An acquaintance of mine recently wrote to share an unpleasant Mass-going experience.
The priest in his small hometown parish was preaching on the Gospel, this week, the account of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes from Matthew. His interpretation of the event was not exactly comforting to this acquaintance, for the priest suggested that perhaps what really happened had nothing to do with miracles as we know them. Perhaps Jesus so moved his listeners that they took out the food they had hidden in their cloaks and shared it with those around them.
The miracle, therefore, is not any magical multiplication, but the miracle of the previously selfish being moved to generosity.
Who knows how the rest of the congregation received this interesting news, but one of them (my correspondent) couldn't just walk away without questioning the priest. After Mass, he asked him to clarify. The priest explained that no, he wasn't denying the miracle, but that the miracle was yes the generosity of the people. He said he didn't have time to go into it further.
The teller of this tale was justifiably appalled by what he'd heard. But, as I wrote back, as disappointing as it was, I couldn't be surprised.
For I'd heard it myself, a couple of times from different pulpits. I suspected it was a fairly common interpretation, so I checked around and found that I was right.
Numerous folks who contacted me about this said that they'd heard it too in both Catholic and Protestant churches in exactly the same words.
I couldn't help but wonder where all of these preachers were picking this up, and it didn't take me long to find out.
It's in one of the most venerable Scripture commentaries out there - those written by Scottish scholar William Barclay in the 1950's. Most people who've studied religion at the college level have been exposed to Barclay, and many own sets of his commentaries (we do). He's very middle-of-the road and moderate in his views. But in his commentary on this story, he offers an interpretation, which he doesn't says is his own, but is held 'by some.
Picture the scene. There is the crowd; it is late; and they are hungry. But was it really likely that the vast majority of that crowd would set out around the lake without any food at all? Would they not take something with them, however little? Now it was evening and they were hungry. But they were also selfish. And no one would produce what he had, lest he have to share it and leave himself without enough. Then Jesus took the lead. Such as he and his disciples had, he began to share with a blessing and an invitation and a smile. And thereupon all began to share, and before they knew what was happening, there was enough and more than enough for all. If this is what happened, it was not the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; it was the miracle of the changing of selfish people into generous people at the touch of Christ.
So there you have it, neatly packaged for the lazy preacher who will use it to sound clever, no matter how many problems the explanation holds:
If everyone brought some food, who, exactly, was left to be hungry?
This interpretation suggests that first-century Jews were naturally averse to sharing, which is not only offensive, but historically and culturally inaccurate. It may be a miracle for 21st century Americans to share, but sharing and hospitality were sacred obligations for Jesus' listeners.
Yes, there are layers of meaning to this event. It is of little use as a bare fact as it is as a fabrication. Miracles are offered as complex signs of God's presence and activity among us, working through and even with us at times, open to rich interpretation in infinite application.
But to presume that the Gospel writers couldn't have meant what they wrote implies that they were either stupid or dishonest. The Scripture is a collection of diverse works, meant to be understood within the specific literary forms God used to communicate truth. But as the Gospel writers themselves make clear, they are not about anything but historical truth about an historical figure named Jesus. Anything less wouldn't have been worth their time.
Or their lives.
Or ours, come to think of it, don't you think?