“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” Matthew 14:19
The feeding of the Five Thousand is one of those stories that presents problems to people who seek to explain the life and ministry of Jesus in purely natural terms. It is an awkward story to explain away.
Healing miracles are claimed to be Jesus’ response to psychosomatic illnesses. The natural miracles, the calming of the storm, the walking on the water, are explained as products of an over-active imagination. Even Jesus rising from the dead is explained as something that took place in the hearts and minds of the followers.
Huge public events like the feeding miracles are more difficult to account for. The explanation offered is that the example provided by the small boy in offering his loaves and fishes prompted other people to share what they had, and so everyone was fed.
If the feeding of the five thousand was simply a sharing of food, then the facts of situation remained the same. There was no extra food, simply a moving around of what was already there.
If the feeding of the five thousand was simply about sharing what you had brought with you, then someone would surely have come forward at an early stage and said that this was untrue. This story was written down by Saint Matthew thirty to forty years later; there would have been plenty of people at that time who could have said, “I was there. I know this didn’t happen.”
The fact that this story became a very firm part of the story of Jesus from earliest times suggests that the facts of the situation did not remain the same. This wasn’t just moving things around, this was the creation of something new and unique.
The faith of the boy in offering the loaves and fishes, the faith of the disciples who got the crowds to sit down, the faith of those who carried the food around, enabled Jesus to respond and complete change the facts of the situation.
When we think about the miracle, there is the simple question, have the facts changed or not? If we are to believe in miracles, what we are looking for is a material change in the facts. We want a dramatic change. We want something that leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that something big has taken place.
Jesus always looked for faith to allow him the opportunity to do great things. We are told at one point that he could do very little in his home area because of their lack of faith. The feeding of the five thousand is possible because Jesus has the opportunity to work through the faith of those present, and he works through them in a way that shows his care for the poor, his solidarity with those who had nothing.
People who most readily reject the miracle stories are those who enjoy comfortable middle class lives. It is much easier to be sceptical when you have the wealth to search for your own answers to questions. Scepticism is much more painful when you know that your only hope is for something miraculous.
When we read the story of the feeding of the Five Thousand, a sense of human solidarity can give us a different understanding of the importance of the story. When we try to see it through the eyes of someone present on that hillside, it becomes important that the story represents a real change in the facts because it is only through such a change that we are going to eat.