By Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
Do you believe in miracles? Thomas Jefferson, the chief architect of the Declaration of Independence, certainly didn’t! Still, he held Jesus in high esteem, writing that Jesus was responsible for “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals” ever offered.
In 1820 Jeff erson produced a volume called “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” Literally cut and pasted from the Gospels, his book omitted all the miracles, everything that smacked of the supernatural, and every claim to Jesus’ divinity. Although this so-called “Jefferson Bible” was never published during his lifetime, between 1904 and into the 1950s the U.S. Government Printing Office provided a copy to new senators and new members of the House of Representatives.
This Sunday’s reading from Matthew didn’t make it into Jefferson’s version of the Gospels, yet the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes has both fascinated and frustrated many generations of interpreters. How did Jesus manage to feed so many people with so little? Some opine that there was nothing miraculous about this impromptu potluck. They argue that the disciples’ generosity with their own
provisions inspired the crowd to share what they had brought along instead of keeping it for themselves. While Jefferson might have smiled at this effort to explain the miracle away, the Gospel says nothing about what the crowd was or wasn’t inspired to do, only that “they all ate and were satisfied.”
If this impressive picnic can’t be dismissed as a miracle of mass generosity, what can we conclude about the view of skeptics that the episode is pure fiction? Can we write it off as easily as Jefferson did? Scholars note that this is the only miracle found in all four Gospels.
All include the feeding of more than 5,000 people, and Matthew and Mark also tell of another occasion at which some 4,000 feasted on the same menu. To assess the historicity of specific Gospel narratives, we rely on the principle of multiple attestation. That means the more witnesses we have, the more certain the historicity of the event to which they testify. Because both Matthew and Luke both rely on Mark, the repetition of this miracle in these three Gospels is not the strongest case for multiple attestation. Yet the fact that we also find the feeding of five thousand in John’s Gospel — composed independently of the other Gospels — is compelling evidence for the historicity of this event and its importance.
As the dust of the historicity debate settles, we can reckon appreciatively with what Matthew faithfully handed on to us. At the end of a long day, the disciples approach Jesus proposing that he “dismiss the crowds so that
they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus insists instead, “give them some food yourselves,” not even acknowledging their complaint about the bread and fish they were saving for their own supper.
After pronouncing the blessing, Jesus breaks the bread and hands it to them for distribution to the hungry
thousands. The people in the crowd have no clue that anything out of the ordinary is going on. Matthew tells us only that “they all ate and were satisfied.” It’s the disciples who learn how a little goes a long way when they collect twelve baskets of leftovers! No doubt they remembered that surprising meal on the night when Jesus pronounced the blessing at their last supper with him, sharing with them not bread and fish but his own body and blood.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples get plenty of special attention from Jesus. His Sermon on the Mount is
addressed to them, not to the crowds. After hearing the parable of the sower, the disciples approach Jesus asking why he teaches the crowds only in parables. He answers, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them, it has not been granted.” Why such privilege? Borrowing a line from Luke’s Gospel, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:48). If much was entrusted to the first disciples, more has been entrusted to us who benefit from their example and their testimony! What is expected of us?
Nourished by the Word of Truth and the Bread of Life — the Eucharist for which these difficult months have made us so hungry — we are called to be generous with whatever we have, just as Jesus instructed his earliest disciples to “give them some food yourselves.” Faith-filled disciples in our diocese have been doing just
that, with Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens providing for many of our sisters and brothers impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. May their efforts in Jesus’ name be multiplied many times over, and may we follow their example of living as disciples who hear and heed the words of our Teacher and Savior!
Readings for Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 145:8-9, 15-16, 17-18
Romans 8:35, 37-39
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica.