What first strikes us is the vastness of the crowd: five thousand men, a whole lot more women - and children everywhere. The disciples want to send them away. For sure the "masses" bring a feeling of excitement and power, but they also have endless needs - and complaints. The pull of the "small, intimate group" can seem irresistible.
In thinking about great numbers of people we can learn from C.S. Lewis. He and a friend were travelling past one of the huge housing projects in post World War II England. His friend remarked on all the people crowded into those tenements. C.S. Lewis responded, "Yes, but think of all those souls!"
Jesus did not see people as statistics, faceless crowds, but rather as individual souls each with an eternal destiny: union with him and the Father in the communion of saints. For that reason he refused to be "practical," that is, send them away. Rather he instructs the disciples to give them something to eat. They could only come up with some rough loaves and small fish. To offer that to the crowd would be like waving a biscuit before a hungry lion. He would prefer your hand, if not your whole body.
But Jesus seems unconcerned. He does take one practical measure in having the people "recline." Another Gospel says he organized them in groups of fifty (Lk 9:14). John simply states that he distributed the loaves and fish, so that each one got as much as he wanted.
We must keep this miracle firmly in our minds when we minister to crowds - weddings, funerals, even weekend Masses. Otherwise we can fall into an elitism contrary to the Catholic spirit. At the same time I cannot help wonder if some of those present were like people today, maybe expecting a little bit more. After all Isaiah had prophesied a messianic banquet, "a feast of the finest foods, choice wine and the best meats." (Is. 25:6) Instead they got barley loaves - the food of the lower class. If you've never tasted it, barley makes a coarse bread (although in some ways it has more nutritional value than regular wheat). And the fish were probably the sardines which abounded in the Sea of Galilee. Hardly a sumptuous feast. I can even hear a few people saying, "But I wasn't fed."
The dissatisfaction can be seen in the people demanding something more, something Jesus in no way was going to give them. They desire a leader who will vindicate them - now. They attempt to "carry him off to make him king." Jesus did not demur like a modern politician. He did not even try to reason with them. He simply "withdrew."
Jesus had taken the bread, given thanks (in Greek, eucharisteo, Eucharist), and distributed it, but that was not enough for many people. They had no patience to consider what the sign meant. Well, St. John provides an in-depth reflection on its meaning. We will have the Sundays of August to ponder it, to ask why it is so precious that even small "fragments" would be gathered up.
For now I only request this: If you are in some way disappointed with Jesus or with his Church, please be honest as you can about the cause of your dissatisfaction. Before saying "I was not fed," first examine the nature of your hunger and the exact food Jesus offers.
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