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WHAT WAS THE REAL MIRACLE OF THE LOAVES AND FISHES?
Perhaps one of the most beloved of all of Jesus' miracles recorded in the gospels is that in which he took a few loaves of bread and some dried fish, blessed them and had them distributed to the throngs of followers who had been spending the day listening to his teachings. We are told that through this act, he fed a crowd of some 5,000 (some accounts state 3,000) hungry men, women and children, and did so with such efficacy that there were basketfuls of food scraps left over afterwards. This single miracle apparently so impressed the writers of the Bible that it is the only one that is recorded in all four gospels, and is commonly pointed to as evidence of God's miraculous ability to provide for our needs.
Scholars have debated whether this miracle actually occurred, however. It would seem to be pushing the limits of credulity to imagine Jesus managing to feed so many people with just a few morsels of food, but then Jesus' ministry was known for its many miracles, of which this is just one more example. As such, it would seem presumptuous to dismiss this event as being literally true unless we are prepared to dismiss many-indeed, even all-of Jesus' many reported miracles.
Or could there be another possibility to explain this remarkable event?
The Story as
As traditionally taught, this story tells us that Jesus-through the power of prayer-literally replicated the fishes and loaves and in so doing satisfied the hunger of the multitudes that had been following him that day. In effect, Jesus supposedly took the initial loaves and bread and, using them as a sort of organic template, replicated hundreds or thousands of copies and distributed them among the people, and in so doing demonstrated God's dominion over His creation and ability to provide for even our most basic physical needs.
What's curious about the story is the recounting of where he got the fish and loaves from in the first place. One might think that his entourage of disciples and followers would have taken care of such details and provided their Master lunch, which he magnanimously chose to share with the people, but the story tells us the offering came from a boy in the crowd who had the good sense to bring his lunch to the event. In a truly touching act of selflessness, he graciously offered it to Jesus, thereby demonstrating a very Christ-like consciousness and forever enshrining his gesture as a wonderful act of kindness for future generations to emulate.
The Real Story
But wait a second. Something's wrong here. All four gospels agree that there were literally thousands of people there that day, yet we are to imagine this boy is the only one who thought of bringing a little snack for what surely was anticipated to be an all-day event. Didn't anyone else consider the idea that morning before setting out? It seems unlikely.
Even if the poorest among them didn't have the means to pack a small lunch or some had gotten so caught up in the event that they had simply overlooked such details, it's difficult to imagine that no one-with the exception of this one boy-thought to bring something to eat with them. This is especially hard to swallow when we consider that Jesus attracted people from all walks of life and income brackets, so we can imagine that among the throngs of the poor and downtrodden were a number of wealthy people: merchants, tax collectors, perhaps a number of priests or scribes-people who would certainly have the means to bring provisions to the event. (Some may even have brought servants to address such needs.) As such, we can safely deduce that a substantial proportion of the more affluent among them had plenty of food. It just so happened that the boy with the loaves and fishes was the only one who was so moved by Jesus' words that day he chose to act on them.
What happened next changed everything.
The Real Miracle
Imagine the scene: the crowd is hot and tired. Many have been baking under a relentless sun all day and still have a long trek back to their homes. Jesus knew some of them would likely grow faint from a lack of food and was likely frustrated that there were those in the crowd who had brought provisions-and probably more than was required for their own needs-but were disinclined to share with those who lacked the means to pack even a simple meal. Here he had been preaching about loving one's neighbor and doing unto others as they would have others do unto them and yet when it came time to put those words in action-nothing. Finally, a boy stepped forward and offered to share his meager meal in that young man Jesus saw an opportunity to teach the crowd a lesson in sharing. Making a gaudy show of the boy's offering and even raising the loaves and fishes to Heaven to thank God for his unending provisions undoubtedly shamed some in the crowd. Here this poor boy was giving up what was likely his only meal of the day for the benefit of others while they sat on sacks of provisions intended solely for themselves and their families. Then, as the disciples started distributing the small morsels among the crowd, I suggest a few of the more conscientious among them suddenly "got" Jesus' message and offered their provisions as well. In an overwhelming groundswell of empathy and compassion, one by one each stood and began distributing what he had to the less fortunate around them as well until all were fed. In fact, so much access food had been brought, there was more than enough for everyone-precisely as Jesus suspected!
I suppose Jesus could've done a feat of magic and simply replicated the leaves and fish, as is the traditional teaching, but I think such would have been the lesser miracle. The greater miracle would be in softening the hearts of his listeners until they were able to look beyond class distinctions and treat each other as true brothers and sisters. That was the real miracle, and was such a poignant and indelible lesson that it easily made it into all four gospels because of the powerful message it carried about the need for each of us to take care of our fellow human being's needs, regardless of status or means.
Of course, I may be wrong about that, but it's something to think about.
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