What does this miracle teach us?
It’s significant, I think, that the miracle we hear about in today’s Gospel is the only miracle (apart from the Resurrection!) which is related by all four evangelists. This is clearly an important event in the Lord’s ministry, and it contains lessons for us.
Some Christians cite this gospel to support the so-called ‘prosperity gospel.’ This is a doctrine, with roots in the Old Testament, which suggests that material prosperity can be a measure of God’s blessing. More importantly, if a person is faithful to Christ, and lives according to Gospel values, then God will bless them with material wealth. The feeding of the 5,000, it is argued, demonstrates this. Our Lord responds to the people’s needs, and then some. The twelve baskets of left over foods is testament to God’s super-abundance.
The experience of the saints, however, tell us something different. Miracles which impacted St Jean-Marie Vianney and St John Bosco come to mind, but instead I’ll cite a much more local example. This is one of many similar stories I’ve heard from many people.
A couple I know in Hamilton have many children of their own, and they’ve fostered a great many more – some temporarily, others permanently. For many years the household has included ten children or more. A few years ago, the mother of all these children resolved it was time for a holiday. People were tired, tempers were short, and relationships were frayed. As you might imagine, the household is seldom flush with cash, but that didn’t concern her. A holiday was needed, and she prayed that God would provide.
So the holiday was booked a month in advance, on the hope and prayer that the funds would accumulate in time. As time passed though, the money was not found to pay for the holiday accommodation. The family forged ahead anyway, putting their faith in Providence. On the very morning of the holiday, as the family drove off the farm, they stopped at the mailbox. There they found a cheque whose amount coincided precisely with the sum needed to pay for their holiday accommodation.
This, it seems to me, is precisely how God works. We can ask for material blessings just as we ask for spiritual graces, but where God will give a thousand times the spiritual favours we request, God’s material generosity is more circumspect. God gives material blessings as needed, and no more. The reason is self-evident. We humans are susceptible to material attachments which are deadly to the life of faith. Material abundance typically does us more harm than good, and God will never harm us.
Today’s Collect acknowledges this very point:
O God, protector of those who hope in you,
without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy,
bestow in abundance your mercy upon us
and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide,
we may use the good things that pass
in such a way as to hold fast even now
to those that ever endure.
Besides, it’s notable that our Lord instructs the disciples to collect the left-overs, “so that nothing gets wasted.” Jesus has no intention of permitting the crowds to be gluttonous, taking more than needed. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the prosperity gospel!
So what lessons can we learn from this miracle?
Firstly: God is sensitive to our material and spiritual needs. We can trust in Him whenever our resources fall short. We should use whatever resources we do have — even if they are plainly inadequate. God will supply what is lacking.
Secondly, God will recruit us to do his work, if we are willing. Our Lord could have worked this miracle without any input from others, but he deliberately collaborated with the disciples, despite their poverty of resources. This is true for us also. We think we don’t have the words or the eloquence to spiritually nourish others. Or we don’t have the goodness or authority to speak about God. After all, who are we?
The answer is one we easily forget. We are children of God, baptised into the Body of Christ, and nourished by His Word and his Sacred Body and Blood. The Holy Spirit dwells within us, ready to infuse our words and actions with God’s grace.
Our own apostolates, unlike our Lord’s, are rarely spectacular. We serve God in simple and mundane ways — in our kindness towards strangers; friendliness towards acquaintances; and our dedication to family and friends. Let’s not neglect the material: our punctuality; our temperance and self-denial; our care for books and computers and tools. But by our habitual, day-to-day struggle to do the small things well, we grow in virtue. And by doing that, we draw closer to the Lord.
So let’s pray today that we make use of the resources the Lord gives us, even if they seem inadequate, so that we can attend to the spiritual and material needs of those people whom God puts on our path.