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When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” (Matthew 14:15-18)
Jesus’ disciples now point out a new problem: the crowds cannot get food in the “lonely place,” so they need to be dismissed to buy some in the nearby villages. Their request manifests both compassion for the people and anxiety about the problem. Others who perceived problems brought them to Jesus: for example, Jesus’ mother saw the lack of wine at Cana (John 2:1-11); the leper told of his need for cleansing (Mark 1:40-45); and Martha asked for help from Mary (Luke 10:38-42). Unlike Jesus’ mother, however, who instructed the servants in Cana to do whatever Jesus told them (John 2:5), here the disciples give Jesus their own solution to the problem: send the people away to buy food for themselves. They see only the lack of food, and they offer a human solution based on self-sufficiency.
Jesus then offers a suggestion: “You give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:16). Again, the disciples see only what they lack—five loaves and two fish would not satisfy the disciples and Jesus, yet alone the crowd. However, Jesus sees beyond the lack to a possibility that far exceeds the disciples’ imagination to deal with this enormous problem. He tells them to bring the resources they already have, the five loaves and two fish. (Presumably, the fish, available on the west side of the Sea of Galilee, are those known today as St. Peter’s fish, a large, delicious subtropical bass that is still commonly eaten.) The disciples have no idea what he will do, but he is clearly in charge of this situation in a way that perplexes them.
Consider times in the past when you were faced with problems, particularly ones that were both overwhelming and unavoidable. My mother, Lorraine, on the last Christmas before she died, told us children, “I have absolutely no idea how we fed, clothed, and housed you children, because we never had the money to do so, but somehow we always had enough. God did that for us.” While raising the four of us, Mom and Dad were full of anxiety, which was visible to us children, even though we did not understand its causes until we grew up. Yet only in retrospect could my mom and dad see that despite their many worries, God had helped them with their needs as they were raising their family.
Many other families can relate their own experiences of having been out in a lonely place with only God to help. Many individuals who have gone through difficult times, such as being seriously ill or surviving a war or natural disaster, recognize in retrospect that they had only the equivalent of five loaves and two fish but somehow managed.
Consider your own experiences when you had very little to work with. Picture yourself being like the apostles who handed that little bit to Jesus when he asked for it. Speak to Jesus about your past or present anxieties over difficult situations. What does he say to you about your focus on how little you have? What might he ask you to do with that little bit that is overwhelmed by your needs?
Excerpted from Praying the Gospels with Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ: Jesus’ Miracles in Galilee (The Word Among Us Press, 2016). Available at wau.org/books