In these troubled days, the scene of the multiplication of the loaves reminds us of an ever-present truth: we need only give God our best, and He will do the rest, surpassing all our expectations.
Gospel of the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee. 2 A large crowd followed Him, because they saw the signs He was performing on the sick. 3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat down with His disciples. 4 The Jewish feast of Passover was near. 5 When Jesus raised His eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to Him, He said to Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, because He himself knew what He was going to do.7 Philip answered Him, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” 8 One of His disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to Him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people recline.” Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. 12 When they had had their fill, He said to His disciples, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” 13 So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat. 14 When the people saw the sign He had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the One who is to come into the world.” 15 Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry Him off to make Him king, He withdrew again to the mountain alone (Jn 6:1-15).
I – God Is Concerned with His Children
The celebration of the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time invites us to survey a beautiful panorama, whose culmination is the scene of the multiplication of the loaves, narrated in the Gospel of St. John.
The other texts of the movable part of the Liturgy are in perfect harmony with this passage, as is the Collect itself, which summarizes the Church’s concern in increasing our trust in Providence, beseeching Him: “O God, protector of those who hope in You, without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy, bestow in abundance your mercy upon us and grant that, with You as our ruler and guide, we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure.”1 Indeed, the heavenly Father’s infinite love not only provides for the temporal needs of His children but also multiplies their spiritual gifts and makes them grow in fervour, piety and readiness to obey His will.
The first reading (2 Kgs 4:42-44), taken from the Second Book of Kings, offers for our consideration an episode prefiguring the miracle described in the Gospel. With only twenty loaves of bread, the prophet Elisha feeds a hundred people, referring to the words of the Lord: “They shall eat and there shall be some left over” (4:43). The Responsorial Psalm emphasizes the goodness of the Most High in satisfying “the desire of every living thing” (Ps 145:16), never abandoning the children who hope in Him and faithfully invoke Him.
In the passage from the Letter to the Ephesians used for the second reading (Eph 4:1-6), St. Paul recalls the unity that exists among the members of Christ’s Mystical Body and exhorts us to preserve “the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (4:3). Peace is the tranquillity of order, as St. Augustine2 defines it, and order will only exist if we live in complete dependence on the One who created us, redeemed us and sustains us at every step, and who pours out upon us an abundance of graces. Detaching ourselves from Him, we will inevitably enter into disorder, lose humility and meekness, and become incapable of patiently “bearing with one another through love” (4:2).
In the context of today’s Liturgy, however, the main message of the epistle is found in the final verses, where the Apostle emphasizes that there is “one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism” (4:5), according to which there is “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (4:6). Our Lord Jesus Christ considers as one body all those who sincerely seek Him, docile to the principle He himself gave: “seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness” (Mt 6:33). Upon these He pours forth a special love, giving them the rest in addition.
The inexhaustible munificence of a God who concerns himself with even the most trivial of our problems emerges marvellously in the Beloved Disciple’s account, encouraging us to adopt an attitude of complete abandonment to Him.
II – The Miracle Forever Marks Those who Witness it
If we could contemplate the daily life of St. John the Evangelist in the course of his fifteen years of personal contact with Our Lady after the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would certainly be delighted to see Mother and son engaged in blessed conversations, in the course of which She taught him sublime truths and, at the same time, imparted to her interlocutor the subtleties of the art of conversation.
The Virgin Apostle must have developed this skill to perfection, and no doubt became strongly inclined to it, to such a point that a good part of his Gospel is composed on the basis of conversations. In the very first chapter, he records the testimony of John the Baptist and the meeting of the Divine Master with the first disciples, centring both facts on dialogue (cf. Jn 1:19-51); in a similar way he tells of the wedding at Cana (cf. Jn 2:1-11), the visit of Nicodemus to Jesus (cf. Jn 3:1-21), the conversion with the Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4:1-42), among other episodes.
In dealing with the multiplication of the loaves, the only miracle recounted by all four Evangelists, he also describes it using this method, painting the scene in vivid and even picturesque colours.
Besides obeying a chronological sequence, he had a logical intention in placing this event as the opening of his sixth chapter, whose theme develops around the Eucharist.
The people seek Jesus
1 Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee. 2 A large crowd followed Him, because they saw the signs He was performing on the sick.
From the accounts of St. Mark and St. Luke, we know that the Apostles had just returned from a mission in the villages of Galilee, where the Master had sent them “to preach the Kingdom of God and to heal” (Lk 9:2). Returning to Jesus in Capernaum, the Twelve “told Him all that they had done and taught” (Mk 6:30). Our Lord wanted to give them a few days’ rest, so He set out with them “in the boat to a lonely place” (Mk 6:32). But many of the people noticed this, “and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them” (Mk 6:33).
The reason that drove the crowds to come in search of the Redeemer is clearly indicated by St. John: the restoration of health to the sick. For Jesus always responded to those who approached Him with faith and asked for healing. Being the Divine Physician, He did not even take into consideration whether the disease was serious, rare, contagious or of unknown cause; He healed everyone with just a gaze, the laying on of hands, or by a simple desire. Sometimes, the one in need only had to touch the hem of His garment to be instantly cured! Naturally, this made a strong impression on the people, especially because such miracles proved that He was a prophet, whose words were to be believed.
Our Lord sees the crowd from afar
3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat down with His disciples. 4 The Jewish feast of Passover was near. 5a When Jesus raised His eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to Him…
The scene is extremely compelling: Our Lord on the mountain, no doubt seated on an elevation, teaching new wonders, and the disciples seated on the grass around Him, listening with entire captivation.
The Master was looking at them as He spoke. At a certain moment He lifted His gaze above the heads of His listeners and caught sight of the advancing crowd in the distance. What beauty this detail holds: the God-Man raises His eyes and for the first time contemplates with His bodily eyes that crowd which He has known from all eternity!
The reference to the feast of the Passover, in verse 4, allows us to calculate how varied and numerous was this contingent of Jews who had walked from Capernaum in search of Our Lord. At that time of the year, this city became the meeting point of pilgrims coming from the north of Palestine, who would gather there in caravans in order to continue on to Jerusalem. Therefore, the multitudinous procession was composed for the most part of travellers, inexperienced regarding the distances and provisions necessary for travelling in the region.
An opportune situation for stimulating faith
5b …He said to Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, because He himself knew what He was going to do.7 Philip answered Him, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.”
As the three Evangelists recount, Our Lord received the crowd with compassion, for they were like “sheep without a shepherd” (Mk 6:34), and He began to preach the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick (cf. Lk 9:11). It is likely that several hours passed while everyone, amazed, followed His words and gestures within a supernatural atmosphere so intense that no one thought of hunger or fatigue.
Only when daylight began to decline did the disciples urge Jesus to disperse the people, so that they might make their way to the surrounding villages to buy food (cf. Mt 14:15). But He answered them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (Mt 14:16). And it was then that, turning to Philip, He put the question to him, as if to say, “And now, how shall we resolve this problem?”
As St. John himself observes, Our Lord “knew what He was going to do.” In fact, besides possessing divine knowledge, on account of being the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Soul of Jesus has always been in the beatific vision, and therefore, from the first instant of His conception in the virginal womb of Mary, He contemplated all events in God.
Thus, in His question to Philip, the Redeemer was not seeking concrete information on where loaves of bread were sold by the thousands, but rather to broaden the Apostle’s horizons, encouraging him to grow in faith. Faced with the evident impossibility of remedying the situation by ordinary, conventional means, he should have said: “Master, there is no human solution; nevertheless, we are in Your hands. You are Lord of these hungry people, and Lord of all sustenance. If it be your will, You can satisfy this multitude.”
Philip, however, did not pass the test well. His response to the Master amounted to little other than a protest: “Lord, please, do not even raise this issue! Send these people away, and quickly, otherwise they are going to faint right here!”
When the Evangelist set the fact down in writing, some sixty years later, he must have taken delight in recalling the scene and, when he finished these verses, perhaps he thought to himself, smiling: “Poor Philip!”
God desires our collaboration
8 One of His disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to Him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?”
The other Apostles were doubtless following the exchange of words between Jesus and Philip, and some of them had already checked to see if there were any food vendors among the crowd. The only one found was a boy offering barley loaves, inferior to wheat bread and generally eaten by the poor, and fish, salted and dried according to local custom. We can imagine him carrying the merchandise in a small basket with two compartments, and loudly proclaiming the good price, until the moment that Andrew called him and asked how many loaves and fish he had with him. Noting the small amount available, ridiculous for the thousands in need of food, the Apostle intervenes in the conversation, transmitting the information he has gathered and reinforcing Philip’s position.
Our Lord proceeded in this way, drawing the attention of the Twelve to the crowd’s need for food, so that they would clearly recognize the miraculous origin of the exorbitant number of loaves of bread that they themselves would soon be distributing. Otherwise, they might not even have noticed what was happening and, as is natural, they would have soon begun to circulate completely mistaken explanations as to the origin of the food, perhaps even attributing the ingenuity to a spectacular local baker.
It should also be noted that Jesus did not need either the five loaves or the two fish, since His will was sufficient to perform any prodigy. However, God wants to act with human collaboration. We should always give whatever is within our reach, confident that He will provide the rest.
10 Jesus said, “Have the people recline.” Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number.
What stands out in this verse is Our Lord’s extraordinary kindness and sense of order; this example would later give rise to courtesy in social relations, reaching successive summits in the Middle Ages and the Ancien Régime. He could have fed the people hurriedly, especially as evening was falling. Instead, He proceeded calmly, as in a ceremony, without any frenzy or rush. This is why He had everyone sit down “in groups, by hundreds and by fifties” (Mk 6:40).
As to the number of those present, it is important to note a detail recorded only by St. Matthew: there were five thousand men, “besides women and children” (14:21). If we consider that each man would have been accompanied by his respective family, and that at that time offspring were usually numerous, it does not seem exaggerated to calculate a gathering of at least thirty thousand people.
Jesus gives thanks for the food
11 Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted.
A model of courteous treatment towards others, Jesus is also, and above all, towards the Most High. In His human nature, He expresses gratitude to the Father for having brought those five loaves and two fish into His hands, teaching us, with this gesture, that it is indispensable to always duly acknowledge all that we have received from God.
This is a fundamental lesson for the harmony of family life, and a condition for never lacking food: giving thanks to God at every meal. Prayer at this moment places us in an attitude of detachment with regard to any personal efforts made to obtain our nourishment, reminding us of our complete dependence on the Lord.
It is not difficult to imagine the contentment of those who, seated on the grass, were the object of Our Lord’s care. With the help of His disciples (cf. Mt 14:19), He himself began to serve, giving the hungry “as much as they wanted.” However, the quantity of loaves and fishes exceeded even the needs of their appetite at that moment, and it is plausible to think that many people carried home more than they ate there.
It is worth considering that Jesus could have multiplied fruit, meat or eggs, but He preferred bread and fish because they are symbolic foods. The first, because it pointed to the Eucharist; the second, for the reason that it represented the apostolate of the Church, as He had promised the Apostles: “I will make you become fishers of men” (Mk 1:17).
The Redeemer does not desire the perdition of anyone
12 When they had had their fill, He said to His disciples, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” 13 So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat.
Far from indicating a mundane principle of tidiness, good manners or environmental preservation, this order of the Divine Redeemer was given for very lofty reasons.
One of them, St. Thomas teaches,3 was to furnish the disciples with proof of the reality of the miracle, and for this reason exactly twelve baskets were left over, so that each Apostle was obliged to carry one. Another motive was to show His zeal for those who are not “leftovers”, but His fellow men, that is, each one of us. Our Lord wants to save all men, but He can only gather to himself those who do not offer resistance to His action.
St. John mentions only “the fragments from the five barley loaves,” omitting the fish. Various authors agree that, although the Eucharist was not instituted there, the Evangelist wished to allude to the care and veneration due to the fragments of consecrated Hosts, in which Jesus is present in Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity even when the celebration is over, and which, therefore, cannot be discarded.
They recognize the Prophet…
14 When the people saw the sign He had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the One who is to come into the world.”
At that time, a prophet only enjoyed credibility among the people if he confirmed the truth of his words by performing a miracle. This is why St. John uses the word “sign”, showing that in this phenomenon Our Lord was offering the Jews a guarantee: “I have multiplied the loaves and fishes that you may believe in Me.”
Amazed at the food distributed by Jesus – they were the most delicious loaves in history! – the crowd recognized Him as the Messiah, the awaited Saviour, and began to acclaim Him.
Anyone who saw the enthusiasm of those people would think that from then on they would all accept Jesus’ teachings and act accordingly. But that is not what happened.
…but do not wish to surrender themselves to Him
15 Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry Him off to make Him king, He withdrew again to the mountain alone.
Jesus Christ is King, and in a certain respect the people did not err in attempting to proclaim Him as such. Therefore, what led Our Lord to withdraw was not, as some suppose, an ill-conceived humility by which one must reject all honour or praise merited, but the state of mind under which those Jews were acting. They wished to elevate the Redeemer to the throne, and to establish with Him distant relations, like those between a monarch and his subjects, without committing themselves to loving and obeying Him in everything. As sovereign, He would promulgate a few laws, establish taxes and govern Israel, but would not directly interfere in anyone’s life.
If, on the contrary, the crowd had exclaimed: “This is truly our God and Creator, our Lord! Let us give ourselves entirely to Him,” Jesus would not have taken His leave.
Those thousands of men, women and children were marked for the rest of their lives by that miracle of the Divine Master. Probably some rejected Him to the point that when He stood before Pilate’s praetorium, they raised their voices and shouted: “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” (Jn 19:6).
However, after seeing Him nailed to a cross, perhaps they came down from Calvary beating their breasts and weeping, and remembered that sign which had shown them God’s s will so clearly and which they had refused.
III – The Solution for All of Our Problems
In today’s Gospel we contemplate Our Lord Jesus Christ as the source of true harmony among people, of good relations, of the commitment to do good to others. He shows His love for each of us and invites us to imitate Him, to be concerned for our brothers and sisters, just as He is for us.
We must be preachers of the truth, never missing an opportunity to lead others to take advantage of the treasure that Our Lord brought to earth: grace. Under its influence, humanity reached great heights of perfection in the past; today, in the midst of a terrible spiritual desert, it is up to us to work so that humanity will return home to the Catholic Church, which never fails to multiply the loaves and fishes necessary to feed the souls of its children.
The answer for all social, political, financial, moral and even epidemiological problems lies in returning to Christian life, the life of the Sacraments, the life of piety, the life in which Our Lord Jesus Christ will be our Life. Therein lies the solution for everything!
Let us remember that God has entrusted His omnipotence into Our Lady’s hands, giving us the joy of being able to count on a maternal intervention in our favour. If we are with Her, we will lack neither bread nor fish; but most of all, we will never lack Jesus. ◊
1 17th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME. Collect. In: THE ROMAN MISSAL. English translation according to the Third Typical Edition approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and confirmed by the Apostolic See. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2011, p.477.
2 Cf. ST. AUGUSTINE. De Civitate Dei. L.XIX, c.13, n.1. In: Obras. Madrid: BAC, 1958, v.XVII, p.1398.
3 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Super Ioannem, c.VI, lect.1.