The multiplication of the loaves is one of those episodes that demonstrates the incompleteness of the “quest for the historical Jesus” approach to a Gospel text. If you ask the question, “What actually occurred on the particular occasion that gave rise to this narrative?” you are faced with the task, first, of sorting out the double versions conveyed by Mark and Matthew and the single versions of Luke and John. After deciding whether we are dealing with two different episodes or two variations on a single event, you would need to reconstruct the human exchanges that took place. (Does the initiative come from Jesus, as in John's version, or from the disciples, as in the Synoptic versions? Do the crowds precede Jesus' arrival, as in Mark and Matthew, or do they follow him there, as in Luke and John?) Are we to picture the setting as Mark's “deserted place” or Luke's suburban scene (“he withdrew … to a town called Bethsaida”)? And so on.
Everything about the account—let's stay with John's version—shows that it is not so much a report to be archived as an icon to be contemplated. Whatever happened on that occasion—and it was clearly a miracle, what John calls a “sign,” and not a strategy for sharing—John, like the other evangelists, wants us to hear in it resonances that reach backward into the story of Israel, resonances that touch on current Christian life and worship, and that point to the hope of future fulfillment. The meaning of the episode is not how the physical needs of a particular audience were met on a certain afternoon in Galilee. The meaning, rather, has to do with the “real Jesus”—crucified, raised, and present to the believing community. The focus is on who Jesus is and what he does for those who follow him. Let us contemplate some of John’s hints.
The mountain. John begins and ends the account with a reference to “the mountain.” This generic reference recalls Sinai and evokes John's theme of Jesus as new Moses, especially as risen Lord, leading his people on a new Exodus or freedom journey and seeing that they are organized and fed.
Passover time. Though this notation dates the happening plausibly in the springtime, John's point is to link this “sign” with all the other Passover references in the Fourth Gospel, thus associating it with the death and resurrection, the “hour” which is the primary source of abundant life for the Christian community.
The boy with the barley loaves. Unique to John's version, this detail recalls the event of today's first reading, 2 Kg 4:42-44, where the prophet Elisha tells a man with twenty barley loaves to distribute them to a hundred men, and the man goes and does it, with “some left over.” John's point: like Elisha, Jesus is God’s agent, but in a way that vastly transcends that prophet of long ago (contrast 5 to 5000 with 20 to 100, or 1/1000 with 1/5).
The people call Jesus “the Prophet who is to come” and plan to carry him off to make him king. The people correctly identify Jesus as the long-awaited Prophet-like-Moses of Deut 18:15 (see Acts 3:22), but they draw the wrong practical conclusion that he is to be for them an earthly king. And so Jesus flees. Like the other evangelists, John insists that messianic titles be applied to Jesus with restraint: Messiah, yes, but no ordinary earthly king. As risen Lord, he leads his people to a promised land that Moses could only point to.
We learn how to hear this episode when we listen to a prayer in the early Christian document called the Didache. Here is how these first-century Christians were led to pray when they contemplated this event of Jesus’ ministry: “Concerning the fragmented bread, ‘We give thanks to you. Our Father. ... As this fragmented bread was scattered on the mountains, but was gathered up and became one, so let the Church be gathered up from the four comers of the earth into your kingdom’” (Didache 9).
More than a mere report, the Gospel account of the multiplication of the loaves proclaims who Jesus is and provides food for thought and prayer. The image of Jesus feeding the multitude leads us to place Jesus in the story of God’s life with Israel and to look ahead to that story's fulfillment in the fullness of life to come.