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Could the Miracle of the Loaves Teach Us About Economics?

By Deacon Keith Fournier
January 7th, 2014
Catholic Online (

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called for an approach to economic development which  points to another way, the way of gift, love, participation and communion. He helps to unpack the meaning of the Gospel story of the multiplication of the loaves, inviting us to build an economy of gift and communion. The Gospel account is not only about a miracle which occurred in that lonely place, but about the miracle which can occur in every lonely place, including the place in time in which we now find ourselves.

CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - The miracle we hear proclaimed at Mass on the Tuesday after the Feast of the Epiphany is found in all four gospels, emphasizing its significance. Each of the four evangelists focuses on a particular aspect of the miracle. St. Mark's account connects the miracle with the experience of the apostles immediately following the event in a way which is instructive for our own lives:  

People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place. People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said, "This is a deserted place and it is already very late. Dismiss them so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.
He said to them in reply, "Give them some food yourselves." But they said to him, "Are we to buy two hundred days' wages worth of food and give it to them to eat?" He asked them, "How many loaves do you have? Go and see." And when they had found out they said, "Five loaves and two fish." So he gave orders to have them sit down in groups on the green grass. The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties. Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to (his) disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied. And they picked up twelve wicker baskets full of fragments and what was left of the fish.  Those who ate (of the loaves) were five thousand men. Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.

When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.
(St. Mark 6:31-52)

During this account in Mark's Gospel we are told that the disciples encouraged Jesus to dismiss the crowd because - from their perspective - they simply could not feed these hungry people, even with two hundred days wages. They did not see the need of the crowd with the eyes of living faith. However, Jesus did - and He wants all those who bear His name to learn to walk by the light of that same faith. He also gives us the grace to do so. 

In His Sacred Humanity, Jesus was moved with compassion for the crowd. The Greek root of the word for compassion means to suffer with. The disciples viewed the matter - and the crowds hunger - as a problem. They approached it all through a lens of economic scarcity. Jesus understood the economy of heaven and offered the means for experiencing it on earth. The question He asks of all of us today is - do we?

Jesus asked the disciples a simple question: what do you have? They did not understand. They had been invited to participate in God's work by simply giving what they had in a Holy Exchange of gifts with God the Giver of all. When they finally did, Jesus used the matter given by men, loaves and fish, to manifest the manna of heaven. He still does when we act as though we really believe what He says. That evening we find the disciples in the boat fishing. (Mk 6:44-52) We find Jesus praying. Their placement in the boat in the story was a favorite image for the early church fathers. The boat was seen as a figure of the ark of the Old Covenant and the ark of the New Covenant, which is the Church.

It is this Church, this communion of persons joined in Jesus through Baptism, which He came to found and over which He would later install these men in apostolic office. It is this Church, of which we are all members, which continues His redemptive mission until He returns. That is why this lesson is so vitally important. The disciples needed to understand about the loaves- and so do we. This kind of understanding only comes from communion with the Father, in the Son, through the Spirit. It is the fruit of a living, dynamic and authentic faith. Jesus invited the disciples to believe that when they have Him, they have everything.

Yet, there in that storm, they fled to the familiar, the fear of the circumstances, just as they had done when faced with the hungry crowd. So powerful were their fears that they prevented them from even recognizing the Lord as He passed right before them! They thought He was a ghost! How crippling our own fears can become when we rely only on ourselves and our mere human effort. They had not understood about the loaves. Do we?  Faith is a light that is meant to preside over our entire lives, even during those storms that inevitably come. When it does, we will learn to see Jesus right there - in the midst of the storm. We will come to experience authentic peace, even in apparent turmoil and we will learn to navigate the waters of daily life. The Lord heard the cry of the poor as it issued from the mouths of his own disciples and He spoke these beautiful words: Take Courage it is I: Don't Be Afraid.

We need to hear these words and consider the lesson of the loaves. We need to let that understanding inform our real, daily lives. Perhaps the various accounts of the multiplication of the loaves not only recount a miracle of the past, but can open up to us an understanding of the possibilities of helping to construct what might be called an economy of gift and communion. Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote an Encyclical letter entitled Charity in Truth (Caritas in Veritate) which contains within it some real help for building what the Church has long called a truly integral humanism. The very idea of building an economy of communion and gift is rooted in this understanding.

The Pope Emeritus reminded us that an ideological rejection of God and atheism of indifference, oblivious to the Creator and at risk of becoming equally oblivious to human values, constitute some of the chief obstacles to development today. A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism. (#78) In an age which has born the bad fruits of atheistic and secular humanism, Christians are called to proclaim the new and true humanism revealed in Jesus Christ, the New Man. These words of the Second Vatican Council in its' document on the relationship of the Church in the "modern" world, reflect the understanding of the early Church:

The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.

We see, revealed in the humanity of Jesus, who each of us can become and how we can come to live with one another in our social relationships. I suggest we can find, in the account of the feeding of the five thousand, a key to a new way of considering economic issues. We can derive some essential principles offered by Catholic Social Thought. 

In this letter Pope Benedict addressed economic challenges presented by globalism. He called for the application of social and economic ordering principles the Church has long proposed, such as subsidiarity, within these new contexts. He reminded us subsidiarity is a principle of inalienable human freedom. Subsidiarity is first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies. Such assistance is offered when individuals or groups are unable to accomplish something on their own, and it is always designed to achieve their emancipation, because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility. Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others. By considering reciprocity as the heart of what it is to be a human being, subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state. (#57)

Pope Emeritus Benedict, in keeping with the entirety of Catholic Social Doctrine, asserted the inextricable link between this principle of subsidiarity and the principle of solidarity which affirms that we really are our brother's (and sister's) keeper. Pope Francis has repeated this admonition in his beautiful exhortation entitled the Gospel of Joy as well as in his recent World Day of Peace Letter. This is a Pope of solidarity and Gospel charity.

When the Encyclical of Pope Emeritus was released the early responders attempted to read it through the prism of political categories such as left and right, liberal and conservative. The incessant efforts to characterize the principles offered in this brilliant letter, indeed in much of that body of Moral Theology called the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, as for or against capitalism when it does not even use the word capitalism, missed the directions offered within it to proceed with a proper approach to development.

That Encyclical letter, like the miracle of the loaves and the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, invites us into a way of living. It calls us to a deeper embrace of our human vocation to live in relationship, recognizing that we are neighbors. We are by grace and nature called to communion with God and, in Him, to communion with one another. That truth should inform everything about life, including how we relate to the goods of the earth and how we share those goods with one another.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called for an approach to economic development which reflects the primacy of the person, the family, our obligations to one another and our special call to love the poor. He points to another way, the way of gift, love, participation and communion. He helps to unpack the meaning of the Gospel story of the multiplication of the loaves, inviting us to build an economy of gift and communion. The Gospel account is not only about a miracle which occurred in that lonely place, but about the miracle which can occur in every lonely place, including the place in time in which we now find ourselves.

In the synoptic accounts Jesus instructs the disciples You give them something to eat (See, Matt. 14, Mark 6, and Luke 9), the invitation to move beyond a mentality of materialism and scarcity into a new way of living, with and for one another. When they gave what they had, placing it in the hands of the Master, He multiplied and mediated their gift and the economy of gift and communion was manifested. Not only were all fed but the fragments left over filled twelve baskets. The number twelve reflects the twelve tribes of Israel and the Twelve Apostles, the living stones of the New Israel, the Church. Multiplying the two we come to 144,000. It is the number which symbolically stands for the fullness of the Church redeemed in Christ. (See, Rev. 7 and 14)

Like much numerology in the sacred scripture, it has meaning as well. There will always be enough. That is we recover our true humanism and learn to live together in love. St. John the theologian uses the little boy to demonstrate the condition of the heart required to enter into the meaning of the loaves. (John 6) As a child, he held nothing back. He simply gave what he had. Will we? Gather the Fragments, live the miracle, build an economy of gift and communion.

Perhaps, if we really try to understand about the Loaves, we will be able to discern and develop the principles and insights we need to help structure an economy of gift and communion. Our age desperately needs the insights which Catholics can bring to an area so vital to our social life together. It is time for us to get to work.

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