Posted January 27, 2011
Rolling the Dice on the Gospel
by Ron Rolheiser
They hadn't understood about the loaves! The Gospels use those words to
describe the crowd that Jesus had miraculously fed with five barley loaves and
two fish. They ate, but they didn't understand. What didn't they understand?
This is the story: Jesus had been preaching to a large crowd, several thousand
people. But they were in a remote place and, after a time, the people had been
without food for a long time. They were hungry, so famished in fact that they
lacked the strength to return to their own towns and villages. The disciples
approached Jesus and asked him whether they should go into the neighboring towns
and buy food for the crowd. Jesus told them instead to feed the people
themselves. They protested that they had too little food, almost none. Jesus
asked them what they in fact did have. Their answer: "Only five barley loaves
and two fish." And this came with a question: What good is that among so many?
The equation is hopeless: so little food, so many people.
And so Jesus asked them to bring the loaves and fish to him. He blessed the food
and asked the disciples to distribute it among the hungry thousands. We know the
rest of the story: They set out the food; everyone ate as much as he or she
wanted, and they gathered up twelve baskets of scraps left over afterwards. And
the crowd was impressed, so much in fact that the next day they followed Jesus
around the lake, hoping for another such feeding. Jesus, for his part, was
saddened by their lack of understanding: They hadn't understood about the
What hadn't they understood? Two things:
First: When the disciples initially approach Jesus and ask him whether they
should go into the neighboring towns and buy bread, their question betrays that
they are unaware that they are with the bread of life. They are in the presence
of that which is the object of all the world's hungers and which, in its bounty,
is unlimited and infinite. Yet they want to go off and buy food elsewhere. The
lesson: When you are with the bread of life there is no need to go off to buy
food, or anything else, elsewhere! You have all the resources you need to feed
every kind of hunger. The disciples' wanting to go off to buy food elsewhere
betrays their lack of awareness of this. They didn't' see the incongruity, the
irony, in their request: Jesus is the bread of life, food for the life of the
world, and they ask him if they should go off elsewhere to buy what is needed to
feed the crowds.
The second thing they didn't understand was the meaning of the equation: so
little food, so many people. A few small loaves of bread and a few fish are
hopelessly inadequate to feed a crowd of thousands. It goes against common sense
to put such a pathetically meager fare before so many people. How can five
loaves and two fish feed a crowd of thousands?
Sometimes well-meaning homilists have tried to explain what might have happened
by suggesting that Jesus' invitation to share drew out from the people the
privately guarded resources of food that each had brought and, when everyone
shared what he or she had, all were fed and there was food to spare. Such a
homily has its own good lesson, but the point of the story is precisely the
hopelessness of the equation. In essence, the resources of the Gospel always
seem hopelessly dwarfed by the world's power, the world's hunger, the world's
sin, and the resources that the world itself seems to offer.
Five loaves and two fish set out to feed a crowd of thousands is the Gospel
equivalent of the famous story in the Jewish scriptures of the young shepherd
boy, David, standing before the giant, Goliath: A young boy, barefoot, holding a
boy's plaything, a slingshot, standing before a giant, a trained soldier,
clothed in iron, with a sword-bearer carrying his weapons, is also a hopeless
equation: So little power against so much strength. But the young boy triumphs
because God is on his side. It's the same with the loaves and the fish.
What do we need to understand about the loaves? We need to understand that we
are with the bread of life, everything we need to feed the world we already
have. We don't need to go anywhere to buy anything. We have the resources
already; though on the surface those resources will always look over-matched,
hopeless, dwarfed, nonsensical, wishful thinking. On the surface, invariably, we
will look like David before Goliath, puny and pathetic, not up to the task of
defeating a giant or feeding a hungry, greedy world.
The challenge is to roll the dice on the reality of the Gospel. The Gospel
works! It is adequate to the task, both of feeding the world and defeating the
giant. It only needs to be trusted