A while back I was teaching a religion class, and I said, “we’re going to talk about the story of the miracle of the loaves and the fish.” And sure enough, I got the standard reaction from my students. “Father Justin, why didn’t Jesus just call Pizza Hut?” “Father Justin, there are a lot of people in Africa without food, why is Jesus showing favoritism to the people that live near Lake Galilee?” “Father Justin, if this story is about the Eucharist, why isn’t fish served at Mass?”
All good and profound questions, and perhaps they speak to the fact that this Gospel reading is sometimes received with reactions that range from the puzzled to the sceptical.
Today’s Gospel makes sense if you read it in context. John tries heroically to place the miracle of the loaves and fishes in context, something not done so successfully in the Synoptic Gospels. For instance, John 6 and John chapter 21 have parallel stories with Eucharistic themes. But that’s a homily for another day.
Now the question for the day is this: how is this reading relevant to us?
For the moment, let’s presume that the account is true – that Jesus actually fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Conceding that, we can focus on the action of the characters in the story.
Jesus tells his disciples that he wants to feed the crowd, but he doesn’t try to do it himself. Instead he tests their faith, and says, ‘go feed the crowd.’ Philip responds skeptically. We can imagine him saying, “are you kidding, that’s impossible. It cannot be done!”
But Andrew looks around and finds a boy who has gathered a basketful of fish and bread. Somewhat embarrassed, Andrew hands over the food to Jesus, saying, “alright, this is the best we can do.” Keep in mind he has enough food to feed perhaps ten people. But Jesus doesn’t say, “Oh Andrew, this is not good enough.” He doesn’t say, “you’ve failed me.”
Jesus accepts the gifts and thinks to himself, “five loaves and two fish – I can work with that.”
So then Jesus blesses the bread and the fish [the verb in Greek is eucharisteo] and then – and only then – does the miracle take place.
So how can we relate to this story? Well, look at the role that Andrew plays. By the way, Andrew is never referred to as an ‘apostle’ in John’s Gospel: he is a disciple of Christ, like the rest of us. John’s Gospel usually refers to the twelve as “disciples,” because the theology in John’s Gospel is egalitarian, and he wants us to place ourselves in their shoes.
So Jesus turns to Philip and Andrew and asks them to feed the crowd. While Philip sees the task as almost impossible, Andrew makes his best effort, and turns over the work of the crowd to Christ.
And that is the heart of the story. Jesus asks the disciples to do something difficult. Andrew doesn’t say, “I won’t do it,” or “that’s impossible.” He does what the Lord asks, even if he thinks the task is impossible. Then he offers his work to the Lord (the basket of fish and bread) and the Lord blesses it. And so the work becomes holy and fruitful, and the crowd of five thousand is fed.
How many times have we been asked to do something difficult? Or how many times have we faced a task that seems impossible to complete? How many times have we faced a situation and thought, “I don’t have the strength, or the skill, or the perseverance to do this?”
The Gospel reading proposes that we should imitate Andrew, and say, “I will do my best and offer my work to God, even if it is not perfect, even if it falls short.” This story isn’t so much about fish and bread as it is about the faith and work of the disciples of Jesus. What Christ suggests is that we do what Christ asks of us.. that we do our best, and offer it to the Lord. Then we trust that he will bless our work, make it holy, and as a result our work will, God willing, become fruitful for our family or our community.
At today’s Mass, we offer two things. First we offer bread and wine, which will become the body and blood of our Lord. But we also offer our own daily work, the intentions we have, and the challenges that we face.
We offer these things as well, just as Saint Andrew offered bread and fish to the Lord. And we pray that our work may be directed to building up our families and our community, and, having been blessed by the Lord, that it is for the good of our brothers and sisters in Christ.