The event we read about in today’s Gospel, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, is one of the most extraordinary miracles Jesus did during His earthly life. Even though we weren’t there 2000 years ago to be fed by the hands of the disciples, this miracle is also one of the most meaningful for us today. It shows us clearly that when men and women give Jesus what they have, He can multiply it to do wonderful and miraculous things for us and for others.
Let’s go back in time together to that late afternoon on the seashore of Galilee and look at the scene to make sure we don’t miss any important details. Our Lord had just finished several hours of preaching and healing of the sick. Since it was getting late, and the disciples cared about the people in the crowd, they came to Jesus and told him to dismiss them so that they could get something to eat. The disciples likely knew that the people would stay as long as Jesus was preaching and miraculously healing the sick. If Jesus were here, right now, curing people of their cancer, broken legs, diabetes, deafness, advancing blindness and other maladies, we probably would be in no hurry to leave either. So the disciples cared about the crowds, but their care led them to suggest something that actually was not in the people’s best interest — to leave Jesus, rather than come to him.
Jesus responds immediately to the disciples. “There is no need for them to go: give them something to eat yourselves.” Feed them yourselves! By the response of the disciples to this, it appears that they would have, if they had the resources. “All we have are five loaves and two fish,” they replied. This response shows clearly the type of lives the disciples were living. First, they were living lives of great sacrifice and also great sharing. They were only carrying seven pieces of food total to feed what at least had to have been Jesus, the 12 apostles and an unnamed amount of other close disciples. You can do the math yourself! They were not going to be eating very much that night. And yet they were willing to share that food with others.
“Bring them to me!,” Jesus said. Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, raised His eyes to heaven, said the blessing, broke the bread, handed the loaves to his disciples, who then distributed them to the crowd. Notice that Jesus handed the bread and fish to His disciples who then passed it among the people in the crowd. Some Christian preachers this century have claimed, erroneously, that this multiplication of the loaves and fish wasn’t really a miracle at all, but just a successful attempt by Jesus to get people to share. That He just passed out the seven loaves and two fish, and then everybody else took out the rations they were selfishly hiding and shared with each other. I’ve even heard a priest once say that from the pulpit. That couldn’t be more wrong! Such a claim often comes from those who really don’t believe that Jesus could have performed miracles at all. But we read that Jesus Himself gave the bread and fish to His disciples who passed it out to the crowd. Everyone got bread and fish from this source.
The crowds ate until they were full and then the disciples collected the scraps and filled twelve wicker baskets. This is a curious detail. Jesus is God and easily could have multiplied the loaves and fish such that there would have been no leftovers. But He didn’t. We are told that there were twelve baskets of leftovers — one, basically, for every apostle. It’s almost as if Jesus wanted to be able to give them a tangible reminder, in a certain sense, of what He could do when they gave to Him what they had. It also seems that the baskets that were left over were symbolic of Jesus giving the Twelve food with which to feed those entrusted to their care. In other words, the twelve remaining baskets symbolize not only the responsibility of the Apostles to care for the physical needs of God’s people but also to provide them with spiritual nourishment.
What does this event say to us today? It shows us what Jesus can do when a disciple puts what he or she has at His disposal. The disciples gave Jesus all they had that day — and it wasn’t much — but with the five loaves and two fish Jesus were able to feed a crowd of 5000 men, women and children. Imagine seven pieces of food feeding 5,000 people until they were satisfied and then all of those leftovers, enough to fill twelve baskets. If Jesus performed such a great miracle for those at that time, imagine what He can do for us today. When we put what we have at the Lord’s disposal - our time, our talents, our resources, even our failings - He can do great and wonderful things.
I want to apply this episode to a very concrete example today. Over the past few weeks, I have had the chance to have conversations with several people in the Archdiocese, all of whom have, in one way or the other, asked or told me: Your Eminence, what can we do about what’s going on in our society? So many young people don’t believe in God anymore. Everyone’s watching television. No one’s coming to Church. How can the Church compete against that? What can be done to turn things around? What can be done to end the violence and killings that occur daily in the world? Doubtless you have similar questions and concerns. All of us must. What does Jesus and His Good News shown to us in the Gospel have to say to us about all this?
When we look over our society, we, like the disciples 2000 years ago, see thousands, even millions, who are hungry — yes some definitely for food, but countless others starving for the word of God in their lives, whether they recognize it or not. Rather than come to the place of true nourishment, Jesus, His Word and His actual flesh and blood, they are instead resorting to all types of junk food that isn’t good for them but which fills their appetites so that they no longer hunger for the real food. So many parents, who would never think of failing to feed their children, starve their children spiritually, never taking them to Divine Liturgy or Mass. Most of us feel helpless when we see just how great a need there is, like the apostles must have felt in front of the enormous crowd. Yet Jesus says in the face of such thousands, to you, to me, to each of us, “Give them yourselves something to eat!” Give them yourselves something to eat! And we reply, all we have are minimal talents. We don’t have great influence. How can we possibly give food to such a crowd? Then He adds, “Bring what you have here to Me!” He can multiply our little contributions, and He will, provided that we bring them to Him in confidence and faith.
I would like to give a couple of concrete ways we can do this. First, we can use the simple fact that we have the gift of life, the gift of a smile, the gift of a tongue and voice, to encourage those who are away from Christ to go or return to Him. We can, moreover, like the disciples in the Gospel who brought the bread to others, bring Christ to others where they are. This goes, of course, for friends or family members who are away from the faith. We can invite them back to Church, especially to participation at the Divine Liturgy. This whole neighborhood, this whole city of Utica, is crawling with people who do not go to Church anymore. When was the last time any of us invited someone nicely to come on Sunday? Such an invitation will not really be successful if we just suggest to someone to come to Church. We need to live the type of life, to show the type of joy that Jesus gives us here at Divine Liturgy, in order to attract others to join with us through such joy.
In a little over a month, there will be an Inquiry Session for the parish RCIA program, for those around who have not been baptized, but also for those who have been away from the faith for a long time. There’s more information in the bulletin. Would it not be a real application of today’s Gospel if each of us were to ask at least ONE person we know who does not go to Church or no longer practices their faith to come to that meeting or to come visit our Church? If you think that that person would never come, or never think about becoming an Orthodox Catholic, put confidence in Jesus, who can take your small efforts, and even gentle question, and multiply its effects beyond your imagination.
A second way we can apply this Gospel is through our parish ministries and programs. There are so many people in our community who are in need. It is easy to make a financial contribution to this or that parish project or ministry, but it is a lot harder to give of your time and talent, especially your time. In order to be a true disciple of Christ, we must be willing to set aside our own comfort and personal interests to help and assist our brothers and sisters who are in need. It is by serving others that our faith is made real and inspires others to follow our example, especially when we serve with joy and enthusiasm.
Your prayers and your financial support certainly enable us to spread the faith and do the work of the Lord, but your own physical involvement makes a stronger statement and more vibrant witness. Anybody can write a check. It only takes a few minutes to do that. But to give hours of your time to the physical work of the Church and the parish is a different story. Would it not be a great contribution if the parishioners here at the Cathedral, whom God has blessed so much, together might be able to pitch in and together as a parish give at least five hours a week to help with the ministries, programs and services to the people of Utica and the Mohawk Valley? Again, the few loaves and fish we can give, Jesus can and will multiply.
In Christ, all things are possible. If we give Him what we have, He can do such wondrous things. Look at what He did with Mary’s yes to the Angel Gabriel! Look at what He did to Peter’s profession of faith! Look at what He’s about to do to mere bread and wine! Just as in the Gospel with the loaves, Jesus will look up to heaven, say the blessing, break the bread, give it to His disciples, saying This is My Body — and it really is. This is the one Bread of Life that has been multiplied to feed literally billions throughout the centuries and every week, people who are starving for the Word of God. But just as Jesus told the disciples to distribute the fish and bread to all those who were hungry, so He says to each of us today, to go and distribute Him, His love, His word, to a world that is dying of hunger for Him. If you do that, today, tomorrow and every day, when you arrive one day to see Him in all His glory, He will say to you, “I gave you five loaves and two fish. And you have fed hundreds for Me with that and brought Me a whole basket full of souls.” Well done my good and faithful servant. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world!