Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator
Today, we begin to read from the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel, the chapter which relates two different signs and offers what has been popularly called "The Discourse on the Bread of Life." Today's opening verses present us with the story that is included in all four of the Gospels, "The Feeding of the Multitude." In addition to this account, both Matthew and Mark include another story in which Jesus feeds a slightly smaller crowd.
The story is filled with numbers: two hundred days' wages, five barley loaves, two fish, 5,000 men (Matthew adds that this number doesn't include women and children), and twelve wicker baskets.
The various numbers included in this story can be understood as factual data as well as symbolic or metaphorical references. To better understand the numbers, it would also be helpful to keep in mind that the crowds which Jesus attracted were usually the underclass, people who lived on a subsistence type of diet, who did not know from where the food for tomorrow would come.
It would also be helpful for us to keep in mind what happens in our own day when a major calamity approaches such as a hurricane. People generally know that they lie in the path of the storm and prepare for it by storing up imperishable foodstuffs mindful of the fact that they could be without power following the storm. If we, a people who generally have enough food in our homes to feed a small army, hoard food in the face of danger, think of what these people must have done in light of their uncertain situations.
Jesus feeds the five thousand men. One can be sure that their wives and children were also satisfied. At this particular time in history, a village in Israel might be considered large if it contained 100 people. Jerusalem, the capital city may have boasted several thousands, but nothing like our major metropolises. So for that many people to come together in one place is clearly a reference to a crowd of gigantic proportions. One might also say that it might symbolize the whole of the human family. Clearly, these people would have been surprised to see themselves as part of such a huge group.
At the end of the "picnic," twelve wicker baskets are filled with the scraps. Whenever we run into the number twelve in the Scriptures, one can be sure that these Jewish fold who are reading the story for the first time recognized in that number the twelve tribes of Israel, in fact, all of Judaism.
John and the other evangelists are clearly pointing to something greater than simply feeding those present. There is enough for all. There is no need for hoarding, for stockpiling, for accruing more than we need. There is enough for all. The bread that comes to us from Jesus is all that we need as we continue our journey to the Promised Land.