A friend reminded me today of an interpretation of this miracle story that I’ve heard before. The basic gist of it is that the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes was caused not by some supernatural quantitative multiplication of bread and fish, but rather by the fact that people had brought food with them and decided to share. This makes Christ out to be some kind of parental figure who gets his children to not be selfish but share. The miracle story becomes instead a lesson in morality about the importance of sharing. While sharing is important, it doesn’t quite express the freshness of the Gospel – any civilized group of people understands the probable utility and calculated risk involved in sharing; no need for the Gospel there.
On the other hand, you have an interpretation that highlights the extraordinary nature of the miracle. Somehow, imperceptibly (as in the miracle of water into wine Jesus performed at Cana), a very small quantity grows beyond what was necessary to feed a very large hungry crowd. This shows that God is all-powerful, that Jesus is God, and that His government of the world serves to meet our needs. This interpretation is certainly more theological in nature, but still does not demonstrate what is specifically Christian about Jesus’ activity.
If we take a sort of hybrid interpretation of the two just mentioned, we begin to see the incredible work of Christian grace. Imagine now having to break off pieces of the bit of bread you’ve received – having nothing else to feed you and your family with. Those who were breaking and distributing the bread experienced not just the fact that the bread became more as they broke it to share it, but that in so doing they were taking an active role in the miracle of God’s providence. Christ calls us to be generous with what we’ve received even when we’re not sure it is enough for us. The miracle is not so much about bread then, but about the power of grace to transform hearts beyond the normal bounds of human generosity.
EPHREM THE SYRIAN:
Here two miracles are proposed, which Elisha performed while he was among his disciples. He accomplished the first when he caused death to leave the pot, where, as they said, it had hidden. He performed the second when he nourished one hundred prophets with a little bit of bread. In both miracles he prefigures him who multiplies twice some barley loaves and nourishes with them “about five thousand men, besides women and children.”1
He speaks of several forms of forbearance, each of which prevents them from being carried away or proud. Lowliness is first, then meekness. Lowliness consists in having a humble mind. Meekness is a curb on pride and cruelty. Patience consists in bearing any adverse circumstance that may befall them. With lowliness and meekness they learn not to be afraid to suffer. With patience they learn how to respond if they must suffer.2
Again he uses the metaphor of bonding. We have left it behind, and now it comes running back to us. Beautiful was Paul’s bond; beautiful too is this [bond of peace among Christians], and the former arises from the latter. Bind yourselves to your brethren. Those thus bound together in love bear everything with ease.… If now you want to make the bond double, your brother must also be bound together with you. Thus he wants us to be bound together with one another, not only to be at peace, not only to be friends, but to be all one, a single soul. Beautiful is this bond. With this bond we bind ourselves together both to one another and to God. This is not a chain that bruises. It does not cramp the hands. It leaves them free, gives them ample room and greater courage.3
CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA:
[If] our enemies persecute us, it is possible for us to behave well towards them by leaving them for a time, even when there is no harm in remaining. By evading their attacks and avoiding their rage, we may find that their anger abates and thus we may undercut the boldness of their arrogance.… To do the work of love then is not necessarily enduring those who wish us evil, nor to remain among one’s enemies, causing them to become even more bitter and angry because they are unable to soften our opposition. Love then, as Paul says, “does not insist on its own way,” and this was [certainly true] in Christ.4
He went up onto the mountain because of the miracle he was going to do. The disciples alone ascended with him which implies that the people who stayed behind were at fault for not following. He went up to the mountain too as a lesson to us to retire from the tumult and confusion of the world. For solitude is appropriate for the study of wisdom. Jesus often went up alone onto a mountain in order to pray, even spending the night there. He did this in order to teach us that the one who will come most near to God must be free from all disturbance and must seek times and places away from all the confusion.5
CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA:
Smallness of faith is the worst sickness and surpasses all evil. If God works or promises to do anything, then let it be believed in simple faith. Just because we are powerless to accomplish anything, we should not let God be accused by our inability to understand how he will accomplish things beyond our understanding.… What is then beyond our comprehension is received by faith and not by investigation. Therefore, just as one who believes is admired, so also one who doubts is not free from blame. The Savior himself testifies about this when he says, “He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already.”6
CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA:
The five barley loaves signify the five books of Moses, that is, the whole law which gives as it were a coarser type of food.… But the fish signify good food attained through the fishermen, that is, the more delicate books of Christ’s disciples. Within the latter, there are two distinct types, the preaching of the apostles and the proclamation of the evangelists, which shine forth among us.7
To provide a brief explanation: the five loaves are understood as the five books of Moses; rightly they are not wheat but barley because they belong to the Old Testament. For you know that barley was created in such a way that one can scarcely get to its kernel. For this kernel is clothed with a covering of husk, and this husk is tenacious and adhering, so that it is stripped off with effort. Such is the letter of the Old Testament, clothed with the coverings of carnal mysteries; but if one gets to its kernel, it feeds and satisfies.
And so a boy was carrying five loaves and two fishes. If we should seek to know who this boy was, perhaps he was the people of Israel, carrying the loaves and fish with a childlike understanding and not eating of them itself. For those things that it was carrying, when kept shut, were a burden, but when opened, were food. Moreover, the two fish seem to us to signify those two sublime personages in the Old Testament who were anointed to make holy and rule the people, the priest and king.8
HILARY OF POITIERS:
Neither sight nor any of the other senses can discover how such an amazing miracle happened. What did not exist was created; what we see passes our understanding. It only remains for us to believe that God can do all things.9
CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA:
Therefore, we must not be slothful regarding the communion of love toward our brothers and sisters but rather put away from us, as far as possible, the cowardice and fear that lead to inhospitality. Thus we might be confirmed in hope through steadfast faith in the power of God to multiply even our smallest acts of goodness.10
Wonderful! How great is the tyranny of gluttony, how great the fickleness of people’s minds! No longer do they vindicate the law, no longer do they care for the violation of the sabbath, and no longer are they zealous for God. All such considerations are thrown aside when their bellies have been filled. He was a prophet in their eyes, and they were about to choose him for a king. But Christ flees. Why? To teach us to despise worldly dignities and to show us that he needed nothing on earth. For the one who chose all the ordinary things of life, such as mother, house, city, nurture and clothing, would not afterwards be made illustrious by things on earth.11
CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA:
When Christ flees from those who want to give him honor and refuses that highest earthly prize of a kingdom, … he teaches us that it is unseemly for those who pursue divine grace and thirst for everlasting glory to seek after worldly greatness. We must then forego the love of glory, the sister and neighbor of arrogance, residing not far from its borders. Let us have nothing to do with illustrious honor in this present life which is hurtful. Let us rather seek after a holy humility giving preference to one another.12
The power of the priest is weakness. He [Paul] said, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”13
- ON THE SECOND BOOK OF KINGS 4.38. Conti, M., & Pilara, G. (Eds.). (2008). 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (p. 165). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- EPISTLE TO THE EPHESIANS 1.4.2–4. Edwards, M. J. (Ed.). (1999). Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians (p. 159). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- HOMILY ON EPHESIANS 9.4.1–3. Edwards, M. J. (Ed.). (1999). Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians (p. 159). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 3.4. Elowsky, J. C. (Ed.). (2006). John 1–10 (p. 210). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- HOMILIES ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 42.1. Elowsky, J. C. (Ed.). (2006). John 1–10 (p. 210). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 3.4. Elowsky, J. C. (Ed.). (2006). John 1–10 (pp. 211–212). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 3.4. Elowsky, J. C. (Ed.). (2006). John 1–10 (p. 212). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- TRACTATES ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 24.5.1–2. Elowsky, J. C. (Ed.). (2006). John 1–10 (pp. 212–213). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON THE TRINITY 3.6. Elowsky, J. C. (Ed.). (2006). John 1–10 (p. 214). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 3.4. Elowsky, J. C. (Ed.). (2006). John 1–10 (p. 216). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- HOMILIES ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 42.3. Elowsky, J. C. (Ed.). (2006). John 1–10 (p. 216). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 3.4. Elowsky, J. C. (Ed.). (2006). John 1–10 (p. 217). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- LETTER 60 (TO MARCELLINA). Elowsky, J. C. (Ed.). (2006). John 1–10 (p. 217). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.