They hadn’t understood about the loaves! The Gospels use those words to describe the crowd that Jesus had miraculously fed with five barley loaves and two fish. They ate, but they didn’t understand. What didn’t they understand?
This is the story: Jesus had been preaching to a large crowd, several thousand people. But they were in a remote place and, after a time, the people had been without food for a long time. They were hungry, so famished in fact that they lacked the strength to return to their own towns and villages. The disciples approached Jesus and asked him whether they should go into the neighboring towns and buy food for the crowd. Jesus told them instead to feed the people themselves. They protested that they had too little food, almost none. Jesus asked them what they in fact did have. Their answer: “Only five barley loaves and two fish.” And this came with a question: What good is that among so many? The equation is hopeless: so little food, so many people.
And so Jesus asked them to bring the loaves and fish to him. He blessed the food and asked the disciples to distribute it among the hungry thousands. We know the rest of the story: They set out the food; everyone ate as much as he or she wanted, and they gathered up twelve baskets of scraps left over afterwards. And the crowd was impressed, so much in fact that the next day they followed Jesus around the lake, hoping for another such feeding. Jesus, for his part, was saddened by their lack of understanding: They hadn’t understood about the loaves.
What hadn’t they understood? Two things:
First: When the disciples initially approach Jesus and ask him whether they should go into the neighboring towns and buy bread, their question betrays that they are unaware that they are with the bread of life. They are in the presence of that which is the object of all the world’s hungers and which, in its bounty, is unlimited and infinite. Yet they want to go off and buy food elsewhere. The lesson: When you are with the bread of life there is no need to go off to buy food, or anything else, elsewhere! You have all the resources you need to feed every kind of hunger. The disciples’ wanting to go off to buy food elsewhere betrays their lack of awareness of this. They didn’t’ see the incongruity, the irony, in their request: Jesus is the bread of life, food for the life of the world, and they ask him if they should go off elsewhere to buy what is needed to feed the crowds.
The second thing they didn’t understand was the meaning of the equation: so little food, so many people. A few small loaves of bread and a few fish are hopelessly inadequate to feed a crowd of thousands. It goes against common sense to put such a pathetically meager fare before so many people. How can five loaves and two fish feed a crowd of thousands?
Sometimes well-meaning homilists have tried to explain what might have happened by suggesting that Jesus’ invitation to share drew out from the people the privately guarded resources of food that each had brought and, when everyone shared what he or she had, all were fed and there was food to spare. Such a homily has its own good lesson, but the point of the story is precisely the hopelessness of the equation. In essence, the resources of the Gospel always seem hopelessly dwarfed by the world’s power, the world’s hunger, the world’s sin, and the resources that the world itself seems to offer.
Five loaves and two fish set out to feed a crowd of thousands is the Gospel equivalent of the famous story in the Jewish scriptures of the young shepherd boy, David, standing before the giant, Goliath: A young boy, barefoot, holding a boy’s plaything, a slingshot, standing before a giant, a trained soldier, clothed in iron, with a sword-bearer carrying his weapons, is also a hopeless equation: So little power against so much strength. But the young boy triumphs because God is on his side. It’s the same with the loaves and the fish.
What do we need to understand about the loaves? We need to understand that we are with the bread of life, everything we need to feed the world we already have. We don’t need to go anywhere to buy anything. We have the resources already; though on the surface those resources will always look over-matched, hopeless, dwarfed, nonsensical, wishful thinking. On the surface, invariably, we will look like David before Goliath, puny and pathetic, not up to the task of defeating a giant or feeding a hungry, greedy world.
The challenge is to roll the dice on the reality of the Gospel. The Gospel works! It is adequate to the task, both of feeding the world and defeating the giant. It only needs to be trusted