Feeding of the 5,000 Today
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, God is one.
This miracle of Christ feeding a large crowd on the shore of the Sea of Galilee occurs in all four gospels. So it is important, but what does it mean for us today? The interpretation of St Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop of Jerusalem in the 4th century, has been summarized as: “Christ’s feeding of the multitude is an example for all of us to be bold in believing that with God all things are possible.” St Cyril’s precise words were: “Just because we are powerless to accomplish anything, we should not be [limited] by our inability to understand how [God] will accomplish things beyond our understanding. . . . [Then we will] be confirmed” says St Cyril, “in hope through steadfast faith in the power of God to multiply even our smallest acts of goodness.” That is a powerful insight. As St John relates in Chapter 14 of his gospel, the feeding of the 5,000 began when one “lad” was prepared to offer Christ his “five barley loaves and two fish.” Acts of great significance, such as the feeding of the 5,000, begin with what St Cyril called a small act “of goodness.” Therefore, what this gospel is saying to me and perhaps to you is: “Become bolder in our prayer for Christ to intervene more powerfully in our own lives and in the lives of all of those whom we touch in love and caring concern.”
Reflecting on the feeding of the 5,000, St Cyril explains that “what is beyond our comprehension is received by faith and not by investigation.” That is a striking juxtaposition of two words—“faith” and “investigation.” I often make the mistake of thinking that “investigation” should always precede “faith”, that I should always carry out a thorough inquiry into something or someone before I ask God in faith to deal with that situation or person which is “beyond my comprehension.” St Cyril says quite clearly, “No! I and you do not always need to investigate carefully a situation or a person in need of prayer.” It may be none of our business, other than to recognise the need for prayer. Whatever our ages—young or old or in between—if we can’t understand why something is happening, we sometimes need to learn to trust the Lord to deal with it, rather than to analyse and reflect on possible outcomes of our prayer.
A card from the Carmelite Monastery in Quidenham, Norfolk, reminds us how the 19th century Carmelite nun, Thérèse of Lisieux, knew that God had, as she phrased it, “set me full sail upon the ocean of confidence and love.” That is prayer. That is what the Holy Spirit gives to all Christians when we pray—setting us “full sail upon the ocean of confidence and love” that God will respond to our prayers. Now, God’s response may not be what we anticipate. We may not receive precisely what we request. Thérèse, for example, became a nun at the age of 17 and died from tuberculosis only seven years later at the age of 24.
Many years ago now, Sylvia and I visited Lisieux in France with its monastery, the childhood home of Thérèse and the large basilica erected nearby. We learned quite a lot from that visit—especially that holiness radiates beyond its origins; and that perhaps in the situation of Thérèse, it was not her home or her upbringing that mattered but her prayer life. In her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, she stressed that “what matters most in life is not great deeds, but just love;” and her spirituality has been described as “doing the ordinary, with extraordinary love.” Her “little way” has perhaps different aims than the approach of St Cyril, but they would have been at ease in each other’s company.
St Cyril of Alexandria was well aware that he was going to have a hard time convincing his own congregation of their competence to feed 5,000 men with a large number of accompanying women and children. At that time, Jewish men ate separately from women and children. Imagine the scene: here are perhaps 10,000 people hungry, in an isolated rural place at twilight. Christ is hardly going to feed the men and leave the women and children hungry, nor is He going to feed the women and children and leave the men hungry. Whatever is going to happen must be in such a manner that everyone, whatever their age or sex is treated equally. Clearly, without prior notice, none of the little stores in the surrounding villages or nearby farms are going to be able to feed these 10,000. St Cyril is rather blunt and quite tough as he preaches to his own congregation. He tells them: “Let no one say, ‘I do not possess suitable means; what I can do is altogether trifling and insufficient for many.” On the contrary, St Cyril reminds his congregation, as we are reminded by him today that “the Saviour will multiply your little [attempt to help others] many times beyond your expectation, and though you give but little, you will receive much. For he who sows blessings will also reap blessings, according to the blessed Paul’s words.”
The Scriptural passage of which St Cyril is reminding both his congregation and this congregation is from the Second Book of Corinthians, Chapter 9, Verses 6 to 8: “The point is this, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one should do just as he has purposed in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good deed.” For me, two phrases stand out in the Holy Spirit in those words from St Paul. First, that each of us have been given the ability, as St Paul phrases it, “to purpose in our hearts” the possibility of helping others. Second, whether or not we will succeed in our intentions depends not on us and our ideas, but rather on the reality, as St Paul phrases it, that God “is able to make all grace abound [in each of us].”
In the following verses, St Paul develops a link between serving others and thanking God: “For the ministry of this service is not only fully supplying the needs of [others], but is also overflowing through many thanksgivings to God. Because of the proof given by this ministry, you will glorify God by your obedience in acknowledging the gospel of Christ, and by the generosity of your contribution to them and to all, while they also, by prayer on your behalf, yearn for you because of the surpassing grace of God in you. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift.” What St Cyril and St Paul are saying is that we are not required on our own to feed 10,000 people. We are only asked to discern and supply the needs of others, supported and inspired by the grace given to us by God. In the act of seeking to serve we are at the same time giving thanksgiving to God—thanks for the opportunity to serve, thanks for the grace that empowers our service, and also thanks that God has created an interdependent world in which we can relate to Him and to others, opening admitting our own needs, while also seeking to meet the needs of others.
St John Chrysostom has pointed out an event set out in the Old Testament of which the apostles would have been quite aware, but I was not. In the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 4, Verses 42 to 44, in the midst of a famine, the prophet Elisha was given 20 loaves of barley that had been brought to him to feed 100 men. It was pointed out to Elisha that this was not sufficient for the large number of hungry people before him; however, Elisha replied, “Give them to the people that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left over.’ And so [Elisha] set the bread before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the Lord.” Every apostle would have known immediately that Christ was telling them that the grace given by God to Elisha had now come to Him; and this grace that had descended on Elisha and then on Christ to meet the needs of others was “according to the word of the Lord.”
St Cyril of Alexandria is telling his congregation and us that “according to the word of the Lord” we too have been empowered by God to help others, not with grand acts that demonstrate our competence, but with little acts that demonstrate our humility. Let us rejoice together in our limited, but significant, capacity to meet the needs of others.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen . Deacon Emmanuel Kahn