Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: 2nd Book of Kings 4:42-44
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 145:10-11, 15-18
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 4:1-6
Gospel: According to St. John 6:1-15
I love miracle stories. I love them especially in John’s Gospel. Water changed into wine at Cana; Lazarus raised from the dead at Bethany. These are the classic, everyone-knows-them miracles. And not least among them is this miracle: the loaves and fishes.
The whole topic of miracles is an interesting one. When I think of the common use of the term ‘miracle’ it seems to be akin to the common use of the term ‘love.’ Anyone who had Mike Pennock ’64 in class knows his intro to the topic of love: “I love pizza, I love ice cream, I love my wife…” If you had Doc, then you know where this line of reasoning is going to end.
The term ‘miracle’ seems to be in the same category. When people speak about ‘the miracle of birth’ or ‘the miracle of a sunset’ I wonder if they are speaking metaphorically or if they really believe that two of the most natural, and therefore totally non-miraculous, events in the cosmos are indeed suspensions of the normal process of things. I assume that they are speaking metaphorically, but you never know.
Theologically, especially as used in St. John, a miracle is a sign of God’s power in the world. The Greek word for power is dynamis, from which we get the word ‘dynamite.’ In the context of the New Testament dynamis is commonly associated with miracles, and with good reason. Miracles show the power of God to break into the world in order to bring about a super-natural end. The miracles of the Incarnation, God becoming human in Jesus, and the Resurrection are the premier examples of such power.
In a world where the natural is often seen as miraculous it is interesting that the miraculous is often seen as natural, as in this case of the loaves and fishes.
We live in a world that can’t comprehend the ability of Jesus to feed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish, and so an alternate subtext must be devised. The miracle can’t be that five loaves and two fish fed the people; the real miracle must be that the crowd was moved to generosity by the gesture of Jesus and so they shared their private supplies of food that were surreptitiously smuggled inside their cloaks. I am sad to say that I have had a number of students over the years tell me that this explanation is not uncommon in a typical grade school religion class.
There are several problems with this interpretation, not least of which is that it contradicts Catholic dogmatic teaching on biblical miracles.
I have been to Lourdes. I believe that the Blessed Mother appeared to Bernadette, and that the water from the Grotto has brought physical, as well as emotional and spiritual, cures to many people. If you believe none of this, then good for you. We, as Catholics, are not required to believe in any non-biblical miracle. What we are required to believe is that each New Testament miracle from the ministry of Jesus is a real miracle – an outpouring of the power of God in an extra-ordinary, super-natural way.
Another problem with this explanation is that it is improper biblical interpretation. Exegesis is the biblical science of reading from the text. This interpretation is a reading not from the text, but into the text. When we have a preconceived notion (e.g., miracles can’t exist) and bring that to the stories of the Gospels we are doing them a disservice. Not only that, these interpretations can strip away basically everything that makes our Faith what it is. From the Annunciation to the Resurrection (indeed, from the Immaculate Conception to the Ascension) the life of Jesus is one miracle after another. If I can explain away the loaves and fishes I can easily explain away the Resurrection.
Finally, this interpretation belittles Jesus. It makes him just another really nice ethical teacher, and not the divine Logos Incarnate. If all Jesus came to do was to get us to “play nice,” then His suffering on the cross was literally over-kill.
Jesus came to transform the world and each soul in it, and His miracles are great signs of that transformation.
This miracle is certainly a generosity and sharing miracle, but not in the way that some have proposed. The generosity is that of God, Who shares His Son with us in the Incarnation and in the Eucharist – of which this miracle is a foreshadowing and a symbol.
The sharing is done not by the crowd, but by the disciples who have distributed the food from the hands of Jesus. The disciples are instructed by Jesus to gather up the remains and there is enough for each of them to be fed. Isn’t that how the sharing of the love of Jesus works in our lives? The well of love never runs dry. In the giving of the gift one also receives. Parents who have more than one child know this from experience – love always expands to meet the need and brings great blessings upon the parents who welcome each new life into their homes.
Pater Maurin, co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker, wrote a number of brief teachings that he called “Easy Essays.” One of these is entitled “Blow the Dynamite,” which talks about the dynamite of the message of Jesus and how many people “have wrapped it up in nice phraseology, placed it in an hermetic container and sat on the lid.” He concludes by saying that “It is about time to blow the lid off so the Catholic Church may again become the dominant social dynamic force.” And what a miracle that would be.
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