In this story everything is on a huge scale. Even the setting for the story is immense: it is the first mention of Jesus crossing the sea of Galilee, at the far side of which is a wide space where “a huge crowd” could gather. Jesus feeds the thousands. They not only have plenty, they have twelve baskets of bread left over.
It all speaks to us about immensity, about abundance: not the kind of abundance that comes from careful gathering and accounting (the people had come with no food); still less the kind that comes from defrauding one’s neighbours; but the abundance of God's providence.
“Lifting up his eyes, he saw the crowd...” (verse 5). It seems he wants us too to lift up our eyes, and not to live our lives by addition and subtraction, when he is able to multiply goodness towards us.
Contrasted with the immensity of everything in that scene is the poverty of resources: five barley loaves and two fish to feed thousands of people. Why this sharp contrast?
Miracles seem to happen in situations of scarcity rather than plenty. Why? Because where there is plenty there is no need of miracles. Where there is plenty you don't have to struggle, you don't have to come up against realities too painfully, you ease your way through everything with a cheque-book. But in the story they had almost nothing. There were only five loaves to feed thousands. And they were barley loaves. This was the cheapest kind of bread; in fact barley was really considered animal-feed. It is only the very poor who would eat barley loaves. To be poor is to have no resources. That can have one of two effects: it can turn people in on themselves, filling them with resentment and self-pity; or it can turn them outwards to a real experience of God’s Providence. Poverty can break people’s spirit, that is why it is so urgent to fight against it. But equally, or more so, riches can destroy the human spirit, muffling it against reality and against God. Here is a rule of thumb: if you want a miracle, give something away, to make room for it.
Sitting on the ground is also a symbol of poverty and even powerlessness. We don’t often sit on the ground nowadays, and hardly ever at Mass, but when we are at Mass we are those disciples in John 6, sitting on the ground (figuratively), in humility and simplicity, sharing our poverty and (because of it) sharing the Lord’s gift.
In John’s gospel there is no account of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Instead, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, and said, equivalently, “Do this in memory of me.” It is another kind of communion. Without that communion which is the service of others, the communion of the Eucharist is robbed of its fruit in one’s life.
Disciples in every century have continued to recognise him in service of others and in “the breaking of bread.”
By Donagh O’Shea