Last Sunday’s gospel was one of the best known of Jesus’s miracles, one that has crossed the boundary between religious and popular discourse and inspired discussion on compassion and charity as much as the meaning of Sacrament, on a holistic approach to the person—body and soul—as much as the malleability of natural laws. It is the miracle of loaves and fishes.
When Jesus heard [that John the Baptist had been beheaded], he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
(Matthew 14:13–21 NIV)
As I listened, for a hundredth time, to this passage, I was tempted at first to expound on its historical setting and to make snarky comments about its overtly misogynist ending, where women are not counted among the number present. I thought I could talk about compassion being the real miracle: a popular and much beloved interpretation of the story in which those who brought food with them began to share once they saw that Jesus’s disciples were giving away the last of what they had. But this time, the gospel took me in another direction.
Minutes were passing and the story stayed with me, and I lost the historical setting and political implications, lost its grounding in fact, and only the parable was left, the pure meaning. A parable: a story bearing vivid and surprising imagery, which points to a meaning beyond itself, but ambiguous enough to provoke the listener to intense reconsideration of the status quo.
Jesus of the Gospels told a lot of parables and worked a lot of miracles, and in a sense, all miracles are parables acted out. They are stories meant to teach a lesson, to make us understand an underlying reality of their message. This one is clearly so. It is brief, devoid of detail. What really happened? It doesn’t matter. It is focused on one point, one symbolic action. It screams: I am not about this crowd of people! Find a grander meaning in me! It is not for nothing that the Church speaks of this gospel event as a precursor to the Eucharist.
Jesus is surrounded by a multitude, and they have spent a day together. They are not strangers. These people have known enough to follow him, on foot, along the lakeshore, and believed enough to wait in the heat for healing, and trusted him enough to listen. He came to this remote place to grieve in peace for a friend, but they needed him, and he was there for them. He has shared of himself already healing their sick, and they stayed into the night knowing they wouldn’t make it home. Everyone has sacrificed, everyone is exhausted. Here on the lakeshore, they are a very large family, in touch now—many, perhaps, for the first time—with the kind of love Jesus is calling them to: agape, in which God, neighbor, and oneself are not entirely distinct. They have very little bread to share and only two fish, but they have love. What does that mean? Here comes the parable.
The head of the family breaks the bread and blesses it, as every head of the household does at that supper time all across the Jewish world, and he passes it around. And it is more than enough.
This story is multilayered and multi-faceted, and I like the other facets no less today than I have before, but what strikes me now may be the most basic—as in, the deepest, most fundamental—layer of meaning: In the parable of bread and fishes, Love comes first and bread comes second, and then there’s more than enough for all.
Yes, it’s about compassion, but I think it’s more basic than that. Akin to the moment of Sacrament, here the physical reality becomes malleable. That’s why no details on how it happened can be provided: because it’s not just a miracle, it’s mystery made manifest. As any parable, this one illustrates the condition of the world that extends beyond it: Physical reality is always malleable, and the source of its malleability is agape, the Love divine that connects God to the world and all things in the world to each other and to God. Agape, the very fabric of existence, the nature of all things, the source of what is. Creator is not done with creation. Love, the temporal form of God’s nature, is creating the world every moment, and we are not spectators to its show but co-creators of it with our every breath and action and our every word. Because we too are made of Love. Our awareness of that gives us conscious access, brings its power to full fruition in us, and allows us to shape reality.
Physical and spiritual are not separate. We know this. Physical is not primary to spiritual. We know this too. But just how concrete is this knowledge for us, how grounded in our everyday life? Everything we touch and taste, our bodies and needs, our beauty and progress are malleable by the flow of agape, the God stuff. What we’re made of. The rest is a crucial but case-by-case detail, and the detail is up to us.
Reality does not produce Love. Love produces tangible reality. Thank Love for blessed bread. And fishes.