Mystery. It agrees with Mark in saying that after the Apostles had returned from their mission Jesus “took them and withdrew in private to a town called Bethsaida.” So, thanks to Luke, our little deserted place now has a name, Bethsaida, which means ‘fishing-house’ or ‘house of fishing’. While the Lucan narrative does not mention any execution of John the Waymaker, it does agree that the crowds followed Jesus and the Apostles to Bethsaida, where He spoke to them about the Kingdom of God and healed the people who were in need. That is, Luke insists that Christ Jesus both taught and healed the crowds prior to feeding them.

    The Johannine narrative transitions from Jesus’ teaching and healing on the Sabbath (in chapter five) with the words “After this” to open up chapter six. We do not know precisely how much time had passed between these events, and there is no mention of any arrest or death of John the Waymaker or of any mission or mission debriefing by the Apostles. Yet, whereas Luke gives us the name of the town, John moves to point out the obvious, that it was the Sea of Galilee that Jesus (seemingly alone and by boat) went across. While the synoptic Gospels do not give us the reason as to why the crowds followed Jesus, John generously fills in that detail by saying it was “because they saw the signs He was performing on the sick.” In addition, the Synoptics are mute on what time of year it was, other than Luke’s reference to the grass being ‘green’, but John says, “The Jewish feast of Passover was near,” which stipulates that it must have been the Springtime.

    The striking difference between all of the Gospel introductions in this Mystery speaks to this great truth – that details of trivial value sometimes distracts us in regards to our present life. God is just as concerned with the means as He is with the ends, but both the means and the ends belong to Him. Even though God perpetually makes the means for us to be His holy vessels, oftentimes we fail to Cooperate with Him. Indeed, sometimes we run like Jonah in the opposite direction than the one that God commanded us to go in. However, how many of you have figured out that inasmuch as you thought that you were following your own self-will and grand ideas, that God was still in the midst of all of it, and simultaneously preparing you for His mission? Being an Israelite and wrestling with God is beneficial for a time, but eventually sacrificing our self-will for His is a much more constructive path in our Life with the Cross.

    The Synoptic Gospels insist that it was the disciples who noticed that it was late in the evening and suggested to Jesus that He dismiss the crowds so that they could go to the surrounding villages to find lodging and get something to eat. The Johannine narrative does not necessarily contradict their account, but decides to highlight the solution rather than the problem. John always places Jesus in great teachable moments with His audience, where He can play the rabbi/sage role, and oftentimes not with the nameless mass of ‘the disciples’, ‘the Pharisees’ or ‘they’ of the Synoptics, but rather with personal one on one encounters, as in the instant case with Philip and Andrew.

    The Gospel of John also describes the person who unknowingly brought food for everyone, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” I love this Johannine detail, because it informs us that when we Cooperate with God and His designs to love on our neighbor by offering up to Him what we have, He takes it, multiplies it, and gives it back to us as a gift. We do not know if the Apostles bought the fish from the boy or asked him to donate them, but imagine if the boy were asked to make a donation and he, being a shrewd capitalist, had decided to hoard his bread and fish – thinking that it belonged only to him, because he had worked hard to procure it for resale. In the Life with the Cross we should always be ready to offer up all of ourselves to God, so that He might be willing to increase what we have for His glory and for the good of the entire Church. John is also the only Gospel in which Jesus is the one who distributes the bread to everyone; thus symbolizing the giving of Himself to all, as it is the case in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

    Notwithstanding all of the specific differences, all of the Gospels agree on these eight broad points in regards to this Mystery:

    1. Jesus traveled to a deserted place and a crowd followed Him.
    2. There arose a need to feed the crowd.
    3. Five loaves of bread and two fish were procured.
    4. The crowd was caused to sit down on the ground prior to being fed.
    5. Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish and blesses them.
    6. The bread and fish are all distributed to the crowd.
    7. All ate and were satisfied, and
    8. There were twelve wicker baskets full of leftovers.

    Through this miracle, Jesus was able to present Himself as the fulfillment of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) so successfully that according to John, “When the people saw the signs He had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.” Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry Him off to make Him king, He withdrew again to the mountain alone.”

    In the Desert of Sin (Cf. Exo. 16; Num. 11), the Israelite community grumbled to Moses that they felt that they were about to die of starvation, and he interceded for them to the Lord who gave them all the manna to make bread and all the quail that they could eat. In the instant Didactic Mystery, Christ Jesus offered to satisfy the people’s needs, not by providing the natural means for them to gather for themselves, but by having them sit down and providing them with an abundance of ready-made bread and meat Himself. The people and disciples properly responded to Jesus, just as the people and the servant responded to Elisha’s miracle of multiplication of loaves, that is, by trusting in God to provide for their needs (Cf. 2 Kgs. 4:42-44). God presented Himself as a God of great abundance in all three miracles, through the sign of leftovers.

    The people were convinced that the Prophet, who the Lord foretold Moses about, had finally come and they were ready to make Him King. “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kinsmen, and will put my words into His mouth; He shall tell them all that I command Him. If any man will not listen to my words which He speaks in my name, I myself will make him answer for it.” Ironically, the next day, many of the same Jews who had just received healings, teachings, and free food from Jesus, would be the same ones who betrayed Him, by not believing that He is the Bread of Life. There seems to be an odd pattern being established in the ministry of our Lord here; that when He shows us His love, we in-turn show Him our indifference and distrust, and, in turn, He shows us His love again. Some parents understand this pattern of ungrateful behavior very well.

    Much has been written about the twelve baskets of leftovers being an allegorical symbol of many things; such as the Twelve Disciples being a fulfillment of the Twelve Tribes; the number twelve alluding to the ‘fullness’ of all who God desires to be Saved; and twelve also representing the reconstituted Israel, being fed by the Messiah. Matthew and Mark both report of an additional feeding of four thousand men, with seven leftover baskets – seven supposedly representing the Gentile community as the number twelve symbolized the Jewish community.

    Lord God, teach me to rely on only you;
    For you are my sole provider, my strength, and my rock.
    Teach me to rely not on my own means, but only on you,
    who has proven to provide me with exactly what I need and exactly when I need it.
    Make me a light of your blessings, so that others will know that you provide for your children.
    And keep me chaste, simple, and pure from the allurements of the world,
    and the temptations of the evil one. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen

    Scripture texts in this blog are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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