The danger of reducing miracles
A Reflection for the Memorial of St. Scholastica, virgin
Find today’s readings here.
In those days when there again was a great crowd without anything to eat,
Jesus summoned the disciples and said,
“My heart is moved with pity for the crowd,
because they have been with me now for three days
and have nothing to eat.
If I send them away hungry to their homes,
they will collapse on the way,
and some of them have come a great distance.”
His disciples answered him, “Where can anyone get enough bread
to satisfy them here in this deserted place?”
Still he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?”
They replied, “Seven.”
He ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground.
Then, taking the seven loaves he gave thanks, broke them,
and gave them to his disciples to distribute,
and they distributed them to the crowd.
They also had a few fish.
He said the blessing over them
and ordered them distributed also.
They ate and were satisfied.
They picked up the fragments left over–seven baskets.
There were about four thousand people. (Mk 8:1-10)
I grew up in the era when Jesus’ miracles of feeding the multitudes—both the miracle described today and the better-known “feeding of the 5,000” that appears in all four Gospels—were often chalked up to Jesus’ inspirational words to those gathered, which caused them to bring forth the food they had hidden for themselves. So great was Jesus’ generosity, such an analysis goes, that he convinced everyone to give of what they had so that all might be fed. A Scripture teacher I had in high school who was somewhat hostile to this interpretation gave it an entertaining gloss: “Ah yes, Jesus the Communist.”
I don’t mind the idea of Jesus the Communist myself, but the move to reduce the miraculous to an example of human generosity runs into two problems almost immediately: First, it is inconsistent with the Jesus we find in the rest of Mark’s Gospel, who is fully capable of miraculous deeds (in fact, he heals a blind man 12 verses later); and second, it removes from the story a Eucharistic motif that has been there for two millennia of interpretation and exegesis.
Note that Jesus doesn’t perform this miracle so that people might recognize him as the Messiah; nor does he do it to reward someone’s faith, as we see elsewhere in the Gospels. No, Jesus’ concern here seems to be a material one. He is worried about how the people who have gathered to hear him will get home safely. “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat,” he says. “If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will collapse on the way, and some of them have come a great distance.” Bread for the journey, in other words, was broken and given to them. Something much more significant than a group share is happening here: Jesus shows that he can and will give them the sustenance necessary to hear his message and return home. Isn’t that the same logic behind Sunday Mass for us? We travel to hear the Word of God; we receive the Eucharist, blessed and broken; and we return home, hopefully, energized and rejuvenated (perhaps even made well) for our Christian life.
Maybe we came a great distance; maybe we stumbled on the way. Jesus—in the Gospel and in the flesh—does not send us away.