John 6:1-15. The Miracle of Five Loaves and Two Fish

The reading for the seventeenth Sunday in O.T. comes from the Gospel of John. Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel is almost entirely devoted to  Eucharistic symbolism. Verses 1 to 15 are devoted to the multiplication of the loaves. Verses 16 to 24 tell us that Jesus appeared to the apostles walking on water on the Sea of Galilee. Verses 25 to 71 conclude the chapter with a long conversation known as the “bread of life” discourse, which is, for some disciples, a hard saying.

Jesus Goes Up the Mountain

“The Miracles of the Loaves and Fish.” Tintoretto, 1547.  The Met, NY.

Whenever the Evangelists tell us that Jesus is about to “go up the mountain,” we know that something important is going to happen. In the Old Testament, to ascend the mountain is to encounter God. Isaiah 2:3 captures the meaning of this phrase,

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus ascends the mountain in order to begin the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus and his disciples also ascend a mountain during the Transfiguration (Mt 17, Mk 9, Lk 9).  In John’s Gospel, Jesus goes up the mountain in order to prepare for the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves.

Jesus Feeds a Multitude

The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves is one of the few miracle accounts (if the only) told in all four Gospels. It can be found at Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17 and John 6:5-15.  It is also known as the “feeding of the 5,000,” or the “miracle of five loaves and two fish.” Matthew and Mark also recall a second event, the feeding of the 4,000, at Mark 8:1-9 and Matthew 15:32-39.

The story is remarkably similar in all four Gospels. First, the problem is posed: the crowd that has come to hear him speak is growing hungry, they are far from town, and they have no food. Luke tells us that the day began to wear away.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus turns to the disciples and challenges them, you give them something to eat. 

Then, one of the apostles finds a boy with a few loaves of bread and two fish. It is clear that this food is inadequate to feed the crowd. Nevertheless, Jesus accepts and blesses the food. Then the food is distributed, and the apostles discover that there is enough food to feed the crowd, even with some left over.

Jesus Tests The Apostles

There is overt Eucharistic imagery in this account. Jesus and the apostles find themselves among a large crowd of hungry people. Jesus tells the apostles to feed them, and they present to Jesus only a small amount of food. Jesus blesses the food, it is distributed, and he somehow manages to satisfy the entire crowd. The idea that we are nourished through the ministry of sharing bread (and fish)  is very Eucharistic, and of course Jesus plays a central role in this miracle as he is the one that insists that the crowd shall be fed, and he is the one who blesses the bread.

We can overlook another interpretative layer of this story, though. Jesus not only feeds the crowd – he also challenges the apostles to be instruments of this miracle. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, we find Jesus telling the Apostles you give them something to eat. In John, he asks, where can we buy enough food for them to eat? John the Evangelist, being a spoiler, spells out for us that Jesus is testing the apostles. John often likes to interpret passages for us: see for example, John 3:16-22; John 11:51; John 13:3.

The miracle of the loaves is not only about Eucharist, nor is it merely about sharing. In fact, we would be distorting the intent of the Gospel’s author if we interpreted this story as some sort of fable about the virtue of community sharing. Keep in mind that the center of the story is always the work of Christ. Parenthetically, note who is in the center of Tintoretto’s sixteenth century renaissance painting, above.

What Jesus sets out to do is to challenge the Apostles – the servants of the followers of Jesus – to feed the crowd. Yet the best they can do is come up with five loaves and two fish. It is Christ who takes these meager resources and blesses them and makes these provisions  adequate to feed a large crowd. As is the case with story of the fishermen casting their nets on the sea of Galilee, the Sacred Authors of the Gospels want to demonstrate that the apostles can do little on their own, but they can accomplish much (such as feeding five thousand, or bringing in an enormous haul of fish) with the help of Christ.

Gospel Jn 6:1-15

Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee.
A large crowd followed him,
because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick.
Jesus went up on the mountain,
and there he sat down with his disciples.
The Jewish feast of Passover was near.
When Jesus raised his eyes
and saw that a large crowd was coming to him,
he said to Philip,
“Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?”
He said this to test him,
because he himself knew what he was going to do.
Philip answered him,
“Two hundred days?’ wages worth of food would not be enough
for each of them to have a little.’”
One of his disciples,
Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him,
“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish;
but what good are these for so many?”
Jesus said, “Have the people recline.”
Now there was a great deal of grass in that place.
So the men reclined, about five thousand in number.
Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks,
and distributed them to those who were reclining,
and also as much of the fish as they wanted.
When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples,
“Gather the fragments left over,
so that nothing will be wasted.”
So they collected them,
and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments
from the five barley loaves
that had been more than they could eat.
When the people saw the sign 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.
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