I read this Gospel story of John to a group of very poor women when I was in Argentina. They reacted very spontaneously to the reading.
“How marvellous,” they said, “to have had enough food for so many,” “How wonderful.” “How great.” Their reaction was rooted in the fact that they would all have baked their bread in a small mud oven outside, and because of the dire poverty in the area, would have had a limited amount of flour and yeast to make the bread with, the piece of bread they gave to each member of the household would have been very limited and measured out carefully.
We know that in John’s gospel what is emphasized is not the wonderful or marvellous aspect of Jesus’ actions but the fact that his actions are signs, signs of who he is and what his mission is. We see Jesus carrying out his Father’s works operating from within his Father’s will. In this story known as the story of the loaves and fishes, he is alleviating his people’s hunger. In the first temptation of Jesus in the desert, he would not provide food for himself, would not turn the stones into bread, but he will later provide bread for the five thousand people.
The crowd that followed Jesus up the mountain would have been familiar with pain, fatigue and hunger. Jesus was anxious that they be fed. Philip knew that there was not enough money to buy food for so many. Andrew pointed out a boy who had five barley loaves and two fish, and remarked that this was nothing to what was needed to feed such a multitude. It is interesting to know that barley bread was the type of bread made by the poor, and the fish the boy had would have been considered an inferior variety. We have no name for the little boy; he seemed to have no mother, father, or sibling with him who might have persuaded him to hold on to his sustenance. There was abundant grass in the area and Jesus asked his disciples to get the people to sit down. Many of them may have accommodated themselves in a reclining position as they would do at Passover. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to his Father and distributed the bread and fish himself. These three actions may remind us of three similar actions of Jesus during the Last Supper. They may also have prepared those present for the profound significance of Jesus’ last meal with them.
The great crowd, aware of Jesus’ ability to heal, followed him up the mountain. We might see their following Jesus in this way as a kind of pilgrim prayer, a manner of reaching up for help. The answer to this prayer of theirs was already within themselves: they had among them a child with a little food. Jesus drew their desire, the poor barley bread, the inferior fish of the nameless child into himself. He drew all into what was within him – the ongoing creative activity of his Father. The result of this was that at that particular time an abundance of food was made available to all.
The crowd wished to make Jesus king. He seemed such a wonderful person to them that they wished to remove him from doling out the barley bread and the fish. John tells us that Jesus withdrew from the scene and went into the mountain by himself. Jesus indicated that he had no ambition to be put into the realm of power – political or otherwise; it would alienate him from the situation where he could be the servant of his people, attend to them personally and form relationships with them. He wanted to continue in an incarnational mode among them and become eventually their bread of life.
I believe that we too, in Christ, partake of the creative activity of the Father, and many enjoy the abundance that is the fruit of this activity. This abundance is around us at so many levels: in land, buildings, food, education, technology, entertainment, prosperity in general. The prayer that wells up from inside our pilgrim heart is one of thanks, and a petition that we may be enabled to distribute our abundant resources adequately.
Sr. Kathleen Egan OP