The multiplication of the loaves and fishes that we read about at Sunday Mass this week was a miracle so astonishing that it is recounted in all four Gospels. And a second, similar instance is recorded in another Gospel. In other words, this sort of miracle by Jesus is recounted five times within the four Gospels.
There are many theological reasons for this. Clearly, Jesus was fulfilling the promise of Moses: that after him a greater One would arise who would also feed the people mysteriously with bread. There are also many Eucharistic and spiritual dimensions to the miracle.
But in this reflection I would like to ponder the notion that this miracle of satisfying our physical hunger is one writ large in our times. While many wish that the astounding miracles of the Scriptures were more evident today, I would like to argue that the miracle of the loaves and fishes and God’s promise to care for His people is right before our very eyes.
And while there is hunger in the world today, it is not due to God, but to human struggles and human sinfulness.
More on the question of hunger in a moment. But first, let’s ponder the work of God to feed us and see how He has multiplied our loaves and fishes.
In the Book of Genesis, God blessed Adam and Eve and said to them,
“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant-yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit-yielding seed; it shall be food for you …” (Gen 1:28-29)
God would repeat a similar blessing and instruction to Noah, adding meat to the diet as well.
So note that God wanted the human family to grow and promised to supply food for us. Even after the fall of Original Sin, although God told Adam that his harvesting would come “by the sweat of your brow,” there would be a harvest.
In the first reading from Sunday’s Mass, Elisha said, “For thus says the LORD, ‘They shall eat and there shall be some left over.’” And when they had eaten, there was some left over, as the LORD had said (2 Kings 4:43-44).
So God did establish the general truth that the earth would provide adequate food for His people. And while there might be local famines or droughts, on the whole, the earth would provide.
In more recent times, as the world’s population has continued to grow, some have cast doubt on the capacity of the earth to supply food for us. In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote an influential essay in which he predicted that our population was approaching a critical stage and that it would soon outdistance the food supply, bringing on mass starvation. Since that time many others have posited similar doomsday scenarios, and though the projected date of the crisis varied, they predicted that the scenario would surely come.
But although the world’s population is now more than 7 billion people, there remains a remarkably stable, even increasing, food supply. So abundant is agriculture here in the U.S. that the government actually encourages, through subsidies, farmers NOT to plant certain crops. We even burn a lot of corn for fuel. I do not report these things because I necessarily approve of them, but only to show that basic foods are produced by this earth in abundance.
Now there are some who will want to dispute the claim that our earth is producing in abundance. They will point to declines in arable land, desertification, etc. But for centuries now, one doomsday scenario after another has failed to materialize. The population continues to grow, and yet there is still food in relative abundance.
And though many (perhaps understandably) like Phillip and the Apostles cry out, “How can we ever get food to feed this multitude?” the Lord and His earth continue to provide for us. In a way, the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes is writ large by modern agriculture.
Surely, though, just as the Lord used the five loaves and two fishes in the lakeside miracle, He involves us in the solution to feeding the planet today. The miracle of multiplied food sources comes from God, but interacts with human ingenuity. Consider the human role:
- Agricultural technology, soil management, insect control, etc. have all increased the yield of crops many times over. God has given us intellects and blessed our capacity to learn what works to increase the harvest.
- There is the emergence of a worldwide economy and the transportation to be able to harvest crops from all over the world. Localized droughts and even just the change of the seasons no longer have the impact on the food supply that they once did. Trouble in one area can be mitigated by supply from another area. Winter in one area can be covered for by summer in another.
- Animal husbandry, fisheries, and other technologies also foster a great increase in meats, fishes, and dairy products.
So our five loaves and two fishes do matter!
Granted, some of these technologies are controversial from an environmental point of view. If we can make the desert bloom, should we? Should we genetically modify things, and if so, how much and how often? What pesticides are OK to use and what are their side effects? How much water can and should be used for agriculture? Is building dams helpful or harmful?
This is not a blog to debate such matters. But without suggesting either blanket approval or blanket condemnation of such technologies, the fact remains that the earth continues to provide abundant food. And it does so in a way that the ancient world, or even more recently Thomas Malthus, would consider astonishing (and I would say, miraculous). As atomic physics has shown, even tiny amounts of matter contain enormous energy locked within them.
God’s promise to provide food for the human family, whom He told to “multiply to fill the earth,” remains stubbornly true, despite the doubters and the doomsday predictions of recent centuries.
But what of hunger? Clearly there is not an even distribution of food on our planet. There are areas where people go relatively hungry. Often, the poor do not have adequate access to good food supply. As food sometimes rots in American silos, is burned for fuel, or is even deliberately not planted, other regions struggle. As many Americans blithely cast food into the trash after meals, others would pine for the scraps from our tables.
Yet note that this is not a lack on the part of God. The earth supplies what we need, but that does not preclude human sinfulness or other factors from allowing hunger to continue. Consider that hunger in the modern world is often caused by things like
- local corruption that blocks food from reaching the poor,
- poor infrastructure (e.g., roads, landing strips) to bring food in, and
- greed and hoarding.
How to best address these factors is a matter of controversy, and is beyond the scope of this blog post and my blog as a whole.
But the point I wish to emphasize is that the miracle of the loaves and fishes, even from the standpoint of merely physical food sources, is writ large today. It is a miracle the way this earth, as God has given it, supplies our needs even as we “fill the earth.” God did not command what He could not provide for. If He told us to multiply, fill, and subdue the earth, then He also asks us to trust Him. Bringing the loaves and fishes of our minds and our ingenuity to the table, with God’s grace and the earth He has given us, we have partnered to produce an abundant harvest!
Are there hungry people? Yes. And this is a disgrace rooted not in God, but in us. God Himself counsels us not merely to build bigger barns so as to hoard our excess food. Rather, He advises that we should “store” it in the stomachs of the poor and needy (cf Luke 12:13-21).
God is faithful and true to His promise. The earth has yielded its fruit, God our God has blessed us (Ps 67:6).
An even more widespread problem today is spiritual starvation. I’ll address that topic in tomorrow post.