Notice how Jesus works through his apostles.
He could have easily fed the multitude himself with bread from heaven. He could have rained down manna upon this great throng in a lonely place as he did upon the Israelites in the wilderness. He is himself the bread from heaven (John 6:32-35). But note that he does not say to his disciples, “I will feed them.” Rather, he says, “you feed them.”[*] “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (Matt 14:16).
Certainly, it is Jesus and Jesus alone who works the miracle that makes it possible to feed thousands of people with five loaves and two fish (Matt 14:17-21). All four gospels record this miracle. It is so astounding and full of meaning that none could skip over it.
It is a testament to the divinity of Jesus Christ. It identifies him with the God of Israel who feeds his people in the wilderness. It is surely a divine work and not the work of humans acting on their own.
But still, Jesus chooses to carry out this work through his disciples. Still, he identifies their work with his by saying, “you give them something to eat.”
When he said that, he already knew they would have only five loaves and two fish. This is Jesus we’re talking about. He knows everything. Yet still he tells them to give the crowds something to eat. He knew they would require his help. Yet he still wanted to make it their work and not his alone.
Through these ministrations of the disciples, Jesus works his great and compassionate miracle of feeding the multitude. This signifies that it is through the apostles and their successors that God will make himself present to his people in every age.[†]His disciples bring him the five loaves and the two fish. And after he blesses them and breaks them, he gives the loaves to his disciples and the disciples give them to the crowds. And after all have eaten and are satisfied, the twelve disciples pick up the twelve baskets full of broken pieces left over (Matt 14:18-20).
So, if you want a religion or a spirituality that doesn’t require working with and through other people, then you don’t want to follow the way that Jesus has shown us. He gives us one another. He ministers to us through one another.
As an example of this, there was a former practice in the ancient Church, at least in some places, that even a bishop would always receive the eucharist from a concelebrant. Nowadays, we priests place the body of Christ in our own hands, but this was not always the case. And, when the bishop is here, you’ll notice that he gives me communion in the same way as you see me give the deacon communion. This testifies to the truth that, no matter what our role or order is, God gives us himself to us through one another.
How then are we to participate in this self-giving of God to one another?
Jesus shows us the way. After his disciples bring him the five loaves and two fish, the first thing Jesus does is look up to heaven. He does this by way of giving us example. As St. Cyril of Alexandria says, “He himself is the one who fills all things, the true blessing from above and from the father.” Yet, even though he is the blessing, “he looks up to heaven as though asking for the blessing from above.”[‡] He does this for our sake – toteach us by example – in his humanity – how to act as his ministers over the things he has given us.
We are all stewards of some part of his creation. Each of us has something he has given us to care for and to be used for the good of his people. We all have some small gift to give, rather like the five loaves and two fish. When we give it, he will multiply it and make abundant what was insufficient.
What we must do, first of all, when deciding what to offer and how to offer it, and before we offer it, lest we squander it, we must, like Jesus, look up to heaven. We must remember the source of every good thing. We must keep our minds and our hearts and our attention fixed there.[§] We must practice an awareness of the heavenly Kingdom to which we are called and in which we live even now inasmuch as we are looking up to heaven over and about everything we have to consider.
How many of us, when we are giving something, think that we are giving it from ourselves? Do I say to myself, “I am so generous,” as I place my offering in the basket? Or, worse, “now they owe me something”?
The truth is, whatever we give to anyone is actually from the Lord. It belongs to him. “Lend without expecting repayment,” our Lord teaches us (Luke 6:35). This makes a lot of sense only when we remember that whatever it was that we lent actually belonged to the Lord all along. All things are his and he has made us stewards of his creation.
So, let us give to one another cheerfully and without holding back – as icons of God’s generous outpouring of grace. Let us give to each other as Jesus gives food to the thousands. Let us give abundantly. If we give begrudgingly or with the expectation of getting our own way in return, then we darken and obscure the image of our generous God, which yearns to shine from within us.
Today, he gives us example of how we are to share what we have with all and in common. Note that the disciples give each person the same food. Some are not getting grilled swordfish while others make do with boiled grass carp. From one and the same source all partake of the simple food until each is satisfied.
The worthy and the unworthy eat together there – the sinner and the saint – and Jesus alone knew which was which, and yet he gives to all the same. Judas was there with the other disciples, too. And there were twelve baskets to pick up at the end, one for each of the twelve apostles to bear, including Judas.[**]
There is to be no judging of who deserves what in the giving, but we are to give to all who ask and to all alike. If we are to follow the way of Jesus, we must become the ones through whom he nourishes and leads others. And we must also recognize with humility that he will nourish us and lead us through other people.
Going it alone will not get us there. It is not the way. The way is through and with each other. God is with us.
[*] “For he did not simply say, ‘I will feed them.’ The deeper significance of that would have not been easily understood. So what does he say? ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat,’ He did not say ‘I give them’ but ‘you give them’” (John Chrysostom. The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 49).
[†] “The loaves were given to the apostles, for through them the gifts of divine grace were to be administered” (Hilary of Poitiers. On Matthew 4.11).
[‡] Cyril of Alexandria, Fragment 178
[§] “He looked up to heaven that he might teach them to keep their eyes focused there” (Jerome. Commentary on Matthew 2.14.19).
[**] “For this purpose he also caused just twelve baskets to remain over: That Judas, too, might bear one. He wanted all the disciples to know his power” (John Chrysostom. The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 49.3)