Pope Francis and the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

Over at Where Peter Is, Mike Lewis looks at a recent teapot tempest among the Francis Haters who, like the enemies of Jesus, are forever vigilant to try to catch him in his words in order to accuse him, because the idea that they could learn from him never enters their proud heads and hard hearts.

It’s like this:

In his Angelus address this morning, Pope Francis spoke about today’s Gospel reading, the Miracle of the Loaves that opens the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John. As he has done in the past, Pope Francis made some points in his description of this miracle that have been known to make some of his critics’ hair stand on end: first, that the miracle wasn’t a “multiplication” in a proper sense; second, that a central message of the miracle is the importance of sharing; and third, that when we bring what little we have to God, he can use it to work wonders.

Due to his emphasis on these themes, those who are inclined to dislike the pope’s message and prone to searching for errors in his teachings have accused him of advancing the so-called “miracle of sharing” favored by theologians and clergy who want to de-emphasize the supernatural nature of this event. According to this telling, Jesus did not feed the multitude by working a miracle that changed a small amount of food into more than enough to feed thousands. Rather,inspired by the generosity of the boy who came forward with five loaves and two fish, the people in the crowd then began to pull out the food they had already brought with them and shared it with others. The idea presented is that the “real miracle” was that everyone started sharing with one another.

This is not in any way what Pope Francis has said about this event (or multiple events, variations of which are recorded six times across the four Gospels). Anyone who attentively reads Pope Francis’s actual words will realize that he is not denying the miraculous nature of the event, but clarifying what the words of scripture say and the lessons that can be drawn from them.

“Not a multiplication”

Pope Francis has stressed this several times, and has been repeatedly criticized for saying this. He did it once again this morning, when he said, “It is interesting that in the accounts of the multiplication of the loaves in the Gospels, the verb ‘multiply’ never appears: no. On the contrary, the verbs used have the opposite meaning: ‘to break,’ ‘to give,’ ‘to distribute’ (cf. v. 11; Mt 14:19; Mk 6:41; Lk 9:16). But the verb ‘to multiply’ is not used.”

This controversy began very early in his papacy. During his June 2, 2013 Angelus, he made the statement, “This is the miracle: rather than a multiplication it is a sharing, inspired by faith and prayer.” He was reflecting on Luke’s account of the miracle (Lk 9:11-17), and once again stressed that the miracle is not a “multiplication.” On August 3, 2014, he was once again accused of denying the miracle when he said, “It isn’t magic, it’s a ‘sign’: a sign that calls for faith in God, provident Father, who does not let us go without ‘our daily bread,’ if we know how to share it as brothers.”

It’s true that we often find the word “multiplication” in the subheadings that precede the accounts of this miracle in the bible. A very common title given to this miracle is “The Multiplication of the Loaves.” But remember, just as chapter and verse numbers were added to the scriptures centuries after they were written, these titles are later additions and not biblical canon either.

The point that Francis is trying to make is that the word “multiplication” isn’t quite right. He explained what he meant in that June 2013 address. He points out what the words of the evangelist actually say: “Jesus then takes those loaves and fish, looks up to heaven, recites the blessing—the reference to the Eucharist is clear—and breaks them and gives them to the disciples who distribute them… and the loaves and fish do not run out, they do not run out! This is the miracle: rather than a multiplication it is a sharing, inspired by faith and prayer. Everyone eats and some is left over: it is the sign of Jesus, the Bread of God for humanity.”

In other words, Jesus doesn’t wave his hands over the five loaves and then suddenly—poof!—bread and fish everywhere! There is something much deeper at work here than a spectacular magic trick. Jesus looks up to heaven, breaks the bread, and hands it to his disciples. His disciples, in turn, break the bread some more and give it to the people. And it doesn’t run out.

This gesture, when understood more fully, is not simply that Jesus made new bread out of nothing, or that he somehow replicated the five loaves into 5,000 loaves. What’s miraculous is that in this miracle, there were never more than five loaves. Jesus breaks from these five loaves and the bread never runs out. And when all had eaten, they “filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves” (Jn 6:13).

As Pope Francis said, “It is little, it is nothing, but it is enough for Jesus.”

It’s a subtle, yet crucial, distinction, which Francis (who has a gift for making himself both provocative and unavoidable) exploits to the full to speak to those who have ears to hear. He is not claiming that the Twoo Miwacwe was that evwybody felt so warm and fuzzy that they all shared their wunches with each other.

Rather, he is pointing out that the boy shared the little that he had, and the apostles shared that, and God made it into an abundance. He who could have created food ex nihilo instead calls us to be participants in his work, which he then turns to abundance. As he put it elsewhere, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works.” He does not in the slightest deny the essential supernatural character of the miracle (bread and fish coming into existence that were not there before). What he emphasizes is, rather, that Jesus refused to start with nothing (as the Trinity did in the beginning). Rather, he insisted on starting with the puny gift the boy and the apostles made of five loaves and two fishes. As Augustine puts it, God made us without us, but he does not save us without us.

This is preaching that is designed, not to deny the miraculous, but to call grabby, clutching, fearful people to be generous with their stuff and trust God, even when it doesn’t look like much to them.

Unsurprisingly, the enemies of the Pope, particularly in this country, are just such people and, unsurprisingly, in their hot pursuit of evidence for the prosecution, they therefore miss the point, not because the point is not there, but because their pride blinds them from seeing it. This too is one of the functions of parables, which are precisely the genre of preaching in the Hebraic tradition by which the prophet speaks truth to corrupt power. So Jesus explains to his disciples his reason for speaking in parables:

“Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. .With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says:

‘You shall indeed hear but never understand,
    and you shall indeed see but never perceive.
.For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are heavy of hearing,
    and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should perceive with their eyes,
    and hear with their ears,
and understand with their heart,
    and turn for me to heal them.’ (Matthew 13:10-15)

The point is not that God spitefully refuses to illumine the minds of his enemies. It is that those who will not see shall get what they want. Those who don’t want to view Francis with charity and try to understand shall get what they want: a view of him colored by their own pitch black malice and hostility.

C.S. Lewis called it long ago:

“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”

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12 Responses

  1. He’s a Latin-American communist who brings harm to the Truth of the Austrian School of Economics. That’s all a true ptariot needs to know.

    End /s

    1. Because of course, as scripture says:
      “The love of money is a root…” hmmm can’t quite remember how it ends, but I’m pretty sure it’s the root of something great, right? It’s gotta be!!

      1. It seems to be the preferred phrasing of the “theologians” Mark mentions who want to de-supernaturalize the Gospels. Keeping the word “miracle” in there, even when you actually mean the opposite, is a cute way of papering over blatant heterodoxy. But my information is second-hand through reading Catholic apologetics books and blogs back during my apologetics phase, so I’m not sure how prevalent it actually is these days (or ever was, I guess).

      2. Yes–a lot of heterodox priests (and pastors, we had this in Protestantism too) in the 1960s-80s in America would deny that there was any real, divine miraculous intervention in the miracle of the loaves and fishes…that it was just people deciding to share what they already had. It’s an American Baby Boomer culture war shibboleth IOW. One that was disingenuously read into the take Francis had on it, which is just not at all the same thing.

  2. This was a pretty tendentious misreading on the part Francis critics. I get the distinct feeling sometimes that they aren’t really criticizing Francis, but rather using him as a proxy to fight the cultural battles of the 1970s for the 500000000000000000th time. Yeah, there were priests and pastors who promoted the demytholigizing of the miracle using the reading that it was just sharing with nothing (at least, nothing truly, in the literal sense) miraculous involved–but as is made clear, this isn’t what Francis was doing.

  3. At this point in my life seeing people share would be the bigger miracle. Really.

    There are plenty of other miracles to go around. The lame walk! The blind see! The lepers made clean! Dude that was dead coming out of his tomb! I was just thinking about that odd moment when Jesus told his disciples to catch that fish which had the coin they needed in its mouth. Sheesh.

    The prima donnas should do penance by feeding some people. Bunch of crybabies.

    1. Like I said, this is somehting of shibboleth for a certian kind of Baby Boomer in a way that the others aren’t. I will rejoice when the day comes in which nobody will be relitigating 1960s-70s campus slapflights.

      1. You are right. It’s a knee jerk reaction for something that they think they are already experts about. (“Been there done that bought the T-shirt”). I’m sure Pope Francis is familiar with the pet peeves of these types of armchair theologians, so saying it one more time wasn’t a faux pas on his part. He obviously thinks the point really needs to be driven home. That’s what a parent does when they see signs of arrested development. Most of the time parents need to bite their tongue (choosing my battles!) But a bad parent either opts for peace at all costs or authoritarianism.

        What is it about baby boomers? It seems like American triumphalism went to their heads. The siege at the capitol was conducted by people who obviously never grew up. There is something particularly disturbing about old people acting out like indulged adolescents. At least the adolescent has youth and beauty in their corner. The 75 y.o. temper tantrum is just disgusting from every angle.

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