The disciples faced a major problem one evening after Jesus had been teaching all day (Mt. 14:13-21). A large crowd had gathered, something considerably over five thousand people (five thousand, according to Matthew, “besides women and children”). The crowd would need something to eat, so the disciples suggested sending them away while they still had time to go into the nearby villages to buy food.
You know the story. Jesus instructed the disciples to feed the crowd, but the disciples protested that they did not have enough to go around, only five loaves and two fish. Jesus told the disciples to give him what they had (all of it, by the way). After the loaves and fish were blessed by Jesus, they were distributed to the crowd. Twelve baskets of leftovers were taken up at the end of it all.
Something happened between Jesus blessing the loaves and fish and the taking up of twelve baskets full of what was not needed. Something turned the not enough into a fair amount more than enough. Something turned the scarcity into abundance. What happened?
The answer, of course, is a miracle, but that begs the question. What was the miracle? The loaves and fish were multiplied. True enough, but that just begs the question again. How? How did Jesus and the disciples take what was barely enough to feed themselves and use it to feed over five thousand people?
One explanation is that more food appeared out of nowhere. I suspect that’s what most of us assume. The text, however, does not say that. What it says is that the five loaves and two fish were distributed and more came back than was distributed in the first place.
I don’t deny that God could have worked it out by having food appear out of nowhere if that’s what God had wanted to do. There is both a practical difficulty with that approach and a scriptural interpretation difficulty with understanding it that way. The practical problem is that while such an approach would certainly have been memorable, indeed breathtaking, it would be a one-off solution to the problem without implication for how to solve the same problem the next time too many people showed up for dinner. And, as a matter of Biblical interpretation, if the miracle was the mysterious appearance out of nowhere of enough food to feed such a crowd, don’t you think Matthew would have recorded it as such? Don’t you think that is something that would have gotten around? Also, the context of the even was an occasion on which Jesus was teaching, and Jesus did not teach openly about who he was, which would have been the message I’m sure that would have gotten across if bread had appeared out of nowhere.
I think Jesus was up to something entirely different than an impressive trick to amaze his friends and neighbors, especially in the context of what he had been doing all day. I think he was trying to teach the people something about how to live, which was what Jesus normally taught about.
The miracle in the story, I believe, is not bread appearing ex nihilo. It is generosity. Step one is that he got the disciples to turn over everything they had. They took what they intended to eat that night, all of it, and gave it to Jesus to bless and give to the crowd. Miracle number two, I suspect, is that that self-sacrificial action of the disciples inspired those in the crowd who had brought something for themselves (the text doesn’t even suggest that no one among the crowd had thought ahead to bring something to eat, just that some probably had not) to share what they had with others.
When you put what everyone had together, there was more than enough where before that, there were some who had and some who did not. Together there was more than enough for everybody. That’s really a pretty breathtaking miracle, too.